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Industry titans teach in Los Angeles

Local film schools offer direct access to top pros

In film, the noble profession of university teaching is frequently lampooned as a place where once-promising careers go to wither and die. As Woody Allen quips in “Annie Hall” (and Jack Black repeats in “School of Rock”), “Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”

But a very different scenario exists in Hollywood’s own backyard. Instead of being taught by burnouts and has-beens, students enrolled in Los Angeles-area film schools enjoy the opportunity of learning from high-profile, real-world movers and shakers — professionals such as Robert Zemeckis (USC), Peter Guber (UCLA), Frank Pierson (AFI Conservatory) and John Badham (Dodge College).

Whether those pros take a brief sabbatical from filmmaking to share their experience with students or find time to balance work and teaching over a number of years, they offer local students a level of industry access unmatched in other parts of the country.

At USC, Zemeckis brings technology he’s developing on set into the classroom.

“Here you have someone who’s at the height of his powers, and his students get to explore the cutting-edge technology at the same time he does, not years after the fact,” says USC’s Eric Furie, who co-teaches the performance-capture class with Zemeckis. “Our students even visit Bob’s sets so they can watch him direct Jim Carrey in ‘A Christmas Carol’ — you probably won’t get this sort of experience outside L.A.”

Though much of the school features full-time academics, USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program relies heavily on experienced pros, including HBO Films VP Janet Graham Borba and ICM agent Todd Hoffman.

At AFI, only the film history instructors hail from academia. “Basically all of our faculty are working professionals,” explains executive vice dean Joe Petricca. Many function as filmmakers-in-residence, taking time off as necessary to accept industry gigs: Between courses, production designer Joseph Garrity worked on “Sunshine Cleaning,” cinematographer Stephen Lighthill lensed “Boffo!” and director Rob Spera shot an episode of “Criminal Minds.”

For schools, the key is to remain flexible enough to accommodate the schedules of working showbiz professionals, who frequently experience long downtimes between projects anyway.

“Sometimes it works out wonderfully where people are able to fit us into their work life, and in other cases they can only give us a few weeks, and we try to work them into an existing course or a time when special classes are held,” Petricca explains.

Producer Bruce Block, for instance, offers a one-week course every January, while TV director Lesli Glatter (“Heroes,” “Mad Men”) was able to cover for Spera during his “Criminal Minds” sabbatical.

Located in Orange County, Chapman U.’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts enhances a roster of experienced instructors with a filmmakers-in-residence program of its own. This spring, screenwriter Larry Gross (“48 Hours”) and TV producer-director Sheldon Epps (“Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond”) are personally mentoring a dozen upper-level students each.

For former Columbia studio chief Guber, a full professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and a member of the faculty for more than 30 years, there are several “big advantages” to such A-list names and varied programs.

“You can get an enormous amount of intellectual heft out of books and anecdotal material, but current practitioners — people who’ve faced the daily bump and grind, from the front to the back of the food chain in movies and TV — give students a unique insight,” he notes.

To this end, Guber has enlisted such heavyweights as Gil Cates, Mark Burnett and Deepak Chopra to appear as guests before his “Navigating a Narrative World” course, which he teaches with dean Robert Rosen.

How does he get the big names? “Four decades of relationships,” says Guber. “It’s being active in movies, TV and sports, so I can pick up the phone and get NFL president Steve Bornstein to come and teach. And in turn they all get inspired and energized, too.”

Teaching offers some instructors a chance to stay connected with the very demographic they’re hoping to reach with their films. Others may even go so far as to cherry-pick the most promising students to work on their own productions — one of the reasons that Sony launched its IPAX education initiative, which offers professors at partner institutions nationwide a chance to train at an Imageworks facility: It gives Sony a leg up in recruiting new talent.

But Los Angeles schools, including CalArts, the Gnomon School of Visual Effects and Art Center College of Design, are always at an advantage, given their proximity to the industry.

Notes Pascale Halm, program director of Entertainment Studies and Performing Arts at UCLA Extension: “On top of learning the practical skills and techniques they need to succeed in the entertainment field, our students gain the sort of industry-insider perspective and networking opportunities that can only come from working professionals.”

But Guber is quick to stress that teaching is “a skill and an art, not just regurgitation of information and war stories. Most people coming out of real-world experience are extremely knowledgeable and talented, but not necessarily good teachers. Knowing is one thing, teaching another, and you have to have a talent for interfacing with students and a style they can relate to — and you have to be passionate about teaching, not just about film.”

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