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Burns Center attracts film industry

Takes the next step with Media Arts Lab

The Jacob Burns Film Center in the Westchester suburb of Pleasantville lies about 20 miles north of the Film Forum, Lincoln Center and other cinema hot spots.

Despite that geographic remove, the center has recently attracted top-drawer film biz backing — its boosters include area residents Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme — and it boasts a bustling screening calendar and a nationally recognized education program.

The center’s latest step is the $20 million Media Arts Lab, a lavishly equipped, 27,000-square-foot converted factory that will open in January as a hive of shooting, editing, scripting and scoring for the 15,000 students involved in Burns programs.

The lab vaults the center into an elite group of institutions, including LucasArts and MIT, that promote media literacy — essentially the awareness and practice of visual storytelling woven into conventional coursework. Proponents say media literacy is a crucial way to connect with the most media-saturated generation in history.

“Creativity is not some god-given gift,” said Howard, whose Connecticut home is just a few miles away. “It’s a muscle there to be exercised. And this place is like a YMCA for media lovers. It’s a great place to work out.”

The original Burns complex, named for a Manhattan lawyer and arts philanthropist, is built on the site of a 1925 theater said to be one of the grandest of its day. Shuttered amid the multiplex boom in 1987, it then reopened as office space.

In 1998, a group of investors led by Steve Apkon, a former Goldman Sachs banker and hedge funder who now runs the center, sought to turn it back into screening space. Since its reopening in 2000 as a three-screen venue with gallery and conference space, it has drawn a long list of visitors that includes Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle.

Demme, a resident of nearby Nyack, is also an active supporter of the Burns center, as are helmer Ang Lee, d.p. Ellen Kuras, thesp Debra Winger and New York Times critic Janet Maslin. Execs such as Focus Features head James Schamus, Sony Classics co-chief Michael Barker, Sidney Kimmel’s Bingham Ray and Sesame Workshop chief exec Gary Knell are among the key backers.

The annual budget of $4.5 million will grow to $6 million next year — a long way from the billions Apkon trafficked in on Wall Street but sizable by cultural nonprofit standards.

The new Media Lab, just down the street from the screening rooms, aims to help kids transcend the role of audience or target of media and start to use media as a narrative tool.

“The ‘doing’ part makes it relevant for not just the students who think they want to be the next Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, but for every student,” Apkon said. “If our education system is to be rich and digitally based, then media is the way it has to be grounded, every aspect of the curriculum — science, arts, math. Media literacy is not a nice extra that helps round off a student’s education. It is at the core of how they learn.”

About 85% of students in Westchester County, a vast swath that ranges from ultra-wealthy Scarsdale and Chappaqua to far lower-income cities like Mount Vernon and Yonkers, use Burns Center programs. More than half are in underserved school districts, which is where many donations are directed.

Apkon believes the Burns mission is portable and already has overseen an expansion into local prisons, homeless shelters and even a school in Caracas, Venezuela.

“When I first started thinking about media literacy about eight to 10 years ago, it didn’t get a place at the table” in education circles, Howard said. “But I’m sensing a burgeoning interest in the country because there is so much about the process of working on films — it’s fun and thought-provoking, involves problem-solving, thoughtful planning, collaboration — that applies to the real world.”

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