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Coming to the tiny screen

Director Kevin Smith teaches UCLA students to make videos for his show, airing on an MTV channel and on cellphone.

November 24, 2006|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

As do many Hollywood stories, this one begins with rejection.

MTV Networks asked Kevin Smith to write or produce an award show, but the director of indie favorites "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy" turned the project down.

"If you had a gun pointed at my head, I couldn't name a single [video jockey] beyond Kennedy -- who, I'm told, hasn't been a VJ in about a decade," Smith wrote in his blog.

The two sides kept talking, and Smith became intrigued by mtvU, a TV channel for college students. Serving 750 schools, mtvU features music videos by up-and-coming artists and short-form video by college students.

Smith conceived a weekly mtvU show, "Sucks Less, With Kevin Smith," and agreed to serve as instructor for the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television class that produces it.

"There's something cool about being around the vitality of youth," Smith, 36, said. "People who haven't sold out yet, who still have that gleam in their eye that hasn't been snuffed out by the studios."

The nine-minute segments produced under Smith's tutelage air on three venues: on mtvU, on the channel's website at www.mtvU.com and on phones of cellular start-up Amp'd Mobile Inc., in which MTV is an investor. The shows feature offbeat entertainment such as turtle racing or all-female roller derby.

MTV, a unit of Viacom Inc., provides about $50,000 toward the cost of producing the shows, called mobisodes because they are intended for portable media devices. MTV executives say Smith's show is among the most popular original series in the college channel's three-year history.

Barbara Boyle, chairwoman of UCLA's film school, said the class put the university in the vanguard of emerging entertainment platforms. It gives budding filmmakers experience in developing video for mobile phones, which increases the likelihood that they can find work after they graduate.

They also get the chance to work with an established director and the real-world experience of signing a contract and meeting MTV's production deadlines.

"It's been fabulous for them," Boyle said. "It's the bridge between the academic and real worlds."

The 18 students enrolled in the class pitch their story ideas to Smith. UCLA lecturer Rory Kelly handles the professorial tasks of grading and scheduling.

Once a concept is accepted, students have about two weeks to write, film and edit individual segments. The work has to be finished in time for Smith's narration, which is shot Mondays at his Westwood comic-book shop, Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash. A rough cut of the episode is due for a class screening Wednesday mornings.

Smith and mtvU supervising producer Brian DeCubellis critique the segments, and revisions are due Thursdays.

The polished versions are completed Fridays. It's a rigorous schedule -- especially for students a carrying full academic load.

"It's a really great experience," said David Kelly, 25, a second-year graduate student who directed a recent episode. "It's working on a real production schedule with real deadlines. It's different from film school, where you work months on your script. This is real run and gun."

For MTV, the experiment is an attempt to nurture its image with college students, who spend less time watching TV than previous college students did.

"They're making sure that they're cutting edge and hip and cool by doing this kind of stuff," said David Card, an analyst with Jupiter Research. "Kevin Smith has that kind of a reputation. It is cutting edge to be doing mobisodes, because there's really not that much consumption of it yet. It's cool to be cutting edge."

MTV President Christina Norman referred to mtvU as the company's digital incubator, where students can experiment with content.

Said Ross Martin, senior vice president and head of programming for mtvU, "It's not about us reaching an audience. It's not about executives trying to figure out how do we reach this audience. It's about the audience reaching itself, and we are simply facilitating a conversation, a digital dialogue, that our audience is having with itself on mtvU's platforms.

"We find ourselves not only surprised by how brilliant they can be, but inspired to be better and smarter."

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dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

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