You’ll Need a Permission Slip for That

Jon Matsumoto is a regular contributor to Calendar

Harvard may be one of the toughest colleges in the country to get into, but when it comes to using the school name in movies--it’s easy.

From “The Paper Chase” to “Soul Man” and “With Honors,” numerous feature films have been set at Harvard University. The Harvard nameplate once again gets significant screen time in “Legally Blonde,” a “Clueless”-like comedy that opened earlier this month. In the film, a ditzy but good-hearted sorority girl (Reese Witherspoon) follows her status-conscious ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School in an attempt to win him back.

But the reason for Harvard’s popularity as a film backdrop extends beyond its extremely wide name recognition and reputation for scholastic excellence. Though it doesn’t allow commercial film shooting on its campus, Harvard is a rarity among most educational institutions in that it takes a laissez-faire attitude toward the use of its name in films and television shows.


Many universities (as well as high schools, middle schools and elementary schools) are fearful of being linked to films with characters and situations that may reflect negatively on them.

Not Harvard. For school officials there, it’s not a matter of taste or image, but of 1st Amendment rights.

“At Harvard it’s about the free exchange of ideas and different views,” explains Harvard Assistant Provost Sarah Wald. “You have to hope that what Harvard does in the real world is what people will come to view of it. We all recognize that pop culture is very powerful, but we also have faith that the moviegoers will understand that what they’re seeing is fictional.”

The film “Legally Blonde” is based on a novel of the same name by Amanda Brown. In the book, Witherspoon’s Elle Woods character is a sociopolitical jewelry design major at USC. (In the film, she studies fashion merchandising.) Woods moves on to Stanford Law School, where most of the fish-out-of-water tale takes place.

However, both USC and Stanford refused to allow producers to use the college names. The moviemakers asked permission to replace USC with UCLA, and Stanford with either the University of Chicago or Yale University law schools. But there weren’t any approvals.

USC and UCLA’s refusals to grant permission to use their names is perhaps understandable. The relatively brief scenes involving Woods’ undergraduate sorority sisters hardly depict an academic environment brimming with the best and the brightest.


“[The producers of the film] asked if they could set the film at USC, but the images of her as an undergraduate and being in a sorority . . . we felt there was too much stereotyping going on,” says Elijah May, campus filming coordinator at USC.

So in the movie, Elle Woods earns her undergraduate degree from a fictional college called CULA.

Patricia Jasper, campus counsel at UCLA, can’t recall one time the university has allowed the Westwood campus to be identified as an integral part of a feature fiction film. Jasper has worked at UCLA for nearly 22 years. Any commercial film using the UCLA name must be clearly perceived as in the best interest of the university, she says.

Scripts containing gross conduct, vulgar language, or stereotypes of women, minorities or the disabled are some reasons filmmakers couldn’t use the UCLA name in the past, according to Jasper.

Universities such as Stanford feel the administrative purpose of the college should not include reading scripts for content. Stanford essentially has a blanket policy against its name being used in commercial films and filming on campus.

Movie-savvy college officials also know that a script presented during the nascent phases of production can be very different from what ends up on screen.

“We want some assurance that the script that we have reviewed doesn’t morph over time into something completely different,” Jasper says. “We’re mindful that [what’s presented to us] at a very early stage of production might not be what’s produced [in the end]. That does cause us to be very conservative of what we approve.”Ironically, while USC and UCLA refused to lend their names to “Legally Blonde,” both campuses were used to film many of the Harvard-based scenes. Conversely, Harvard sees little advantage in allowing commercial filming on its grounds. “We don’t allow film shooting on campus because it’s a disruption,” Wald says.

In addition, as the university with the world’s biggest endowment, Harvard isn’t enticed by the money that could be earned from on-campus commercial filming.

According to May, USC receives between $8,000 and $10,000 a day for a 14-hour day feature-film shoot. Both UCLA and USC have several staffers whose function is to help coordinate commercial filming on campus. Jack Raab, director of the UCLA events office, says money earned from film and television studios supports student programming and services. May says various departments at USC benefit financially from on-campus filming.

