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Jordan Kerner’s Deep Dive into Academia

As dean of North Carolina’s film school, the producer boosted its profile and united various disciplines

Six years ago, Jordan Kerner was the first appointment John Mauceri made as chancellor of the U. of North Carolina School of the Arts.

As a working conductor who brought his own professional experience to bear on his role as an educator, Mauceri felt it was important to have someone who was active in the world of cinema as dean of UNCSA’s still relatively young film school, a conservatory-style program that was starting to get attention, thanks to the success of such grads as David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Jeff Nichols.

“In only five years, he transformed the program into an internationally regarded film school. He also changed the way the state thinks about film,” says Mauceri, referring to Kerner’s role in supporting the state’s 25% production incentive. Both student and alumni worked on such locally shot pics as “The Hunger Games” and “Iron Man 3.” “Our school represents one-half a percent of the U. of North Carolina system. We are really a rounding-off number, so that shows you both the power of the arts and Jordan’s influence,” he says.]

For Kerner, Mauceri’s offer came at just the right moment. After nearly two decades of producing such features as “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “The Mighty Ducks,” Kerner was taking inventory of his career. He was enormously proud of the film “Charlotte’s Web,” and therefore distressed by the way Paramount handled its release.

SEE MORE: Jordan Kerner’s Everyday Heroes

At almost the same time, Kerner suffered a severe streptococcal infection that had entered his elbow and threatened his heart. Feeling fortunate to have survived, Kerner refocused his attention on academia. He drew up a 30-page treatment for Stanford, proposing a way to create a conservatory for film. Stanford wasn’t interested — but Mauceri was, offering Kerner carte blanche to oversee the UNCSA film school, a program more in line with his vision.

“I turned to my wife and said, ‘Would you ever consider doing this? Three years — it’ll be like a long movie,’” recalls Kerner, who was glad to relocate his daughters from their Tory Burch-obsessed, electric-fence-protected Bel-Air existence to a community where the girls could safely bike down the street.

SEE MORE: Jordan Kerner: Producer as Politico

Before he knew it, three years had become five. Keeping his office at Walden Media and commuting regularly from Winston-Salem to Los Angeles, Kerner set to work innovating. He changed more than a third of UNCSA’s film faculty, bringing in such experienced pros as “Snow Dogs” cinematographer Tom Ackerman and “Anaconda” producer Susan Ruskin (who took over as dean in June).

Determined to inspire “lifelong learners,” Kerner added 12 academic units to the degree and organized it so students shot a film each year. He also introduced MFAs in all disciplines, added animation and gaming to the curriculum, and created a program called American Immersion, where juniors and seniors traveled to post-Katrina New Orleans or spent time in a Philadelphia VA hospital.

SEE MORE: Jordan Kerner’s TV Roots Run Deep

Because Kerner also continued his work in Hollywood, students had the rare opportunity to observe pros on the set of major studio productions. Instead of photocopying or fetching coffee, a rotating group of eight “UNC Shadows” apprenticed under director Raja Gosnell and the various department heads on “The Smurfs.”]

During Kerner’s tenure, the film school succeeded in uniting all of the other disciplines at UNCSA — theater, music, visual arts and dance — creating unique opportunities for collaboration across the various conservatories.

As Mauceri sees it, “Film has become the opera of the 20th century, the totally collaborative artform,” which is precisely why Kerner considers it so important.

“We are teaching the Shakespeares and Rimbauds of our generation,” Kerner says. “Some of these people will come out and change the culture for 400 or 500 years.”

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