Curtain rises on UT film institute

Effort unites students, Hollywood talent in making feature films

By Chris Garcia
Friday, September 5, 2003

The University of Texas is turning its film school into a movie-making factory. Starting this semester, UT will help produce three low-budget films a year that could be widely distributed and shown in theaters -- and make a profit, it hopes.

UT and its partners have recruited a wide range of Hollywood talent and film industry leaders -- from Jack Valenti to Matthew McConaughey -- in an attempt to build an independent movie studio that will give students professional experience in filmmaking and perhaps a credit line on the next "Thirteen," a well-reviewed independent film now in theaters.

Graduate and advanced undergraduate film students will be able to work on one $3 million feature-length movie and two productions budgeted between $500,000 and $1 million, on which they will learn alongside professional directors, cinematographers and others.

Movie scripts are being considered, and cameras will start rolling next summer.

"It's incredibly smart and incredibly bold," said Thom Mount, head of productions at RKO Pictures and a member of the new UT Film Institute advisory board. "UT will become the leader in this kind of thinking. I would be shocked if this did not become the bellwether for all film education at major universities in America."

The venture is complicated, and some questions -- including whether any famous actors or directors will participate in the movies -- remain unanswered. Other details of the deal include:

*Creation of the UT Film Institute, described by the university as a research unit within the College of Communication. Run by department of radio-television-film professor Thom Schatz, its faculty and students will provide a talent pool for film productions.

* An off-campus, for-profit company called Burnt Orange Productions LLC, with which the film institute, at least initially, will contract exclusively. Carolyn Pfeiffer, a veteran Hollywood producer, has been named president and CEO of Burnt Orange, which is owned and managed by the University of Texas Communications Foundation, a nonprofit group that seeks philanthropic gifts in support of the productions.

* Town Lake Films, a private investment company that will also finance the films. UT would say little about the company, and the Texas secretary of state's office said it had no records on Town Lake Films.

* UT contributions of cash, talent and equipment to the productions. Ellen Wartella, dean of the College of Communication, has allocated $144,000 to help launch the film institute, with $4,000 of that coming from the academic excellence fund, which is state money. The rest came from endowments that she may use at her discretion for new ventures. Also, half of a $50,000 feasibility study two years ago was paid through private endowment money; UT's Office for Resource Development paid the other $25,000.

The RTF department is already vaunted for its award-winning documentary and narrative shorts programs, but has little to show by way of narrative features. The new model attempts to restructure the way film is taught by emphasizing it as a collaborative art. The program will focus on six areas of concentration from which students can choose: directing, producing, editing, cinematography, sound and production design.

Digital moviemaking will be stressed as a means for cheaper productions. This week, Advanced Micro Devices agreed to donate digital technology, including 10 editing work stations, for use in all steps of film production. Most of the films will be set in Texas and shot on digital video around Austin on location or at facilities such as Austin Studios, Schatz says.

A work in progress

The goal is to let students graduate with a feature-film credit on their résumés and to feed the talent pool in Austin's blossoming film scene.

For UT it will close the gap between its film school -- "routinely called the best film school between the coasts," says Schatz -- and more prestigious film schools across the country.

"Instead of us being mentioned after USC and NYU," Schatz says, "we will be mentioned in the same breath, if not before those guys, because we're the only school doing this."

Schatz and Wartella announced the launch of the film institute Thursday with many questions still unanswered about its operation. Partly that's because its development has moved so fast -- "the speed of light for the academic bureaucracy," says Schatz, who originally hatched the idea five years ago with Mount.

Yet to be figured out in this grand work in progress is, among other things, which companies will distribute the films, who will star in them, exactly what types of movies will be made and how the institute will attach faculty and students to each production and how or if they will get paid for working on films.

The institute's advisory board is thick with heads of distribution companies, talent agents and producers. It includes: Jared Hoffman of Creative Artists Agency; Jordan Levin, president of entertainment at the WB television network; and Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.

The board will provide a well of Hollywood resources, said Schatz and Wartella, who also point to Austin's bounty of filmmaking talent, from directors Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez to screenwriters Ann Rappe and Bill Witliff, as resources.

But it's the hiring of Pfeiffer as president and CEO of Burnt Orange that lends the enterprise Hollywood heft. Pfeiffer, a 40-year industry veteran who's produced 15 films and worked on hundreds, is leaving her post as vice chairwoman, master filmmaker-in-residence and head of the producing discipline at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles to head Burnt Orange starting Oct. 1.

Pfeiffer, Schatz and Wartella will choose the first round of scripts by November. Films that might earn a "hard R" rating will likely be eschewed, said Pfeiffer, though Schatz is looking for "edgy independent films."

"I don't intend the film institute to be involved in making any films that would embarrass the university," Wartella said.

What the institute will be involved in making are well-crafted narratives, and the occasional documentary, that can make a profit. The $3 million co-productions, where students work with filmmaking pros, will go into production only if distribution -- the release of a movie in theaters, on cable or video -- is secured first.

"It has to be successful. It can't be a failure. We can't make bad movies," Pfeiffer said. "We have to make movies that have the possibility of being a commercial success. The budgets are low enough where our threshold for success doesn't have to be huge. But since Burnt Orange is being funded by the private sector it does have to make good films that find an audience.

"Our projections are based on the most modest expectations. We could not have been more careful. So we're not saying we're going to make 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding.' We are hoping for a low-end success," which means making $2 million to $3 million back on a $1 million film, said Pfeiffer.

Town Lake Films is trying to raise $8 million to cover three years of film productions at Burnt Orange. The company has raised well over $1 million to date, Schatz said.

UT's leap into progressive film education is being called both "revolutionary" and "long overdue" by people familiar with the movie industry.

"This has sort of been the missing link in the learning process," said Tom Copeland, director of the Texas Film Commission. "It's one thing to have a film school; it's another thing to actually offer real experience."

Deans at some of the most famous film schools in the world seemed puzzled by the idea when told of the partnership between UT and Burnt Orange.

"My concern when you bring commercial interests into a film school is where does the creative control in the making of the film lie?" said Robert Rosen, dean of the School of Theater, Film and Television at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Film school is often the one occasion when a filmmaker gets to have real control over what he makes."

Others such as Mount at RKO are eager to see the program take off.

"This kicks the jambs out of the current paradigm for film education and puts UT in a position where it is redefining the terms for the rest of the top 10 film schools in the nation," Mount said. "They will have to get used to people from all these other schools showing up to study what they're doing."

Making movies at UT

UT's new film institute wants to make three widely distributed -- and profitable -- feature films a year.

* The movies will cost $500,000 to $3 million each.

* Most will be shot on digital video in Austin.

* Filming will begin next summer.

* Students and professors will work on the films, sometimes with Hollywood directors.

* The advisory board includes Jack Valenti, Richard Linklater and Matthew McConaughey.