Mark Twain once said, “I never let school interfere with my education.”

At New York U.’s ProMotion Pictures program, however, the rigors of academia and real-life educational experience go hand-in-hand.

Conceived in 2004 by two MBA students, Jeffrey Grossman and Russ Axelrod, ProMotion Pictures pairs students from NYU’s Stern School of Business and Kanbar Institute of Film and Television to produce short films for sponsoring brands. In its first year, Volvo fronted three student teams a total of $90,000 to make five- to 10-minute movies. Since then, Unilever (Axe), Cisco, Verizon, Heineken and Johnnie Walker have all followed. (Axelrod, meanwhile, went on to get a job as Microsoft’s director of brand strategy.)

“There are a number of goals,” says C. Samuel Craig, director of Stern’s Entertainment Media and Technology (EMT) Program, which houses the ProMotion endeavor. “First, it forms partnerships between Tisch and Stern students, and secondly, it gives the students at both schools the opportunity to execute an idea that is creative but also speaks to the business objectives of a company.”

Indeed, NYU alum and Toy Closet Films co-founder Ryan Silbert, who directed a short for Cisco called “Digital Architect,” says the project afforded him the “incredible chance” to bridge personal filmmaking with the more commercial concerns of branded entertainment.

While Stern students get an idea of what’s involved in putting a film together, Tisch students get to interact with future execs, says Craig. “So it’s about the immediate relationship working on student films, but it’s also the networking that occurs after that.”

According to Craig, the program has gone through its own learning curve. “They made most of the mistakes early on,” he says, citing an incident in which one film used SAG actors (“that cost us a non-trivial amount of money,” he admits).

If students simply submitted pitches in the past, says Craig, “Now there’s much more of an effort to shape the ideas and budgets, with more give and take, which is a good experience for the students, but I think it also gives us a better product.”

Last year, four ProMotion films for the New York State tourism brand “I Love New York” were shown on Jet Blue in-flight services; one particularly heralded short, “Crush,” produced by Stern-Tisch students Heather Jack and Claire Harlam and co-directed by Tisch filmmakers Gabrielle Demeestere and Sasie Sealy, is also playing the festival circuit. This year, Vita Coco is on board as a sponsor, and will award the most popular short a prize.

Ryan Heller, a third-year dual MBA/MFA degree student who helps run ProMotion, says the program is especially valuable because it allows students to follow a product through fruition, “to interact with a client and to conceptualize something, execute it, deliver it and see it through distribution in a limited amount of time,” he says.

And as the program’s exec director Al Lieberman says, the tangible results may even help land graduates a job.

“Instead of showing a CV or a bio, which we all have to have,” he says, “they show finished work, which is a very, very worthwhile thing.”

More from the Education Impact Report 2011:
Brave new ways to teach media | Yesterday’s grads share key lessons | Film school directory | Fox topper shows real class | Media’s emerging markets | Media mentor of the year | Master class | Brands sponsor student shorts