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The following article was created by The Hollywood Reporter’s marketing department in collaboration with its partners at DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts.
DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts has evolved into a Tale of Two Cities. On the one hand, the institution has always benefitted from its location in the heart of Chicago — a beacon of creativity with its wellspring of architectural landmarks, cutting-edge music, literary lions, comedic innovators and stage-and-screen luminaries. On the other hand, the school’s impending branch at Sunset Las Palmas Studios will give it a firm foothold in the heart of Hollywood, where internships abound and relationships form the bedrock for success.
Ranked No. 15 on College Factual’s most recent poll of the country’s premier film programs, No. 16 by The Hollywood Reporter’s Top 25 annual report last month and listed among Variety’s top 50 in the world in April, DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts’ ties with working industry professionals and facilities — such as its permanent sound stages in Cinespace Chicago Film Studios and now with a custom, dedicated space at Sunset Las Palmas — ensures that its students are given the tools they need to gain a leg up in an industry in constant technical and aesthetic flux, and where the demand for content is at an all-time high.
While DePaul’s students will continue to benefit from its ongoing L.A. Quarter undergraduate component, which operates year-round, its new Creative Producing MFA program will be 100 percent based in Hollywood, significantly increasing its presence in the heart of the entertainment industry. Producer Timothy Peternel (Dog Eat Dog, Spun, Buffalo 66) will oversee the curriculum, which runs the gamut from development, budgeting, financing and production to casting, artistic and practical solutions on set to marketing and distribution.
For Peternel, the mission statement is to develop the next generation of producers with an emphasis on diversity and finding new voices. “The program’s goal is to provide the students with a broad range of producing skillsets to succeed in multiple areas of the entertainment industry,” he says, “be it an indie producer on location or a studio executive overseeing a big-budgeted production or working as a Hollywood manager / producer developing projects with their writers and directors.”
The permanent, 6,000-square-foot building at Sunset Las Palmas will accommodate classes, production facilities and resources, as well as a community space. Since the inception of L.A. Quarter, undergraduates have routinely held internships at Film/TV studios, production companies and talent agencies as part of their experience. The new Creative Producing program encourages two internships, one for each year.
At a time when a production credit can mean different things to different people, DePaul takes a classic approach to the discipline.
“Broadly speaking, creative producers make things happen,” says Peternel. “They have an intimate understanding of the creative process, are well-versed in the physical aspects of a content creation as well as the business and financial side of the industry. Attention to detail and the ability to see the big picture are essential skills. They are the person who makes it possible for the creatives to realize their vision for a given project.”
In Chicago, tellingly, the film school is housed within its College of Computing and Digital Media, given that technological advancements have changed the language of cinema to such a degree that almost anything is possible. In other words, those seeking bachelor’s and master’s degrees in film and television, animation, creative producing and screenwriting can take comfort in knowing that their skills will be developed in context with the times, and that creative storytelling that broadens the spectrum of the medium need not exist in an academic vacuum.
The annual conferences held at DePaul’s downtown campus prove, too, that the school doesn’t have to be situated on the left or right coast to gain access to established talents from various fields. Courier 12, which takes place every fall, presents a series of panel discussions focused on writing for film and television. In addition, the school’s two-day Verité event features master classes on the technical, creative and ethical aspects of documentary filmmaking. While Frame-by-Frame is a day-long conference for animators by animators who work in a variety of platforms, including theatrical, TV and games—whether the approach is experimental or commercial, or the means is stop motion, hand-drawn, computer-generated or 3D.
Featured speakers have included award-winning scribe Lena Waithe (Queen & Slim, Master of None), who headlined C12’s last edition; longtime Chicago resident and revered documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, City So Real), whose Kartemquin Films has been a Windy City fixture since 1966; writer-director-producer-actor Bo Burnham, whose Eighth Grade earned him both WGA and DGA Awards, and whose Inside recently showered him no less than six Emmy nominations; Sean Baker, the writer-director behind Tangerine and The Florida Project, and whose latest, Red Rocket, was unveiled at Telluride; writer-director Paul Schrader, whose The Card Counter made waves at Venice and is currently in release; and Mary Coleman, head of creative development at Pixar, among many others.
One of the school’s most unique calling cards is its association with Second City, the Chicago improvisational comedy troupe and training ground for a who’s who of comedy legends that includes Saturday Night Live founding members John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Dan Ackroyd, as well as Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. DePaul not only teaches classes at the venerable institution, but is the only film school in the country to hand out MFA’s for comedy filmmaking.
DePaul’s teaching corps largely consists of working pros, but they have managed to bring their considerable experience from other renowned film institutions. For example, screenwriter/instructor Scott Meyers (K-9, which spawned three sequels) received the outstanding instructor award for UCLA Extension’s Writers Program in 2005; while writer/director/producer Brad Riddell (Later Days, Other People’s Children) taught at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts for seven years before accepting a post at DePaul. Daniel Klein, a member of DePaul’s L.A. faculty, was recently named a Sundance Institute Screenwriters Intensive Fellow for 2021.
These mentors have parlayed their experience into inspiration for their students. DePaul alum Alexis Auditore, manager of physical assets and physical production at Marvel Studios, says her favorite class was screenwriting, taught by Gary Novak, one of the founding members of the university’s Cinema Program. “I was able to turn years of haphazard writing into something with structure,” she told THR for its 2021 annual film school survey.
And 2007 grad Art O’Leary, Emmy-winning editor (Deadliest Catch), says he appreciated DePaul’s overall vibe. “Everyone was friendly, the teachers seemed really engaged, and I liked all the different clubs and activities you could join.”
And in the spirit of location is everything, O’Leary added of his experience at the School of Cinematic Arts on DePaul’s Loop campus, adjacent to the city’s financial district and the Art Institute of Chicago: “It’s in the middle of the city and you’re part of the larger community of Chicago. I would just look at the skyline and say [to myself], ‘I can’t believe I live here.’”
Whether studying in Chicago or Los Angeles, aspiring filmmakers can take comfort in the fact that their skill set — far from being the exclusive domain of an elite group of insiders with cushy connections — is more in demand than ever. But a certain level of drive and fortitude is in order.
“I know it sounds cliche, but there has really never been a better time to be a creator,” says Peternel. “There are so many distribution channels hungry for content. At the same time, creative tools have become easier to use. What is constant through all this however is the creative vision. You really need to know where you want to take your project and to be able to stay the course throughout all the external input that will be flung your way. That isn’t to minimize the importance of collaboration but more to emphasize how important it is to maintain the same level of passion throughout the project as you had when you first got started with it.”
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