L.A.'s screening gems

Times Staff Writer

Perhaps the only people who brag more about their illustrious alumni than Ivy Leaguers are the deans of film schools.

At USC, the names dropped are Robert Zemeckis, Jay Roach, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. UCLA proudly lists Francis Ford Coppola, Gore Verbinski and Alexander Payne. California Institute of the Arts boasts a who’s who of animation, including Tim Burton, Pixar guru John Lasseter and “SpongeBob SquarePants” creator Steven Hillenburg.

Southern California is the film capital of the world and the film school capital of the world, boasting a dozen or so programs to hone the skills of potential filmmakers, usually to the tune of $10,000 to $34,000 a year.

No wonder deans love to enumerate their famous alumni. It’s a way of establishing credibility as a mentor to young talent, summarizing an institution’s aesthetic and cataloging who’s available for networking.

Today’s film schools offer a dazzling array of facilities to both teach the classics of filmmaking and prepare young minds for the iPod, “webisode” and interactive media worlds that have sprouted alongside the mainstream movie business. There are programs to train would-be moguls in the art of the deal and, because Hollywood is nearby, industry professionals to give lectures and seminars at local campuses.

Competition to get into the most prestigious film schools is fierce; an example: Six hundred apply to the graduate directing program at UCLA and 21 get in.

Of course, film school doesn’t validate everyone in the business: Steven Spielberg, perhaps the most powerful and influential filmmaker of all time, was rejected by USC.

Here’s a look at three of the top film programs in the L.A. region -- and in the world:



USC’s is the oldest film school in the country and the biggest, with 722 graduate students in six divisions, including production, critical studies and the Peter Stark Producing Program.

It’s also the most Hollywood of the institutions. It was founded in 1929 as a collaboration between USC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and its first faculty members included swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks, “Birth of a Nation” director D.W. Griffith and mogul Irving Thalberg.

Its super-high-tech $25-million, 35,000-square-foot Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts contains 50 Avid editing machines, the student-run television station and 200 digital cameras in a variety of formats. Benefactors include Zemeckis, the “Forrest Gump” director who donated $5 million, and Spielberg, Howard, music and movie magnate David Geffen, the Creative Artists Agency and almost every studio in town.

The Hollywood influence appears to extend beyond the mere physical plant into the curriculum and ethos of the school, though Dean Elizabeth Daley appears to aim for Hollywood at its finest, not at its schlockiest.

“What we’re trying to foster is to get people to try to develop a voice, an aesthetic and a way of working that’s not just formula,” Daley said. “There are a lot of people in this town who teach formula, and they don’t teach here.”

For years, USC also adopted Hollywood’s ultra-competitive ethos. The pinnacle of the student director’s graduate film school years is a thesis film, and for years the 40 most senior directing students competed for four slots to make their films with university financing. The losers in this competition worked on the crew.

“One of the things we strive to teach most is collaboration,” Daley said. “One experience that’s critical: If you’re going to work as an independent filmmaker or a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker, you’re going to work in a crew. Nobody makes a film alone.”

But some students chafed at shelling out $30,000 in graduate school tuition for the right not to make a movie, and USC recently modified its curriculum to create an alternative course in which students can make a thesis-style film with their own money.

USC is eager to remain on the cutting edge of the new-media revolution and has received millions from the games powerhouse Electronic Arts for what it calls immersive media.

Among other things, students in the program develop alternative video games; a recent one, called “Darfur is Dying,” puts players in the place of refugees from the African nation of Sudan.



Founded by Walt and Roy Disney in 1961 as a kind of Caltech of the arts, CalArts is, ironically enough the artiest of the film schools.

The school has a connection to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which in recent years has featured two exhibits highlighting the work of CalArts alumni.

One show was devoted to Pixar, the computer animation powerhouse, whose CalArts alums include founding spirit Lasseter, “The Incredibles” writer-director Brad Bird and “Monsters, Inc.” director Pete Doctor.

The other exhibit, “Tomorrowland: CalArts in Moving Pictures,” ended in August and showcased animation, live-action films and experimental art videos from the 1970s and ‘80s, including Tony Oursler’s “Life of Phillis,” a soap opera featuring dolls, and Suzanne Lacey’s “Learn Where the Meat Comes From,” a feminist sendup of cooking shows.

“There is no unifying aesthetic,” said Josh Siegel, the MOMA curator who assembled the “Tomorrowland” show. “If you trace the history of the school for the past four decades, you’ll notice how diverse the work is. It’s not so much commercially driven with an eye to Hollywood.”

CalArts has one of the few film schools in the country situated in a major art school, with legendary teachers and artists, among them John Baldessari, David Salle and Mike Kelly.

“We want every student to graduate and to find their own independent voice as an artist,” said CalArts President Steven D. Lavine. “We want to give them the tools to make themselves heard and strategies for carving out a niche for themselves in a world that doesn’t always want or hear independent voices.”

Part of the reason CalArts developed into an animation powerhouse is that the school maintained its commitment to the medium during animation’s dark years, before the Disney-led revival of the 1990s, when “animation had pretty much disappeared from the film industry and was really just about TV commercials,” Lavine said.

“The school was able to attract the great older masters of animation who were then out of work,” he said. “They were available to teach, and they passed on the core traditions, both the Warner Bros. tradition and the Disney tradition. They were inspired to think that you could do anything in animation. There was faith in the form. Because of the association with Walt Disney, young people from all over the world who cared about animation came here.”



UCLA is one of the few public film schools in the country, and for California residents, the $9,747.50 annual graduate school tuition is a bargain.

Students and faculty point out the Hollywood cast-offs that bolster their good-but-not-great facilities, including old animating tables from Disney, where the great animators of yore drew “Snow White,” to digital TV equipment from CNN and old sets from the TV show “Friends.” UCLA also has the second-largest film archive in the country, a resource that allows students to study from the masters in their big-screen glory.

According to the school website, the collection holds more than 220,000 motion picture and television titles and 27 million feet of newsreel footage. “At UCLA, you have the ability to learn from the great masters of the craft from the past, said Robert Rosen, the school’s dean. “Alexander Payne said when he won the L.A. Film Festival new generation award, ‘I learned everything I knew about new movies by watching old movies at UCLA.’ ”

There’s also at least $1 million in fellowships available to students, including two prizes donated by actor Jack Nicholson.

UCLA is also the only school in the country that integrates a full-fledged theater department into its film school, providing would-be directors with a steady stream of available talent and creating a link between old theatrical traditions and new.

It also stresses the qualities many associate with great public institutions, including diversity and, in the case of the film school, independence from the profit-imperative that dominates the motion picture business.

“This school is based on the auteur theory,” says newly minted graduate Abe Sylvia, referring to the concept popularized in the 1970s that sees the director as king, with his or her personal vision dominating the filmmaking process. What’s more, “film school validates you,” says Sylvia, a former Broadway dancer.

“No one is going to say that third dancer on the left can really make movies. You can re-create yourself. Agents and managers comb these places to find new talent.”

Rosen elaborated: “Film school may be the last time for a lot of people who enter the industry where they can create something that is fully reflective of their creative vision, where they have complete creative control. “This is an opportunity to be expansive and even run the risk of failure. That’s harder to do once you’re in the professional world.”