University of Texas creates a mini-Hollywood of its own

The University of Texas film school has turned out some high-profile alumni, including actor Matthew McConaughey and directors Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. But it's never had students working on Hollywood-level feature films for credit. Until now.

Going where no film school has gone before, the university and a newly formed company, Burnt Orange Productions, have created a partnership to make independent films.

Students will work with professionals on $1 million to $3 million feature films and, ideally, those films will be successful enough to generate cash for Burnt Orange and the university's Film Institute, a new branch of its College of Communications.

"We definitely are trying to create a new model," says Thomas Schatz, the institute's executive director. According to Dr. Schatz, film schools tend to be "hermetically sealed" environments that don't adequately train students for the realities of filmmaking.

The school's new independent movie studio has created a buzz among industry professionals, says Schatz. "They would love to see film schools better prepare students for the job so they don't have to do it," he adds.

The university's program aims to build specialized skills among its 1,000 film students, either as graduate-level apprentices or undergraduate interns. Being able to list actual film credits on their résumés gives them an enormous advantage and connects them with potential employers.

Shooting wrapped Oct. 17 on Burnt Orange's first project, "Dot," which features actresses Edie Falco and Elisha Cuthbert. It's not slated for release in theaters, but it's likely that it could wind up at the Sundance Film Festival or Austin's South By Southwest.

Jeremy Rodgers, a graduate student who worked as the second camera assistant, is one of about 40 students involved with the film. For almost a month, he spent 15 hours a day next to director of photography David Mullen.

"It's giving me real-world experience," says Mr. Rodgers, who hopes to become a director of photography himself. "I wouldn't have otherwise gotten to work with somebody of his caliber."

Senior Matt Robertson, who worked as a grip on "Dot," adds, "You're getting things you can never learn in school ... stuff that they don't tell you about - good and bad."

Though he'd had previous experience working on professional films, Mr. Robertson had never been on set during filming of a nonstudent production. "You get to see how real people work," he says. "It's invaluable."

Other students have positions such as on-set photographer and assistant editor. One of two students creating "extras" for a future DVD has turned the project into his graduate thesis.

Undergrads are involved in every aspect of production, from makeup and sound to public relations, says Carolyn Pfeiffer, president and CEO of Burnt Orange Productions.

Students are also involved in script development and attend weekly meetings to discuss synopses they've written.

Before moving to Austin to run Burnt Orange (named for the university's color), Ms. Pfeiffer was founding president of the Los Angeles Film School, then vice chair and master filmmaker in residence of the American Film Institute Conservancy.

Pfeiffer says that the author of "The Marfa Lights," one of the first three scripts slated for production, is UT alumna and screenwriting teacher Kathleen Orillion.

Chances are that Ms. Orillion's film education was similar to Rodgers's - and that of students at just about every film school, where on-set experience normally consists of work on one another's shoestring-budget thesis projects.

Several years ago, Schatz recognized a need to enhance that experience, and came up with the idea of producing low-budget films on which students could work with professionals.

Though higher-ups weren't interested at the time, an administration change provided a more conducive atmosphere for forward-thinking projects - especially those that could attract "venture philanthropists," a new breed of donor interested in seeing their money used to generate income.

Schatz and his colleague Ellen Wartella, then dean of UT's College of Communications, knew part of that income might come from Austin's growing film community.

"It was clear that there was a lot more [film] development going on in Austin," says Ms. Wartella, now executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California, Riverside. "But most of it was coming from Hollywood."

Indeed, Rodriguez and Linklater film on location here - Rodriguez worked on "Spy Kids 3" at Austin Studios, the production site created two years ago at the former Austin Municipal Airport - but they import talent and crews.

The Burnt Orange/UT Film Institute partnership is intended to cultivate Austin's own film culture, from actors and directors to behind-the-scenes specialists such as set designers and marketers.

Those involved say they're not trying to compete with Hollywood and New York. Like the Sundance Institute, it's more about creative development - though indie success on the scale of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" certainly would help fund more than the eight films Burnt Orange hopes to make in three years.

"One of the reasons that we're doing this, frankly, is to broaden the whole sense of what's involved in filmmaking," says Schatz.

Wartella notes another goal is to "help grow the infrastructure [in Austin] for financing and development of film."

"The response so far has been incredibly positive," says Schatz.

Noting academics at other film schools are getting curious, he adds, "Their attitude has gone from skepticism to interest now that we're making our first movie."

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