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Putting pros in programs

Education Impact Report 2012

When it comes to teaching film theory, traditional professors do the job quite nicely. But as far as preparing students for the practical aspects of a career in showbiz, film schools have found it helps to appeal to the industry directly.

The clearest example can be seen in schools’ eagerness to enlist industry vets with deep professional Rolodexes to oversee their film programs.

According to producer Andrea Asimow, when she interviewed for the job of overseeing Syracuse’s semester-in-L.A. program, “I brought a three- or four-page single-spaced typed list of people who are my colleagues and associates, and of course I’ve called on some of them.” Such contacts might agree to come in and lecture, or create internship opportunities for Syracuse students.

“I think film schools are becoming increasingly aware that they need to balance their goal of training tomorrow’s filmmakers — of helping them find their voice and style and approach to filmmaking — at the same time as teaching them about the business of Hollywood,” says Joe Pichirallo, who brings a wealth of contacts from a career of executive positions as HBO, Fox Searchlight and Overbrook Entertainment to his job as chair of NYU Tisch’s undergrad film and TV program. “I bring people in to talk because I want my students to get an X-ray view of how the industry thinks.”

At Chapman U.’s Dodge film school, dean Bob Bassett seeks working professionals to lecture or become filmmakers in residence — a strategy shared by such L.A.-area schools as AFI and CalArts.

“Our faculty model is different from other universities, where there’s all this emphasis placed on degrees,” he says. “Of course, a degree’s great, but the most important thing is all the years in the business. So my typical faculty member is more like David Ward, who won the Academy Award for ‘The Sting’ and now is heading up our screenwriting program, or (former WB marketing chief) Dawn Taubin, who has students intern with her on active projects.”

Schools that don’t have the connections or resources to attract such high-caliber guest speakers can call on a number of industry orgs for assistance. In addition to providing internships and scholarships to film school students, both the film and TV academies have programs in place to encourage industry mentoring.

Randy Haberkamp oversees AMPAS’ Visiting Artists series, which functions as a sort of matchmaking service between Academy members and programs seeking professional lecturers, not only identifying writers, producers and below-the-line pros who fit a school’s particular request, but also often underwriting the expenses it takes for that person to make the appearance.

The TV Academy Foundation takes it one step further by hosting an annual faculty seminar, in which 20 professors from around the country are selected to tour L.A. for a series of panels and site visits.

“It’s a week of immersing them in the industry and being able to have that face time with professionals to talk about what’s changing and evolving, so they can go back to share the information with their students,” says ATAS Foundation executive director Norma Provencio Pichardo.

Both orgs maintain an open line of communication with the nation’s top film schools through the student Academy Awards and the student Emmys, which serve to spotlight exceptional work.

In one best-case example, after presenting at the 2011 College Television Awards, “House” showrunner Greg Yaitanes offered winner Julian Higgins (“Thief”) a chance to job-shadow on the season opener.

“Based on our very productive interaction during that shoot, he extended an open invitation to come back any time. Over the next four months, I diligently showed up to the set a minimum of two or three times a week, and sometimes every day for entire episodic shoots,” explains Higgins, who so impressed Yaitanes that he invited the AFI graduate to direct an episode of the show, which aired earlier this month.

Opportunities like that remain rare in a field where everyone starts out wanting to be a director, but few will actually make good on that calling. Many don’t even realize the myriad other career paths in which their skills might apply.

That’s why PromaxBDA — an org that serves TV marketing, promotion and design professionals — launched an outreach program, the Creative Educators Forum, enlisting the feedback of faculty. They also hold on-campus presentations that promise “how to make money in entertainment every day,” designed to attract students in complementary fields to marketing careers.

In addition to year-long creative internships and executive mentorship opportunities, one especially successful initiative, the Promo Pathways partnership with Santa Monica College, gave two dozen diversity students hands-on experience in creating on-air promos, connecting them with agencies and studios eager to hire creatives with relevant experience.

“The generation that’s growing up now and going to universities is the short-form generation. They understand social networking, they post videos to YouTube and they interact with brands, so their skill sets are very synergistic with our industry,” says PromaxBDA director of industry development Katerina Zacharia. “In the marketing field, we’re telling stories, too; we’re just doing it in 30 or 15 seconds.”

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