USC Student Suit Challenges Film-TV School Practices

Times Staff Writer

Escalating tensions at USC's highly competitive School of Cinema-Television erupted in a lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday.

John Cork, a 26-year-old directing student, asked the court to block screenings of "The Long Walk Home." The award-winning short film was based on a screenplay written by Cork, but directed by another student.

The suit also seeks damages totaling $1 million for copyright infringement and emotional distress from the university; from Frantisek Daniel, dean of the film school, and from Beverlyn Fray, a student who directed the movie as part of the cinema-TV school's undergraduate film production workshop class, called CNTV 480.

In the class, USC finances five student-produced short films each semester, at a cost of about $35,000 a film. The right to direct the movies is hotly contested by about 35 aspiring directors who seek entry to the class by competing for the chance to direct one of about 90 student-written screenplays each semester.

In recent years, the directors of student films from various schools have gotten heavy attention from the major studios and independent producers, and they occasionally land lucrative writing and directing deals shortly after graduation. Directors Phil Joanou ("Three O'Clock High") and Fred Dekker ("The Monster Squad") and writer Neal Jimenez ("River's Edge") are among recent film-school graduates who have quickly landed movie deals.

According to interviews with a number of USC students and faculty members, however, the workshop has been plagued by increasingly intense rivalry for the handful of directing slots that can lead to a shot at movie careers.

"In a situation where you have 90 (student writers) competing for five (projects), you're going to have five happy people and 85 unhappy ones," said John Howe, one of the workshop's faculty supervisors, in a recent interview about procedures at the school.

Daniel, who came to USC from Columbia University in 1986, said, "I believe, and our legal department believes, that there was no infringement on (Cork's) rights."

Attempts to reach Fray, a senior at the school, were unsuccessful.

The film in question, "The Long Walk Home," is a historical drama set during the beginning of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955. Cork, a native of Montgomery, said in an interview that the script was based on incidents that occurred in his family.

Cork submitted the screenplay to the workshop last year, along with a release allowing the school to assign the script to another director, he said in a declaration attached to the suit. Under a policy that has since been amended, such releases were required of students submitting scripts to the program, according to Daniel and other faculty members. Currently, students submitting scripts for consideration may designate a script as "closed," which would prevent rival student directors from pitching projects based on that script.

Cork sought to direct the film, but the faculty assigned it to Fray, according to his suit. He then asked USC administrators to cancel the film rather than assign it to a director other than himself, the filing said.

In his lawsuit, Cork argued that the release to assign the script to another was invalid, because he wasn't given anything in return for it. In an interview, Cork said he filed the suit in part because he wanted to make a "moral" stance for his rights as a writer.

"It was a very personal story, and something I'd poured my heart into writing. They've taken that from me. I know I would have done a really great job with that material" as a director, he added.

Fray was recently awarded first prize in the annual Black American Cinema Society's student films competition. Cork's suit asks for a temporary restraining order blocking screenings of the film. The film was scheduled to be shown Saturday at the Four Star Theater as part of a film festival.

In a declaration attached to the lawsuit, Cork claimed that Fray's version of the movie was "inaccurate" and "so poorly executed that it cannot serve as a worthwhile example of my writing, and my sense of good drama." Cork has since sold an independent producer an option on a feature-length version of his original script, which describes the interplay between a white housewife and her black maid during the boycott.

Daniel told The Times on Wednesday that he recommended the change in the school's script submission policy recently because the old policy "was creating bad feeling on the part of the students." He said the school tried to solve its dispute with Cork "on a friendly basis," but didn't want to cancel Fray's version of the film after its initial approval in order not to deprive about eight student crew members of the opportunity to work on a university-funded film project.

At other film schools--including those at New York University, Columbia University and UCLA--students generally fund their own productions. In those schools, students thus compete less vigorously for university support, but carry a much heavier financial burden themselves.

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