Lights, Camera, Credit!
By Margie Farnsworth
Graduate student Aaron Amerling is thoroughly enjoying his first taste of commercial success. His screenplay, Red Sky Morning, has been optioned for six months by Five-Day Entertainment, a production company “that does a lot of direct-to-DVD stuff,” says Amerling. The firm has rented the rights to produce the movie—paying Amerling $2,000. It’s not Dreamworks or Columbia, but it’s a start.
Like other film students at San Diego State University, Amerling knows the hot-market cinema trends that have Hollywood salivating. He describes his script as “a teen thriller—sort of like I Know What You Did Last Summer meets Dead Calm.”
Babette Canton was accepted for graduate film studies at both SDSU and San Francisco State University. Although a resident of the Bay Area, she chose SDSU. “I liked San Francisco, but when I started asking around, all of the film grads were working in something completely different,” she says. Canton is educationally focused on screenwriting and the business of producing, part of what she calls SDSU’s “incredibly practical” curricula that includes instruction in how to put together the all-important film deal.
At 60, Alex Farnsley is the oldest student in the SDSU film school —a graduate student from Kentucky currently working on his thesis film. In previous careers he worked for newspapers and developed children’s TV shows. He envisions his next role as an independent documentary filmmaker and is dedicated to “doing whatever it takes while desperately trying to keep a roof over my head.” He already has racked up some notable awards at film festivals.
In the mercurial world of filmmaking, these aspiring moviemakers and the other 250 students in the SDSU film program take heart in the words of Professor Jack Ofield, filmmaker-in-residence.
“There’s never been a better time since the silent-movie era for a person to find work in films,” Ofield says. “There are so many options —location work, post-production work, you name it—and the kids now getting into it can say, ‘I’m really in the New Age.’” Those who doubt Ofield’s optimism are advised to carefully scan the 10-minute credit crawl that follows most of today’s movies. The number of production and post-production personnel is staggering.
As the center of the cinematic universe, Los Angeles lays claim to some of the most respected film schools in the country. The marquee status of UCLA, the University of Southern California and the American Film Institute Conservatory is not only well known but carries a certain cachet in film-education circles. Surely, big-name producers and directors scour these schools for the best and the brightest to keep Hollywood’s dream factory humming.
Movie luminaries do scout the local schools, but a growing number of employers in the entertainment business also are casting a critical eye 120 miles south, to the SDSU film program. While mostly a well-kept secret, the program increasingly finds itself in The Bigs—an impressive institution known for producing top-notch talent to work in front of and behind the cameras.
“Films coming out of UCLA or USC are no better or worse than ours,” says Ofield. “We don’t take a back seat to anyone in the final product.”
A new era for SDSU’s program began last September when the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts opened its School of Theatre, Television and Film —a crossover venture among these disciplines designed to give students practical, hands-on training applicable to the three media. It’s an approach that many film schools—even the glamour names—overlook.
It’s not uncommon in film schools, Ofield says, to have 30 students in a production class, with only one or two picked to produce a project. That’s not the case at SDSU.
“If a student comes here wanting to make a film, he’s going to get to do it, and he’s going to learn all the aspects of doing it,” Ofield says. The end product becomes a graduate’s calling card—the film entrée the student needs to get that crucial first job, menial though it may be, in “the business.”
Like Ofield, Nick Reid, a theater professor and director of the merged schools, knows the value of versatility for his students. In the roller-coaster world of today’s entertainment industry, stage performers routinely morph into sitcom actors or work on feature films. Likewise, the theater lighting director expands his employment opportunities when he can put his talents to work on a film or TV set. Ditto the makeup artist, stage manager, set designer, costume director and tout ensemble.
“The lines are blurring between the disciplines,” Reid says, “and so much of it is technology-driven.” Today’s theater actor, he explains, may need to become a digital performer tomorrow—using, for example, the motion-capture techniques in The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
“Just how important is State’s film department becoming?” asks 1975 SDSU film graduate Wally Schlotter. “Producers and directors are now asking me to write a letter of recommendation to help someone they know get into the school.”
Schlotter is an Emmy-winning producer who, in 1977, launched the San Diego Film Commission, dedicated to attracting movie and TV productions to the area and accommodating their every need while here. He ran the highly acclaimed commission for nearly two decades, and today he chairs the San Diego Film Foundation, which produces the San Diego Film Festival, now in its third year.
An unabashed supporter of all things film, Schlotter credits the SDSU program’s success to its adaptability. “The film department has always been on the cutting edge,” he says. “It has always known where the industry is going, and it adjusts its curriculum to see that students are fully prepared for this real world.”
He views the recent merger of the departments of theater, film and TV as the latest example of the university’s commitment to producing well-rounded, employable graduates.
