Student film projects in L.A. are up sharply (updated)

Student film projects in L.A. are up sharply (updated)
UCLA film school graduate Susana Casares, who shot her thesis project, "Tryouts," in L.A., says the city is "such a rich location. It has everything." (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Forty crew members were set up inside of Banco Popular building in downtown Los Angeles. Some angled the lights and cameras toward a staircase, preparing to film a character running out of the building after an altercation.

High walls of marble cast shadows inside the building as the crew began shooting a pilot episode of "D-Tec," a TV crime drama set in the future.


Producer Richard King hopes the series will get sold to a network or an online distributor.


Student film production: In the June 12 Business section, an article about the rise in student film production in L.A. said that director Francis Ford Coppola was an alumnus of USC. Coppola is a graduate of UCLA.

But for now, "D-Tec" will serve as his final class project for the American Film Institute, where he is a student. King has worked on about 20 projects in his three years at AFI, which has given him invaluable experience, he said.

"Working in L.A. has provided me with the knowledge of how to do things the right way, doing things by the book," King said during a break from filming Tuesday morning.

Student film crews are an increasingly common sight on the streets of Los Angeles. Last year, student films accounted for 4,227 production days, up nearly 30% from 2011, according to FilmL.A. Inc., a nonprofit group that handles permits for the city and the county.

In fact, in 2012 there was more student filming in L.A. than filming for TV dramas. Student films generated about 9% of total location filming in the L.A. region, an increase of about 2 percentage points from 2011, according to FilmL.A.

This year the number of student projects will probably be on par with 2012, said Philip Sokoloski, spokesman for FilmL.A.

"Looking at historical trends, we have reason to think student film production will continue to increase, provided local film schools maintain or increase their enrollment," he said.

Los Angeles has four major film schools: USC, UCLA, the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles campus of the New York Film Academy. They all require students to work on their own productions for credit, with the New York Film Academy pulling most of the permits, Sokoloski said.

FilmL.A. offers discounted prices for student film permits, making it easier for students wanting to shoot in the city.

USC's School of Cinematic Arts has a professor dedicated to helping students with the process of getting a permit and finding good locations to shoot.


USC students produce about 1,500 films a year, said Joe Wallenstein, director of physical production at USC, whose alumni include directors George Lucas.

Popular filming destinations for students include beaches such as Paradise Cove, Griffith Park and the Mojave Desert.

Wallenstein tries to emphasize to his students that they should look at filming locations in a creative way.

"You don't have to go to the desert to make it look like the desert," he reminds them.

Sometimes Wallenstein has to discourage students from venturing into L.A.'s less savory neighborhoods.

"Students are very focused on the end image," he said. "They want to go into the worst neighborhoods at night."

Susana Casares, a recent graduate from UCLA's film school, decided to use the city for her thesis project, a short film titled "Tryouts." The film focuses on a Muslim American teenager trying to make it on the cheerleading team. In order to audition, she must remove her head scarf, which creates internal conflict for the teen.

Casares shot the movie this year at Joseph Le Conte Middle School in Hollywood. "Tryouts" received the first-place drama award at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences College TV Awards in April and will screen at the Palm Springs International ShortFest, which runs June 18 to 24.

Casares, originally from Barcelona, found locations to her liking. L.A. "is so diverse and different," she said. "It's such a rich location. It has everything."

AFI requires its students to shoot in the city. King said the Banco Popular building, with its marble walls, blue-patterned tile and chandelier, was the ideal location for his TV show about two detectives.

"We were looking for something reminiscent of the '30s and '40s," King said. "It has built-in character to it. It just looks old."

[For the record: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that director Francis Ford Coppola was an alumnus of USC. He is a graduate of UCLA.]