A semester abroad ... in Tinseltown
Forget about Paris and a semester at the Sorbonne. Who needs to study in Florence or struggle with Mandarin for just months in Beijing?
Instead, consider the allure of Burbank and the nearby Oakwood apartments. Think about Los Angeles’ Wilshire district and the chance to speak like a Hollywood agent.
A growing number of U.S. colleges and universities, mostly from the East Coast and the South, are making something close to that pitch for what are in effect study-abroad programs in the Los Angeles area. And while programs in Italy often emphasize art and those in England literature, the focus here is squarely on the entertainment industry and on internships that might jump-start a Hollywood career.
Emerson College in Boston, the University of Texas at Austin, Boston University and Ithaca College in New York are among those that sponsor year-round or summer programs that bring students to Southern California. Others include Columbia College in Chicago, Temple University in Philadelphia, Elon University in North Carolina and a national consortium of Christian colleges.
The colleges enroll their students in classes on screenwriting, acting and agentry, and get them into apprenticeships -- mostly unpaid -- in television, movies, music or advertising.
In most cases, the programs are modeled after those for overseas studies. They take out-of-town students to a strange, interesting and potentially rewarding place far from home for education and fun. And like those others, the L.A. programs encourage students to mix with the natives but usually require them to live in university-affiliated housing, often at the Oakwood Toluca Hills or Park La Brea apartments.
“We joke that we are in a foreign country here,” said Bill Linsman, who heads Boston University’s 6-year-old Los Angeles Internship Program from a Wilshire Boulevard office. Most of the students are from the East Coast, and L.A.'s entertainment business “is a foreign culture” for them, he said.
The biggest lesson for the 67 Boston University students enrolled in the program this fall is that show business is serious business, he said. “When you look at the surface of Hollywood, you see sunglasses and blue jeans and tans and sitting around the pool. But dig deeper and you see it’s dollars and cents.”
Generally, more than half of the students in the L.A. programs end up staying in the area if it’s their final semester before graduation, or return later, administrators report. They join what the colleges tout as large networks of alumni already in the entertainment field in Los Angeles.
“It really does immerse you immediately into what’s going on here and gives you a real sense of how to break into the industry,” said Jeff Bibeau, an Ithaca College senior enrolled in that school’s L.A. semester. “It would be silly of me to study four years of communications in upstate New York, cut off from the rest of the world.”
A television and radio studies major from Massachusetts, Bibeau is juggling internships with the “Brothers and Sisters” television series and at a movie production house. He does clerical work, fetches coffee, reads scripts and offers opinions in story meetings.
Bibeau enjoyed a sophomore semester in London but said his Los Angeles jobs and classes on film criticism and media law seem “much more relevant.” He intends to finish at Ithaca in the spring and may job hunt in Los Angeles.
L.A. semesters, which typically cost about the same as a term at the home campus, aside from transportation extras, help students make informed decisions about their futures, explained Stephen Tropiano, director of Ithaca’s program, which started in 1994. “For some, it affirms what they are interested in. For some, they realize it’s not what they want to do,” he said.
The only other U.S. city with so many out-of-town college programs is Washington, D.C., where political science and government are emphasized.
The rise of the L.A. semesters can be partly attributed to students’ becoming more vocationally oriented, said Peter Bukalski, an official with the University Film and Video Assn., a national faculty group. Yet Bukalski, a film professor at Southern Illinois University, sounded a cautionary note about raising false career hopes. “It’s a very, very competitive business,” he said.
Administrators say the “domestic abroad” programs here are not recruiting rivals because they mainly enroll students from their own colleges. But they say they need a Los Angeles presence to counter the hometown advantage of cinema graduates at, for example, USC and UCLA.
“We are saying our students are just as good as yours, if not better, and we are going to compete head to head with you,” said Philip Nemy, executive director of the 3-year-old University of Texas at Austin program in Los Angeles.
Classes for most of the programs are held in rented offices in the Burbank and mid-Wilshire areas. Columbia College leases space at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood for the 200 students it trains each year.
Emerson, the L.A. semester pioneer, recently took a big step. It paid $12 million in April for a Sunset Boulevard parking lot in Hollywood where it plans to construct classrooms, dorms and production facilities. David Rosen, Emerson’s vice president for public affairs, said the campus would show that after 20 years in Los Angeles, “we were there to stay.”
On a recent morning, things were bustling at Emerson’s current headquarters in a Burbank office building.
In one classroom, veteran television writer Debra Epstein was leading eight students she had assigned to devise plots for established TV series such as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” After one promising but complicated reading involving a murdered Russian spy, Epstein gently urged a rewrite. “It’s getting too hard for the audience to follow. You need to streamline,” she said.
Upstairs, the Emerson program’s executive director, Jim Lane was screening “A Clockwork Orange,” the controversial 1971 movie, for 19 students in his course about American films of the ‘70s. Later, Lane lectured about director Stanley Kubrick’s bold cinematic style and detailed the film’s themes of violent youth and untrustworthy authorities.
“It is a self-conscious, aggressive film that challenges you on all sorts of levels,” said Lane, whose course also examines “Dirty Harry” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” among others.
Elon University is the newest here. The North Carolina school started its Los Angeles program this summer with 20 students and space at the Oakwood, according to coordinator Jason McMerty. Since a growing number of graduates move to L.A., he said, Elon figured it should “demystify” the city to students who knew it only from “Baywatch” or “Entourage.”
Los Angeles’ libertine reputation did not stop the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities from starting its Los Angeles Film Studies Center. Its 50 current students, from schools such as Asbury College in Kentucky and Calvin College in Michigan, work on film projects and internships. They also pledge not to drink or smoke and must take a course called Theology in Hollywood.
Any culture shock is less about morality than adapting to a big city, said program director Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran. “A lot of our students come from towns with one stop light. So this city is overwhelming,” she said.
Evan Kaufman, a senior from Connecticut in Emerson’s program, often bicycles from his Oakwood apartment to his internship with film producers on the nearby Universal lot. A writing major, he says the L.A. semester is a good way to “dip your toe in the water” of the entertainment industry without the risk of going it alone.
It’s possible to work on independent movies in Boston, Kaufman said. “But if you want to write the next ‘Iron Man,’ you have to be here. There’s really no two ways about it. And I think a lot of kids have that fantasy of coming out here and making it big.”
He too may return to Hollywood next year, he said. And if things don’t work out: “Mom and Dad’s basement awaits.”