Growing up in Tamiskaming Territory in northern Canada where his father was a gold prospector, Jack Ofield could hardly wait to escape the minus-50-degree winters and the summers that brought hordes of flies. It was an inauspicious beginning for a man who would become an internationally acclaimed filmmaker.
Olfield is the first filmmaker-in-residence at San Diego State University, a position created for him 14 years ago. He also is a professor in SDSU’s School of Theatre, Television and Film and the founder and executive producer of The Short List, an Emmy Award–winning weekly series for international short films. Now in its 11th year, the show airs on 177 PBS stations nationwide and is shown locally on Cox Channel 4 on Thursday and Sunday nights at 9:30. It is the only TV show of its kind to showcase products of the increasingly popular short-film genre.
Ofield travels to film festivals around the world and combs through about 2,000 submissions to select the 80 to 100 films that air each year on The Short List. An expansive range of topics—fiction and nonfiction—is featured, and a film may run anywhere from 30 seconds to 20 minutes.
Before coming to SDSU, Ofield produced a long string of critically acclaimed films and TV series in the United States and Canada, including the award-winning Discovery series on ABC. On a visit to SDSU in 1989 to promote his PBS series on American folk art, he was offered his present position.
“Jack is respected nationwide,” says Wally Schlotter, founder of the San Diego Film Foundation and a graduate of the film school. “He’s really put film on the map at SDSU.” “Learning to work with students has been a wonderful experience,” Ofield says. “Working with professionals all of my life, I had to start looking at things differently. The work is not always artistically perfect, but you experiment and in some ways do so much more.”
As with any business, it helps to have friends in high places in the film world —someone who knows someone who can get the aspiring filmmaker in the front door. The film schools of Los Angeles have an edge, but SDSU’s connection stock continues to rise.
The film school’s best-known graduate is Kathleen Kennedy, a wildly successful producer whose long list of credits includes Seabiscuit, The Sixth Sense and E.T. A classmate of Schlotter’s in the mid-1970s, Kennedy took a lowly first job with up-and-coming filmmaker Stephen Spielberg—and the rest, as they say, is the stuff movies are made of.
“Kathleen is a tremendous supporter of our program,” says Joyce Gattas, dean of the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts. “She’s helped open many doors.”
A few years ago, Kennedy organized an SDSU student-film screening in Los Angeles and invited a number of high-powered executives. It was very successful, Gattas says, and helped to raise SDSU’s profile among the industry influential. (Kennedy will receive an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from the college at its May 15 commencement ceremonies.)
Other notable alumni include Hal Harrison, senior vice president for post-production at Paramount; George Sunga, whose producing credits include All in the Family and Three’s Company; and Wayne Kennan, director of photography for Seinfeld.
“The camaraderie and networking among our graduates are very strong,” says Gattas. “I was in L.A. not long ago with some recent alums, and everyone was asking, ‘Who needs what? What can we do to help?’” A number of important internships are available to SDSU film students. Cathy Anderson, current head of the San Diego Film Commission and an SDSU theater grad with a master’s degree in film also from the university, offers several positions each semester and—following her alma mater’s philosophy—makes certain that interns are exposed to all areas of the commission’s work, from the permit process for out-of-town companies to walk-on parts in some productions.
“By the time they get through, they have seen just about every problem imaginable that can hit a film,” Anderson says. “It’s invaluable experience.” Internships also are available through on-campus KPBS TV and radio stations, Cox Communications and Stu Segall Productions, which films TV series and features in San Diego.
The film school was the first program on the SDSU campus to become “impacted”—so popular that enrollment was restricted. Today, the newly merged School of Theatre, Television and Film enrolls nearly 500 students, about half of whom are in the film specialty. Academic entrance requirements are tough, and the curriculum is demanding, time-consuming and costly. The uncommitted need not apply.
It often costs a student more than $10,000 to make a six- to eight-minute film. “Our kids have to be entrepreneurial as well as creative,” says Ofield. To that end, business finance and management classes are offered to teach students film budgeting and how to retain control of the creative product when dealing with hard-dollar financing.
The school provides location film/video equipment, an extensive costume and prop inventory and the latest in high-tech animation and digital technology. Kodak provides film—a huge expense—and Ofield would like to purchase a 35mm film camera, a $65,000 item the department now has to rent.
With technology strongly influencing today’s film product, Ofield knows that his wish list is certain to expand. “The changes come so fast, and nobody ever knows what’s up next,” he says.
There is, though, the one constant it takes to succeed in the capricious business of filmmaking: dogged determination.
“The kids who come here are fully committed,” observes Ofield. “They roll up their sleeves and work hard, and they don’t have delusions of grandeur.
“When they get out of school I tell them, ‘Just get started. Work for almost nothing. Get an internship. Meet people who might know other people.’ If they do that, there’s a good chance of success.”