Producer programs tout trench-war training

USC, UCLA, AFI offer courses for aspiring filmmakers

HOLLYWOOD – So you want to learn the art of the deal, or the nuances behind running a studio? Three academic programs based in Los Angeles at USC, UCLA and the American Film Institute provide would-be studio honchos, as well as TV and film producers, the skills and knowledge to become the next David O. Selznick.

The Peter Stark Producing Program at USC’s School of Cinema-Television is tailored for students eager to become producers or execs, and is taught by a faculty almost entirely comprising working professionals.

UCLA’s producing program is geared toward students looking to become independent, i.e., autonomous, producers.

“A producer is the person who causes a film to be made. And a good producer causes it to be made well,” says Lawrence Turman, who chairs the Stark program and is himself a producer, with credits that include “The Graduate,” “The Great White Hope” and “American History X.”

The program’s curriculum is designed to lead would-be TV and film producers through the fundamentals of finding a script, developing it, constructing a business plan and acquiring the money to make it. Upon completing the two-year graduate program, students receive a master’s of fine arts degree. Turman says his mandate is to keep the program “responsive, cutting-edge and current.”

Among the faculty teaching this semester are Academy Award winner and USC grad Richard Edlund, who’s teaching new technologies, and Jeffrey Stott, exec producer of “The Story of Us,” who’s teaching a course in crisis management.

Producer Ray Stark and his wife, Fran, made substantial early contributions through their foundation to help launch the program, which is named to honor their deceased son, Peter. The Stark Foundation made a further commitment to the school by endowing a chair in 1998, which Turman assumed last year after directing the program for seven years. (Art Murphy founded the program in 1979 and was the program’s director until 1989.)

Among those who’ve completed the Stark program are such industry movers as John Wells (“ER”), Stacey Sher (“Get Shorty”) and Neal Moritz (“I Still Know What You Did Last Summer”), all of whom serve on the board of mentors. Members of the panel not only help guide the curriculum, they also rotate as individual advisers for students close to graduating.

USC’s crosstown rival UCLA boasts a two-year producing program within its theater, film and TV school, which also offers an MFA to students who complete rigorous course requirements. Founded in 1983, the program is designed to train future creators of TV and cinema fare. Whereas one of the emphases of the Stark program is training future studio execs, UCLA’s focus, says co-chair Denise Mann, is directed toward producing “the classic entrepreneurial independent producer.”

“Our emphasis,” she says, “is on how to interface with the Hollywood system as it exists.”

A skim through a list of current faculty reveals that Peter Guber (who also is the program’s founding director) regularly co-teaches a series of courses with Variety editor in chief Peter Bart on entertainment management; former William Morris head Arnold Rifkin teaches a class called “The Art of Persuasion”; and Meg LeFauve, president of Egg Pictures, teaches development and producing. LeFauve also co-chairs the program with Mann.

“The producing faculty mostly volunteers their time to teach,” Mann says. “Mostly they’re people who’ve worked in the industry a number of years who have decided they’d like to give something back, and we’re the beneficiaries.”

Among those looking to give back are the members of the UCLA producing program’s advisory board, which comprises an illustrious who’s who of producers and studio heads, including producer Denise DiNovi (“Message in a Bottle”) and 20th Century Fox chairman Tom Sherak. Each member of the board helps steer the curriculum and mentors the program’s second-year students as they begin to set up thesis projects.

UCLA’s program accepts 15 to 18 students from a pool of 150 applicants, while 25 students a.k.a. “Starkies” — are chosen for the Stark program each year out of an estimated 200 applicants. Both programs are populated with students looking to launch a second career, as well as a significant number of international students planning to apply their newly acquired skills in their homelands.

Perhaps the most vital item a successful producing student might acquire is a hefty Rolodex. Says Jesse Albert, who’s in his first year of USC’s program, “One thing I value is the networking. Once we graduate, there are going to be 24 of my classmates who will take my phone calls. Then there are the 400-plus Stark alums, who, because I’m a Starkie, are of value to me, as I will hopefully be to them — or anyone who will hire me.”