JMU in LA: We love it!

From: Public Affairs

SMAD major Brett Donohue stands outside Universal City in Burbank, Calif.

Screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe learned a lot about what makes a successful Hollywood script as a student in Tom O’Connor’s class at James Madison University. But LaTulippe, who recently made his mark with the romantic comedy “Going the Distance,” learned a lot more by reading bad scripts as a struggling artist for four years in Los Angeles.

It’s those kinds of hand-to-mouth experiences that prompted O’Connor and the School of Media Arts and Design to craft a summer study program, “JMU in LA: The Entertainment Industry.” The eight-week session made its debut in June.

For years, SMAD, which offers a concentration in digital video and cinema, had been seeking a presence in the entertainment capital for JMU students interested in careers in film and television. “You need to go someplace to make your mark in that industry, and we weren’t really able to offer that,” said the school’s director, Dr. Steven D. Anderson.

While a handful of JMU alumni have managed to break into the business and go on to enjoy successful careers in Hollywood — notably Don Rhymer (’82), Barbara Hall (’82), Phoef Sutton (’81) and Karen McCullah ('88) — such stories are few and far between.

“Every year, some of my former students who had the fire in the belly would go out there and try and make it, but they’d stumble around and eventually give up because they didn’t know anybody,” O’Connor said. “I felt like the least we could do is provide a way for students to take a risk, to see if they like it and to make some connections. If you’re serious about feature films, and the whole Hollywood scene, you have to be out there.”

With the help of LaTulippe and JMU alum Seth Kingsley (’98), a senior producer for E! Entertainment, SMAD and the Office of International Programs committed the support and the resources to launch the program, and O’Connor was dispatched to Los Angeles last summer to find a residence. A colleague at Elon University directed him to a Burbank community of about 5,000 people, mostly students and young professionals working at nearby Warner Brothers, Universal Studios and NBC.

Out of 50 rising juniors and seniors who applied for the inaugural program, O’Connor handpicked 20 students with a variety of interests, from scriptwriting and television production to graphic design and marketing. “[Hollywood] is the entertainment industry in the broadest sense,” he said. “It’s not just actors, directors and writers. For every one of those, there are 10, 15, 20 people working behind the scenes or on the business side.”

In addition to the required coursework — an overview of the entertainment industry led by O’Connor and a television production course taught by Kingsley — each student had to complete an internship of at least 120 hours. The internship component was key, O’Connor said, as “JMU in LA” is intended to be a career-focused study program.

“The main idea was to get them out and about, doing internships,” O’Connor said. “They could study [video] editing here. They could write screenplays for me here. But in L.A., you have to get out and meet people. And if you want to get ahead, you have to do something for somebody, expecting nothing in return. … So they were there to work.”

The students had to secure the internships on their own, although they did receive assistance from O’Connor’s wife, Sarah O’Connor, a professor in the School of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication who serves as the L.A. program’s internship coordinator. The majority of them were able to line up a job prior to the start of the program, she said. The rest found work within the first week, in part because of the sheer number of people needed to staff the entertainment industry.

With an assist from Don Rhymer, Brett Donohue, a senior SMAD major from Ashburn, Va., landed an internship with Chris Morgan Productions, where he read screenplays for future installments in the popular “Fast and Furious” franchise. “It helped me determine what’s a good script and what isn’t,” said Donohue, whose other screen projects include serving as a production assistant for the American Film Institute’s tribute to actor Morgan Freeman. He plans to pursue a career in Hollywood immediately after graduation in the spring.

After applying to about 25 television and film companies in the Los Angeles area, 21-year-old Amanda Kohr, a junior double majoring in SMAD and theater, chose an internship with Bedford Falls Productions in Santa Monica, where she not only read other people’s scripts, but was able to practice pitching her own TV shows. “I’m really interested in comedy,” the Ashburn native said, citing the hit shows “30 Rock,” “The Office” and “Modern Family.”

During their downtime, the students went to the beach, did some sightseeing and sampled the local dining and nightlife. Some who were used to working behind the scenes even had the camera turned on them. Donohue and three of his fellow Dukes opened the door to their Oakwood apartment one evening to find The Tonight Show host Jay Leno, who quizzed the students on some of their favorite artists ahead of the MTV Video Music Awards. The sketch ended in Josh Rayner dressing up as Katy Perry and singing a chorus of her hit song “Firework” while Leno doused the group with a fire extinguisher.

It’s too early to say whether the students’ internships will lead to a job after graduation, but they made some valuable contacts and received words of encouragement from executives. “I would definitely recommend the program to anyone thinking about a career in film or television,” Kohr said. “It’s very eye-opening into that industry.”

Anderson eventually would like to make “JMU in LA” a 15-week semester program, with the university establishing its own residence hall in Los Angeles. “I think it will go on forever,” he said.

SMAD is taking applications for the summer 2012 program. The tentative dates are June 1–July 28.

Related links:

School of Media Arts & Design, http://smad.jmu.edu/
Office of International Programs, http://www.jmu.edu/international/abroad/jmu_los_angeles/index.shtml
Eight Weeks, 20 students, One Big City, http://smad.jmu.edu/newsla.html

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October 6, 2011