You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Starkie network helps H’wood run

Alums are virtual prod'n company

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.’ “

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Leonardo Dicaprio Once Upon a Time

    Leonardo DiCaprio's Earth Alliance Commits $5 Million to Amazon Fires

    Earth Alliance, an environmental initiative backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, has committed $5 million toward the preservation of the Amazon rain forest following an alarming surge in wildfires. After launching Sunday, the organization’s emergency Amazon Forest Fund is working to support local partners and indigenous communities in their efforts to protect the sensitive habitats within the [...]

  • (from left) Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson)

    Box Office: 'Hobbs & Shaw' Scores $102 Million Debut in China, Nears $600 Million Globally

    Universal’s “Hobbs & Shaw” returned to first place on the international box office charts, thanks to a massive $102 million debut in China. The “Fast & Furious” spinoff, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, collected another $120 million overseas, boosting its foreign tally to $441 million. “Hobbs & Shaw” is nearing the $600 million mark [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    Box Office: 'Angel Has Fallen' Rises to No. 1 With $21 Million Debut

    “Angel Has Fallen,” the third chapter in Lionsgate and Millenium’s action franchise starring Gerard Butler, had a stronger opening weekend than expected, collecting $21.25 million during its first three days of release. Those ticket sales were enough to top domestic box office charts, bumping last weekend’s champ, Universal’s comedy “Good Boys,” to second place. Starring [...]

  • Amanda

    ‘Amanda’ Takes Home Best Int’l Film at 15th Sanfic

    SANTIAGO, Chile    French director Mikhael Hers’ “Amanda” scooped up the Best Int’l Film award Saturday (Aug. 24) at the 15th Santiago Int’l Film Fest (Sanfic), which reported a 20% audience uptick in the past two years and continues to grow its reputation as the most vibrant and prominent film festival in Latin America’s Southern [...]

  • disney d23

    Cruella, Kit Harington and Black Panther's Return: Everything We Learned at D23 Day Two

    Not to be outdone by the avalanche of series orders and casting announcements bolstering the new streaming series Disney Plus, Walt Disney Studios showed off its film wares in a marathon presentation at D23 on Saturday. The Anaheim, Calif. expo brought star power, if perhaps fewer surprises than Friday’s presentation, as fans in princess and [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift'The

    Taylor Swift Downplays Association With Harvey Weinstein

    Taylor Swift’s association with disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was among the topics the singer addressed in a revealing new interview with The Guardian. Weinstein held producer credits for the movies “One Chance” and “The Giver,” both of which featured Swift — in the former, a song, and in the latter, a supporting role. She [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content