But both USC and UCLA stipulate that moviemakers cannot identify their colleges on film. So the Tommy Trojan statue at USC and the facade of Royce Hall at UCLA are among the landmarks that are off-limits to filmmakers.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, meanwhile, is anxious to rent out its various school properties to film projects. In fact, anxious enough to cut its rates for shooting on one campus in 1992 from $3,000 a day to $1,700. This occurred after many filmmakers began shooting their movies in cheaper spots.

“We’re very motivated to entice film productions to our schools,” says Kathryn Friedman, the district’s principal realty agent. “It helps our local economy and it helps our financially strapped school district augment its various programs.”

A few viewers of the recently released teen film “crazy/beautiful” might recognize the school in the film as Palisades Charter High School (more familiarly known as Pali High) in Pacific Palisades. But in the movie, the school is called Pacific High. The film revolves around a romance between a troubled Anglo girl (Kirsten Dunst) from an affluent local family and a studious, hard-working Latino boy from the inner city.

Like UCLA and USC, the L.A. school district also has a policy that films not identify schools by their real names. This isn’t a problem for most filmmakers because the actual names of the district’s schools are usually of little value to fictional stories. Like most local schools of its kind, Palisades Charter High School is essentially unknown outside of Southern California.

Indeed, the fictional Pacific High works much better as a school name in “crazy/beautiful” because the film tries hard to capture the beach environment of the Pacific Palisades area.

“You have a lot of driving scenes along the ocean in the film and [the girl’s family has a] home overlooking the ocean, so it stands to reason that Pacific High [is a better name for the school],” says Paul Schreiber, location manager for “crazy/beautiful.”

Beverly Hills High School is fairly unique in that it’s a high school with a widely recognized name. The school has to combat stereotypes about rich and potentially spoiled and shallow white teenagers. The Beverly Hills Unified School District rejected a request to film the ‘90s teen TV series “Beverly Hills 90210” on the high school campus partly because it felt the series did not portray its students realistically. It didn’t matter that the school in the popular drama was given the fictional name West Beverly Hills High.

“I can’t tell you how many people over the years have arrived on our campus and said, ‘Is this where they filmed the show?’ ” says Ben Bushman, principal of Beverly Hills High. “Had it actually been filmed here, that would have increased [our school’s connection to those inaccurate stereotypes].”

Beverly Hills High isn’t averse to commercial filming on campus. (It charges filmmakers $6,000 a day.) A memorably comic sequence involving the school’s indoor swimming pool was used in the beloved 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” More recently, the campus was featured in the 1999 film “Anywhere but Here,” starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman.

However, many of the exterior school scenes in the 1995 comedy “Clueless” were shot at Occidental College in Eagle Rock. The film--about a fashion-conscious teenage girl from a wealthy family--takes place at a fictitious Beverly Hills high school called Bronson Alcott.

After the producers of “Beverly Hills 90210” were rebuffed by Beverly Hills High, they reached an agreement to film many of the series’ exterior sequences at Torrance High School. The Torrance Unified School District usually charges $3,000 to $4,000 a day for extensive filming on its campuses.

Torrance South High School was also used for a few scenes in the feature “American Beauty.” Although the acclaimed movie about a dysfunctional family had adult themes, its more controversial or risque sequences weren’t captured in the scenes shot on campus.

“We don’t allow filmmakers to shoot drinking scenes [or other scenes that might reflect negatively on the school and its students] on campus,” says Kevin Condon, chief business officer at Torrance Unified School District. “In ‘American Beauty,’ they just showed a basketball game [at the school gym] and kids milling around on campus after school.”

Like the Los Angeles district, the Torrance and Beverly Hills districts also do not allow filmmakers to use the actual names of their schools. But the L.A. district did make at least one exception to that rule. The 1987 film “Stand and Deliver” was shot at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles and the school was identified as such. (Some scenes were also shot at Roosevelt High School in L.A.) The movie was based on the true story of Jaime Escalante, a Garfield High teacher who inspired his barrio students to pass an Advanced Placement calculus test.

“The Jaime Escalante story is so pro-education,” Friedman says. “The school has to be reflected in a positive light [if we’re going to allow the actual name of the school to be used].”