A sharp rise of intonation followed by an inquisitive eyebrow — “Oh, so you’re majoring in film?”
Well, not exactly.
Here at the University, it’s Screen Arts & Cultures, which isn’t the same as majoring in film. That medium is dead. You’d be hard pressed to find a kid reeling film stock or splicing and mending together single frames from a filmstrip. But screen arts? It’s a combination of practice and theory, and it’s a field that is very much alive.
Screen art is the modern alternative to film — the dynamic digital imagery that pops up on your laptop screen, flashes on the television and glues you to your smartphone. It’s not just the study of how to make films, but the study of the culture of making them.
But with big film schools like New York University or the University of Southern California leading the pack, how does Michigan stack up? What does a SAC degree mean for a life post-graduation? With an interdisciplinary take on film education, students at the University are taking advantage of a more diverse set of post-grad endeavors. Such careers may apply to film, but it’s certainly not a set-in-stone requirement.
“Do you know what film is anymore?” Terri Sarris, associate chair of the Department, asked. “It’s the stuff with the holes — celluloid.” No one at the University is a ‘film’ major.
Instead, the SAC department, in line with all other LSA majors, prides itself on the diverse education it offers, comprised of both theory and practice courses.
“We think of it, on one hand, like any other major in that college,” Sarris said. “Anybody who has a degree from LSA finds creative ways to use that degree.”
Two-thirds of the department’s curriculum is based on the study of theory and history, while the other third includes hands-on production experience.
The Screen Arts & Cultures Department is relatively new to the University. Before administrators were convinced that students could pursue viable careers in media studies, the Department was classified as the Film and Video Studies Program.
Under Gaylyn Studlar, who served as director of LSA’s Film and Video Program from 1995 to 2005, it was transformed into the Screen Arts & Cultures Department, giving it the power to hire its own professors and to expand its curriculum.
Phil Ranta, a LSA alum, focused on screenwriting when it was still the Film and Video Program. The transition was finalized in 2005, the year he graduated — a year when MySpace was hugely popular and YouTube had just premiered online.
“So it was really the beginning of a revolution,” Ranta said. “U of M recognized the shift at the right time.”
After graduation, Ranta became a pioneer in shaping film’s place in an online platform. Initially, he sold his screenplay for a TV pilot, which was shot in Ann Arbor during his senior year, to Turner’s comedy web outlet called SuperDeluxe.com. He stressed the importance of knowing how to write and tell a story, regardless of career plans. In this sense, his degree was applicable far beyond the world of film.
“The beautiful thing about focusing on screenwriting is that everything is storytelling — independent of the medium,” Ranta said.
Ranta later became the Head of Channel Partnerships with Fullscreen — YouTube’s largest network of content creators and brands that strives to “empower the next generation of artists and creators.” As their ninth employee at the time, Ranta said he plays a role in shaping the goals of the now multimillion-dollar company.
The Department’s fusion of production, screenwriting, history and theory courses into its curriculum is a unique concept that sets it apart from the more traditional film schools.
Other universities are beginning to catch on and recognize the value in a more liberal arts style film school education. After leaving in 2009, Studlar, who built up the SAC program at the University, joined Washington University in St. Louis and presently serves there as the director of its own Film and Media Studies Program. Studlar pushed to incorporate a similar ratio of theory and practice courses in St. Louis.
Screen Arts lecturer Mark Kligerman has taught a variety of study-based courses at the University for over 10 years. Courses he has recently instructed include upper level Contemporary Film Theory; Cult, Camp Art and Exploitation; and The Animated Film, as well as various film history courses.
Kligerman said that although students are being primed for a career in film production — what most would associate with the “Hollywood” career path — they also develop writing and critical skills by studying theory and history, which prepares them to go into any field, related or unrelated to film itself.
He said he has seen students graduate and begin endeavors in the fields of journalism, law and even medicine. Regardless of where students decide to take their major, career-wise, Kligerman stressed the importance of becoming informed producers and consumers of media culture. The intention of raising profound historical awareness of media culture itself is inherent in the name of the major — Screen Arts & Cultures.
LSA senior Keshav Prasad, a SAC major, believes that the attention to experimental and unconventional forms of film sets the University apart from departments at more traditional universities that identify solely as “film schools.” Such courses include The Experimental Screen and New Media Practices.
For example, in classes like Experimental Film (SAC 304), students are given free range to make any type of project they want with tampered film or digital image technology.
“What separates those from courses you would take at a traditional film school is one: the lack of structure, and two: the specific attention towards counter media, or media that is non-narrative,” Prasad added.
“We are challenging the notion of what it means to be a filmmaker and to expand our horizons and understand that there is more to media and visual communications over lapsed time than merely the production of a 90 minute narrative film that Hollywood makes,” Prasad said. “That allows students the opportunity to be artists rather than cogs in a Hollywood machine.”
Allowing students to explore practices outside the norm does not take away from the curriculum’s academic rigor. In the class Screenwriting I, for example, students are required to write a full-length screenplay. Those who move on to Screenwriting II continue the development process as they work to revise their screenplays from the previous semester. Screenwriting courses have been incorporated into a sub-major of its own.
“We have a first rate writing program, great production program and a great studies program,” said Jim Burnstein, screenwriting coordinator. “And as a result, most of our students when they leave here try to work in the entertainment industry.”
