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Film Studies: Chapman University wants to overtake USC and NYU

The school's state-of-the-art Dodge College of Film and Media Arts launches a for-profit movie company to train its students and raise its profile.

April 10, 2011|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Film students from Dodge Film School at Chapman University in Orange prepare a scene for their 3D film "The Gift of the Maggie" in Temecula, Calif.
Film students from Dodge Film School at Chapman University in Orange prepare… (Stefano Paltera / For The…)

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.

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."

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."

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