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DePaul U. Doubles Down on L.A. Programs, Launches Creative Producing MFA

DePaul University's School of Cinematic Arts, now at Sunset Las Palmas Studios, rolls out advanced program for both newcomers and ambitious pros

Courtesy of DePaul University
Courtesy of DePaul University

Chicago is an entertainment town, famed for improv comedy, music and groundbreaking theater. It’s also home to first-class schools that have become important feeders for the film industry.

Among them is DePaul University, founded in 1898 to serve the children of the industrious immigrants who had poured into Chicago. DePaul has grown as the descendants of those immigrants have prospered. In 2003, the university added its School of Cinematic Arts, which is now ranked among the best in the country by Variety and other publications. The offerings of SCA comprise film, television and animation, including focuses in screenwriting, directing and even documentary filmmaking. Its soundstages at Cinespace Chicago have given students valuable hands-on experience.

But as vibrant as Chicago’s entertainment scene is, the City of Big Shoulders doesn’t rival Los Angeles as a film and television center. So, DePaul SCA established a beachhead in Hollywood 10 years ago, including a 10-week “LA Quarter,” taught by working entertainment pros in a studio environment, that lets undergrad students dip their toes into Southern California life. Now the school is increasing its commitment to Los Angeles by expanding its physical footprint and planning new programs.

The first of those new initiatives is already serving students: a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Producing, based entirely in Los Angeles. This offering is aimed at both students looking to bolster their portfolio and established professionals eager to upgrade their careers. DePaul hopes it will put the SCA on an equal footing with better-known schools that offer advanced degrees in producing.

Says Gary Novak, director of the School of Cinematic Arts, “Ninety percent of our students who’ve participated in the LA Quarter program and stayed in Los Angeles following graduation are currently working in the industry.”

“We all realized, back in the day, that there was a lot of emphasis on the art and the craft, but not a lot of emphasis on what you do when you get out of school,” says Novak. “How do you get that first job? How do you maintain a career in the industry?”

DePaul’s Los Angeles programs help with that by letting students acclimate to life and work in the city before their career starts in earnest. They’re required to find internships at studios, networks, agencies and/or production companies.

As Timothy Peternel, an industry vet who chairs DePaul’s new Creative Producing MFA, explains further, integrating hands-on experience is a vital part of the program’s overall objective “to develop the next generation of producers with an emphasis on diversity and finding new voices.”

The new Creative Producing MFA is taught by seasoned industry professionals who bring years of real-world experience to their classrooms and have in-depth knowledge of the different facets of what it means to work in an expansive, ever-evolving creative field such as production.

“The program’s goal is to provide the students with a broad range of producing skillsets to succeed in multiple areas of the entertainment industry, be it an indie producer on location, a studio executive overseeing a big budgeted production or a manager/producer developing projects with their writers and directors,” says Peternel, whose credits as an independent producer include the films “Spun” and “Buffalo 66.”

For years, DePaul’s Los Angeles programs were housed on The Lot in Hollywood, but they are now settling into a customized building at Sunset Las Palmas Studios. The new facility will house the existing programs and the new initiatives still to come.

“This is focused on the here and now,” says Novak. “Basically, these are the skills that we think are essential to succeed in the industry in 2021.

“The internship opportunities that are built into the program will not only help [the students] be successful producers, if they decide to go that route, but also equip them to launch a career in development or representation. It’s focusing on the creative side, but also the business side of how the industry works.”

Erin Rodman, an adjunct faculty member who has written features for Amblin Partners and Hallmark Crown Media, agrees:

“I’m a working screenwriter, so I view my participation in the program as a way to provide real interaction for students with professionals who are also teaching. It’s a way to bridge the gap between what you learn in the classroom, in theory about filmmaking and the business, and the reality of what happens when your boots are on the ground.”

Rodman, who has worked on shows for Netflix, Paramount Pictures and Focus Features, invites industry experts to speak with students in the classroom. Recordings are banned at these discussions so everyone can communicate freely about the industry. Rodman loves providing these unfiltered conversations as part of the course work.

“I know it sounds cliché, but there has really never been a better time to be a creator,” adds Peternel.

DePaul isn’t just looking at what Los Angeles offers students. Novak also feels its students bring something special to their jobs in the business. DePaul, he says, instills its students with the idea that to succeed in the entertainment industry, they need to be just as hard-working as the immigrants the school was founded to serve.

“There is a certain Midwestern work ethic that the vast majority of our students have, even though they may not even come from the Midwest. They’re driven, they’re passionate and they persevere, and that’s why we’ve had successful alums.”

Novak says DePaul is also committed to bolstering diversity based on gender, ethnicity and even filmmaking style.

“If you look historically at cinema,” he says, “it’s always been the outsiders who rejuvenated and reinvigorated the medium. That’s where we’re going.”