To help catalyze the job-seeking process, many students have taken advantage of the large network of alumni and University affiliates on the West Coast, some of which have been established by Jim Burnstein, who has written full-length features such as “D3: The Mighty Ducks,” “Renaissance Man” and Love and Honor,” which he also produced. Such connections help students get their “foot in the door” of the movie industry.
Burnstein served on the Michigan Film Office Advisory Council from 2003 until 2011, pushing for increased film incentives in the state. While most of his colleagues travelled to Hollywood to develop careers in writing and producing, Burnstein chose to work from Michigan and maintain correspondence with his Hollywood agent. Hollywood careers don’t have to be rooted in Hollywood. Writers, producers and directors can operate locally to stimulate a Michigan film industry that is struggling to stay relevant.
One of the largest movie sets in the country sits less than an hour away from the University’s campus. Michigan Motion Picture Studios in Pontiac has over 170,000 square feet of stage and mill space, where productions like Oz the Great and Powerful were shot.
Burnstein said he worked with former governor Jennifer Granholm to convince students to stay in the state to stimulate the industry. She signed a law in 2008 creating a film incentive tax credit program with no ceiling, meaning the state could grant as many credits as they desired. A credit waives the taxes a film production would have had to pay on all purchases during shooting, which can add up to millions of dollars. According to Burnstein, when Granholm signed it into law, she turned around and said, “Jim, tell your students.”
Between 2008 and 2010, over 130 movies were shot in Michigan, including “Gran Torino” and “Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon.”
But it’s unclear how much revenue tax credits generate. Does publicity for the state and the money spent during shooting offset the millions of dollars in tax breaks productions receive? In an effort to track exactly how much the state is spending and receiving, Governor Rick Snyder signed new legislation in 2011 that capped spending at $25 million. About 60 films have been produced in the state since.
“They had once in a lifetime opportunities to work on films, get positions right away,” Burnstein said of the state’s once-booming film economy.
Though the incentive has become weaker over the past few years, Michelle Grinnell, senior communications advisor at Michigan Film Office, said they have tried to maximize opportunities for Michigan residents with the fewer resources it possesses.
“We want to make sure that any project that is receiving an incentive is placing an emphasis on hiring Michigan crew, Michigan cast,” Grinnell said. “Film incentives especially are an ever-changing landscape; however, Michigan’s program has been pretty consistently one of the top programs.”
Burnstein acknowledged that regardless of incentives, students internalize the idea that experiencing Hollywood, the epicenter of the entertainment media business, is a necessity.
Within the SAC department, alumni help create a support group for current students looking for jobs and internships, and the cycle often continues.
LSA senior Sam Barnett, also a SAC major, has had internships in L.A. for the past two summers. Two years ago, he landed an internship at Josephson Entertainment, after connecting with Sean Bennett, a SAC alum who moved on from Josephson to become the Assistant to Executive Producer at CBS Television Studios. Josephson also worked on an AMC show called Turn. Craig Silverstein, another SAC alum, is the series’ show runner.
“These internships have helped me feel more secure when I go out (to Los Angeles),” Barnett said, “I definitely feel like there’s a network of University of Michigan alumni out there.”
Julia Mogerman, a fifth-year senior, said the network is even stronger in this way because the department is relatively small in size.
“I think its small size makes it great because you get individual attention from professors and you get to know them,” Mogerman said. “They get to know your interests and lead you down different avenues.”
Mogerman interned at Red Wagon Entertainment with the help of Jim Burnstein and his connection with Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher, who run the production company. Red Wagon has produced films such as “Gladiator,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Divergent.”
“A U of M student went to Red Wagon the semester before me and paved the way and made a good reputation for us there,” Mogerman said.
She said that much of what students hear about Hollywood is gossip, making it even more pertinent for each individual to spend time there and gauge his or her own opinion. SAC 455, Contemporary Film Industry, gives students an idea of how institutions, such as talent agencies, operate as market conditions evolve.
“I can imagine that someone taking that class before going to L.A. would be really prepared with what to expect,” Mogerman added. “And I’m learning a lot from the class still even though I’ve been to L.A.”
Hollywood itself is daunting — but so are the vast opportunities available outside of it. To provide some transparency and encourage students to get creative in their quest for jobs, the department is in the process of creating a speaker series, which has yet to be formally named. The series will bring in alumni who have stayed in the area to pursue less traditional career pathways.
“It’s one thing to bring in very successful graduates who are further along in their careers but those people can seem fairly remote so I think we’re conscious of wanting to bring in students who have just graduated,” Sarris added.
Sarris mentioned one University graduate who is getting in touch with more eccentric opportunities. One student is travelling with Ann Arbor musician Mr. B, documenting his ride down the Mississippi bank pulling a piano behind him.
Inevitably, during production classes, SAC majors will carry camera equipment around the city of Ann Arbor. In this sense, Ann Arbor serves as a springboard for on-site filming, regardless of where students decide to apply the skills learned. Aside from campus, the city of Ann Arbor is much friendlier to SAC students than large cities, such as New York, which costs minimum $300 for a permit to film.
Sarris said Ann Arbor, as a smaller town, is not so steeped in the film industry, so people are lenient with letting students shoot.
“Understanding the history of the industry, understanding the current state of the industry, understanding cultural, societal and philosophical undertones of the world can really shape your art, and the art you produce has direct results on the media,” Keshav Prasad said, “It makes us more aware of the power of what we’re making and hopefully gives us more responsibility with how we represent what we’re producing.”