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Entertainment & Arts

Film Studies: Chapman University wants to overtake USC and NYU

Last August, at a high-end hilltop Orange County restaurant, Bob Bassett told his fellow faculty members how he intends to make Chapman University’s scrappy Dodge College of Film and Media Arts into what he calls “the film school of the future.”

A major strategic component, said Dodge’s longtime dean, would be spring’s launch of Chapman Entertainment, a for-profit movie company that will make and distribute five to 10 feature films each year in commercially popular genres such as comedies and thrillers. Bassett said that the venture, which Bassett formally announced last month and over which he will preside as president and CEO, is aimed at boosting the careers of participating Dodge alums and raise the school’s national profile to the level of its more glamorous rivals.

“I’m absolutely convinced this is the thing that’s going to push us past NYU and USC,” Bassett told the faculty that day.

To those unfamiliar with Dodge’s aggressive growth spurt over the last five years, Bassett’s boast might sound like the coach of a small-college football team talking about whipping the Trojans at the Coliseum.

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But since 2006, when Dodge unveiled a $42-million, 76,000-square-foot studio and teaching complex amid the picturesque bungalows of the city of Orange it has become one of a handful of U.S. film schools that are challenging the historic supremacy of USC, UCLA and New York University. Dodge, with a total enrollment of 1,589 undergraduate and graduate students in its classes, lacks those schools’ brand-name recognition, nor has it produced a star alumnus on par with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas of USC or UCLA trophy pupil Francis Ford Coppola.

But with its state-of-the-art facility, a slew of well-connected Hollywood faculty and resident filmmakers (including John Badham, William Friedkin and Randal Kleiser) and a Singapore satellite campus that provides a foothold in Asia’s burgeoning film marke, Dodge is primed to compete in an academic environment that’s changing as fast as the movie business itself.

“For many film schools, what Chapman has is to be envied,” said Jordan Kerner a film and television producer and dean of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ School of Filmmaking. "[From] 2006 to the present, it’s extraordinary what they’ve done.”

For Dodge, a key to that transformation has been modeling itself not on old-fangled trade schools or esoteric critical studies programs but, in a certain regard, on Hollywood. “The idea is to be a miniature Paramount or Sony,” Bassett said. “There are many ways that we are parallel to a studio.”

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In both a positive and a more problematic sense, the analogy is apt. From the University of Central Florida to Jordan’s Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, film schools today face many of the same challenges confronting the film industry. Among the oft-cited anxieties: global competitive pressures, dwindling theater audiences with “OK-impress-me” attitudes, the hypnotic allure of video games and the Internet, and the bewildering array of new digital entertainment-distribution platforms, all clamoring for 24/7 content.

Rather than bemoan those challenges, Dodge has embraced them as motivators. A spirit of pioneering capitalism pervades the attractive Chapman campus, whose paths are lined with busts of Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman and whose film school was named for Lawrence Dodge, founding chairman of the board of American Sterling, an Irvine company involved in banking insurance, real estate and technology, and his wife, Kristina. Next year, the college hopes to break ground on an adjoining “filmmakers village” that will include dorms, retail and meeting spaces and eventually permanent movie-studio sets, likely mimicking New York and Paris streets.

At Dodge, students are obliged to start thinking about budgets, sketching out marketing plans and scouting online for potential target audiences practically from the moment they pick up a camera or start batting out a screenplay. Students aspiring to be the next Quentin Tarantino or Kathryn Bigelow are required to channel their inner venture capitalist as well.

“Every member of the faculty has had real-life experience with film, not just making films but the business of film as well,” said Ben York Jones a former Chapman student who wrote and acted in “Like Crazy,” a romantic drama that won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

By creating Chapman Entertainment, Bassett believes, his school has taken the next logical step in preparing its graduates to leave Dodge with an actual job offer, not just a diploma. “Film schools teach students how to make short films. That’s like doing finger exercises in a music conservatory,” he said. “It’s certainly how to learn the craft, but it’s not the currency of the business. When you go into the business you can’t do finger exercises, you have to write a symphony.”

Under the new arrangement, Chapman Entertainment will make movies in the “micro-budget” range of $250,000 to $625,000, plus a marketing budget. Film scripts will be solicited from a variety of sources, including students and talent agencies. Films will be shot on location with crews made up of Dodge post-graduates and established industry professionals and assembled at Dodge’s pro-quality pre- and post-production facilities, one of the few in the world to include such amenities as motion-capture and foley sound-mixing studios.

Dodge isn’t the first school to test such an initiative. USC and the University of Texas also have experimented with in-house film-production companies, and even some of Dodge’s outside admirers question its new venture’s chances of success. “Five to 10? Lot of movies,” said North Carolina’s Kerner. “I’m sure they have a plan because they’re a very smart group of people. But distribution is very hard.”

Elizabeth Daley, dean of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, wished Dodge well with its film company venture but said that her college had decided “that’s not the business we’re in.”

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One way in which Dodge’s initiative differs from other schools’, Bassett said, is that “we’re in control of the development,” with students making and producing the movies themselves. “We’ll exploit our most talented graduates, a la Roger Corman,” he added in a joking reference to the prolific B-movie king.

Under Bassett, who was hired as Chapman’s first full-time instructor in 1981 when the school had only one camera and a Moviola editing machine, Dodge’s instruction is geared to the idea that film audiences, like young film students, have become platform-agnostic. Members of the “millennial” generation that came of age in the early 21st century and now are entering college don’t particularly care whether they watch film and video on a cineplex screen, a computer screen or streaming across their iPhone. “My daughter’s a senior at Berkeley. She watches 100% of her television on her computer,” said Michael Phillips, a veteran Hollywood producer (“The Sting,” “Taxi Driver”) and Dodge instructor.

Bassett believes that he and his staff must prepare students “for the jobs that are coming, and those are very different from the jobs we have right now.” To that end, the school this year added courses in writing and producing short-form series for Internet-based television, as well as classes in 3-D film making (it also retrofitted its 500-seat theater to accommodate 3-D screenings). Earlier this year a student film crew shot Dodge’s first 3-D feature, a drama-comedy about a single mother who robs a bank so that she can put her daughter through college.

Taking a break from location shooting on a quiet residential street a few weeks ago, the 3-D film’s student producers, Samantha Price and Jana Winternitz, said that Dodge’s intent was to explore more subtle uses of 3-D technology — storytelling, and the psychological depth of the characters and their setting — rather than merely to create eye-popping special effects. “We definitely wanted to use more of the ‘We’re going into their world and being a part of it,’” Winternitz said.

Faculty member Bill Dill, who supervised shooting of the roughly $30,000-budget film, said that Dodge’s academic substance, not its gee-whiz facilities, had persuaded him to transfer from the American Film Institute, where he ran the cinematography department for about a decade. “I wouldn’t have come there if I thought it was just cool tools and cool gadgets,” he said.

Bassett said that his school treats film seriously both as art form and commercial enterprise, and the goals aren’t incompatible. “We’re talking about having a class on Akira Kurosawa, perhaps next year,” said Bassett, who cites “Breathless” and “The Seventh Seal” as movies that captivated him as a young man. Dodge also has beefed up its documentary film program, and subsidizes its students to make films for nonprofit nongovernmental agencies in places like Cambodia and Botswana.

“There’s just a whole other realm of possibilities of using image and sound to make society a better place,” Bassett said. “I don’t think there’s a better way to know another country than to take a camera and record interviews and street scenes. It’s a great epistemological tool to get to know the world.”

reed.johnson@latimes.com


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