Lights! Action! Study! These Film Students Are Battling for Top Billing in Hollywood

UPDATED 01/17/1983 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/17/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

It's a big-budget extravaganza with a cast of thousands, and it's shooting all over Los Angeles. As the clock strikes midnight at the University of Southern California, a neophyte director in an excess of zeal scales a chainlink fence, unlocks a window in a darkened building, and risks life, limb and expulsion to reach his off-limits destination: the editing room. At the University of California, Los Angeles, a 20-year-old auteur instructs a movie crew outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment that rivals the goods over at Universal. In screening rooms around town, studio execs pick through student films in search of the next Steven Spielberg. And somewhere in the city, Professor Jay Bernstein, better known as Farrah Fawcett's former manager, is preparing to teach a course in "Stardom: the Management of, the Public Relations for, and the Maintenance and Survival in." Seriously.

In the reel world, film schools are enjoying their biggest booms since sound came in. Inspired by the successes of such A-list alums as George Lucas and Francis Coppola—four of the five top-grossing movies of all time were directed and/ or produced by film school grads—students who used to dream of writing the Great American Novel are now clamoring for a chance to make the Great American Movie.

Since the late 1960s the number of film and television students at UCLA has nearly doubled, to 627. Enrollments are climbing at New York University, Columbia and the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, while over 100 other colleges have established undergraduate film study programs. In five years, USC instructor Mel Salone says, there will be 20,000 film school grads vying for only a handful of jobs. Says director John Milius, "The concept of the hot young cinema student is part of the language."

Nowhere is the competition more keen than in Hollywood's own back lot. In Hollywood B.C. (Before Coppola), a director broke into the business by hanging around the studio instead of the campus. But in the 1960s a new movie-mad generation began to take filmmaking more seriously. Film freaks now debate the relative merits of the USC and UCLA programs in the kind of heated discussions usually reserved for the Hitchcock oeuvre. Forget the football field. The real battle between the Trojans and the Bruins is on the cutting room floor. "The competition is not vicious," says UCLA junior Scott Tygett, "but it's definitely there."

Among USC's biggest boosters is Lucas, whose senior thesis, a 15-minute sci-fi short called THX-1384EB, paved the way for Star Wars. "USC made me what I am today," Lucas says. "I knew nothing about films before I got to USC. Every waking hour was something new and exciting."

The grads of USC and UCLA have created a powerful new-boy network in the movie business. USC's all-star team includes Lucas and his colleagues from the legendary classes of the mid-'60s: directors Milius and Randal Kleiser (Grease), director/ cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Escape Artist) and writers/producers/ directors Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins (Dragonslayer). Directors John Carpenter (Halloween) and Ron (Happy Days) Howard also studied at USC.

UCLA can boast too: directors Paul Schrader (American Gigolo), Colin Higgins (9 to 5) and Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion), agent John Ptak and, the guru of them all, Coppola. His master's thesis was a 1967 Hollywood feature, You're a Big Boy Now. At the time, recalls Lucas, "Nobody else had done that. It was a big event, and our one hope. If he got a feature to direct, maybe we could."

The rivalry between USC and UCLA is more than school chauvinism: They differ markedly in their approaches to the discipline. Both offer graduate courses in movie history, criticism, ethics (which mainly teaches when not to film someone or something) and theory, as well as popular "hands-on" courses, like how to light a scene or mix a sound track. But USC, the largest and oldest film school in the country (founded in 1929), emphasizes the technical and collaborative nature of moviemaking. Students are required to work on a film crew modeled after the Hollywood standard, and the strictly budgeted films mimic studio features with plots and characterizations. The group productions often result in long-term creative bonds. Observes Caleb Deschanel, "I think the spirit of USC contributed to the fact that most of us are still together."

At UCLA, set up in 1947, it's the message, not the medium, that matters. UCLA (with 531 film students) encourages artistic expression at any cost: Students are not tethered to a budget and are permitted to sink as much money into projects as they can scrape up. Some rival low-budget studio efforts. The results may be obtuse as well as expensive. Hal Barwood recalls UCLA's efforts in the late 1960s as "soulful drug movies." Says instructor Don McLaughlin, "We have more of a one-person, one-film approach."

Ironically, Steven Spielberg, the most successful director in the history of Hollywood, isn't a product of either school. When he graduated from high school in 1966, he was rejected by UCLA; later, when he tried to transfer to USC from California State University at Long Beach, he was turned down because of low grades. "There was a large party going on I wasn't part of," he recalls. To keep up with the competition, Spielberg regularly crashed USC screenings.

As Joan Didion once observed, in Hollywood today the deal is the real art form. And film school curricula have changed accordingly. At USC, producer Ray Stark has funded a program to train dealmakers as well as filmmakers. The studio exec program is headed by A.D. Murphy, a respected Variety writer, who lectures his students on subjects ranging from how movies are advertised to how theater owners cheat studios.

At the same time, USC is constructing a $15 million cinema-television center that will include a motion picture sound stage, a facility for recording music, and a postproduction building. The facilities will surpass those at some major studios when the complex is completed in 1984. George Lucas contributed $5.7 million to the project. Spielberg kicked in $500,000 for the music stage, and Johnny Carson donated $1 million to build the Carson Television Center, a TV sound stage and video production wing.

Graduation from film school (tuition ranges from $400 at UCLA to $3,500 at USC) is no guarantee of a three-pic pact with Paramount. While the number of grads increases, Hollywood's feature film output is dwindling (down 27 percent in 1982), and over 90 percent of last year's graduates remain unemployed. "I tell each entering class that they can't expect instant results," says A.D. Murphy. "We're not talking about computer programmers."

In fact, some studio executives complain that film school grads often have little more imagination than the disc drive of an Apple II. Often minimally exposed to the liberal arts of college, they may emerge technically competent—and artistically empty. "It's frustrating when you're in a meeting, and a director's frame of reference is limited to other movies," complains 20th Century-Fox veep David Field. Universal executive Thorn Mount estimates that only 10 percent of graduates are talented—and only a fraction of those enter the business.

But these cavils don't faze a generation armed with degrees in Happily Ever After. As a sign on the entrance of the USC cinema compound notes, "Reality ends here."

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