Some Hollywood mafias are bound together by academic diplomas (Wesleyan, Brown, U. of Texas). Others by geography (there’s a tight clique of Memphians, for those who didn’t know) or by high-pressure work experiences (former Scott Rudin assistants, ex-Miramaxers).
But graduates of USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program stand apart. They’re an especially tight-knit group, and they’re more than just a posse of producers.
Despite the program’s name, only a few of the 25 grads each year wind up being producers. Instead, they opt to be studio execs, agents, directors, writers, managers — the result being that Starkies, as they’re known, infiltrate every niche of the studio system and in effect become something of a system themselves. That gives them an edge in a town where to survive is to network.
Not being part of a clan in Hollywood can mean not getting a job or, at least, not being at the right party or Orso table where said job is being discussed.
Connections help open the door in any industry, but in Hollywood — where the word “relationship” gets repeated ad nauseum in an entirely unironic way — they’re particularly crucial. Like any creative business, decisions about what will work are highly subjective. And it remains a business where pedigree is weighed less heavily than in other industries, such as Wall Street or publishing, which are dominated by Ivy Leaguers.
“There are less studios, less production companies, and ultimately less jobs out there, so any advantage you can give yourself helps,” says UTA agent David Kramer, a Starkie who — showing just how cozy it can get — is married to another Starkie, Ashley Kramer, a former Fox exec who’s now a full-time mom.
Starkies tend to view networking as an almost obsessive point of pride. “There have been periods in the last five years, when some member of our class didn’t have a job, and a bunch of us got together and said, ‘Let’s get him a job,'” says CAA agent Gregory McKnight (class of 1994). “It was like, look, this guys needs help. We’d sit with him, advise him, make a bunch of phone calls, talk to friends — just rally.”
At a recent gala in celebration of the Stark program’s 25th year, McKnight gave a speech praising what he called the “Stark network.”
He went on to list all the Starkies who’d been on his call sheet in the previous week: Imagine’s Jim Whitaker, Paramount’s Michelle Raimo, producer Michael Bostick, Columbia Pictures’ Sam Dickerman, Warner Bros.’ Polly Cohen, Fox’s Peter Kang. And many more.
Says Stark chairman Lawrence Turman: “Everyone says it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I believe it’s what you know. However, who you know is vital, so you get to show what you know.”
To this end, at Stark, the credo “it’s all about relationships” isn’t just a well-accepted cliche. It’s institutionalized.
When Turman, whose 40 producing credits include “The Graduate” and “The Thing,” took over the program 15 years ago, he made paid internships in the industry a critical part of the Stark program’s two-year curriculum.
Besides providing practical experience, the internships are an entree to the kind of people aspiring industryites would kill to meet, or even just share an elevator ride with. When Spyglass Entertainment prexy Jonathan Glickman was a student at Stark, he found himself in an elevator with Joe Roth.
By the time the men stepped off the lift, Glickman had nabbed himself an internship at Caravan Pictures, which Roth was then running. The internship ended up turning into a job, causing Glickman to drop out of Stark after just one year.
Starkies are also given more face time with high-profile filmmakers in classes, which are taught by working professionals, such as “Spider-Man” producer Laura Ziskin, who taught at Stark a few years ago. (“Laura Ziskin taught our development class,” McKnight muses. “That’s ridiculous!“)
Furthermore, the students are paired with such alumni mentors as producer Neal Moritz and Spyglass co-chairman Roger Birnbaum.
So what does all this schmoozing, at a cost of almost $35,000 (two years of tuition), add up to?
Films that may as well be dubbed “Starkie packages.”
For example, when Jackie Chan pitched the idea for “Shanghai Knights” to Spyglass’ Glickman, the exec called up scribes and fellow Starkies Al Gough and Miles Millar.
“Miles edited my student film at Stark, so I had a long relationship with him,” Glickman says. “A lot of it had to do with the comfortability factor. I had to bring writers over to meet with Jackie Chan. I needed people I thought could handle it. Also, I thought it’d be fun to do it with people I went to school with.”
When producers Sean Covel and Chris Wyatt were selling their film “Napoleon Dynamite” at Sundance last year, Starkie Charlotte Koh, a creative exec at Fox Searchlight, was part of the team that bought the pic. In another layer, Koh’s former assistant, Starkie Jenny Yamaki, came on “Napoleon” as a production manager.
“Yeah, it’s ugly,” Covel jokes about the incestuousness of Stark.
USC’s isn’t the only film program with a strong emphasis on industry networking.
A few years ago, UCLA — which, along with AFI, has a reputation for being less focused on Hollywood and more concerned with the art of filmmaking — appointed its first director of industry relations.
The post, held by former William Morris prexy Jerry Katzman, serves as a liaison between students in the School of Theater, Film and Television and the studio system, through panels, one-on-one meetings and lectures.
The Stark program has its own repertoire of horror stories. Tears, yelling matches and tossed chairs were a routine part of what Starkies often describe as “boot camp.” In his day, Art Murphy, who founded the program with Ray Stark, set the tone by greeting his fresh-faced class with: “Starfuckers — all of you!”
“You have a group of Type A, really competitive people, all wanting to start producing, but not really knowing what that means,” says “Napoleon Dynamite” producer Covel, who graduated in 2002. “I don’t know when a week went by when there wasn’t some kind of outburst.”
“We were very competitive, so the energy wasn’t so friendly — there were conflicts,” McKnight adds. “What happened was, when people graduated they were collegial. That was largely formed by the first people in our class who did well — Jon Glickman and Scott Strauss — who were really positive and friendly, even with people they didn’t have great relationships with. That set the tone.”
According to Covel, the most hysteria at Stark resulted from the students’ first film project: 16mm black & white silent films.
“It was the base level short film. There were only four people in the crew, and the most amazing battles would erupt on the set,” Covel says. “These suddenly became the most important movies ever made in the history of man. People were willing to fight to the death.”
He continues: “When you start the program, one of the first things you see is the screening of these films from the class ahead of you. You look at the movies and they don’t even make sense, but people are going up to give Academy Award-level acceptance speeches.
“A year later, you’re giving the speech: ‘Welcome to the opus of my great brain.’ “