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Palm trees, film sets, movies screenings: They're the makings of Hollywood dreams — only this scene is set at Arizona State University, where future filmmakers are mastering their craft.
Los Angeles and New York may have once been the only coveted destinations for aspiring film students, but today, ASU is among the top 25 fastest-growing film programs in the United States.
Tiffany Lopez, director and professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, believes ASU’s growing film program stands out because of its students.
“You can introduce students to technology, you can introduce them to all kinds of opportunities — but if students don’t come with vision and voice, they’re not going to go very far,” said Lopez. “They’ll go the farthest and the fastest if they come with a great sense of confidence.”
And their opportunities are only getting bigger. In spring 2022, ASU @ Mesa City Center is set to open, offering programs from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts through a new state-of-the-art facility, which will not only revitalize downtown Mesa, but support media production in Arizona.
“Mesa will play a really important role because it’s focused on digital technologies and virtual reality as well as augmented reality filmmaking, creating a laboratory for students to really be leaders in the industry,” said Lopez.
At Sun Studios of Arizona in Tempe, ASU is training the next generation of filmmakers, many of whom are first-generation college students.
The film production company serves as a hands-on training ground for aspiring film students. Phil Klucsarits, assistant professor of cinematography and film production in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, was drawn to the program because of its growth and the local talent wanting to start their careers in the Valley of the Sun.
“I think having a film program in the Southwest, specifically Arizona, and not just based in Los Angeles or New York, is a really great opportunity for students that are coming from different backgrounds to tell their own unique stories,” said Klucsarits.
And, oh, the stories they’ve gone on to tell: Graduates of ASU’s film program have worked on Oscar-winning films, at Marvel, with Lucasfilm, in producer Shonda Rhimes' TV universe Shondaland, at the Grammy Awards, for ESPN and at Buzzfeed — and the list keeps growing.
The program’s faculty work hard to bring top industry players to ASU to mentor aspiring filmmakers. Most recently, Larry Sher, a well-known cinematographer who is nominated for an Oscar this year for “Joker,” spoke to film students who are part of Klucsarits’ internship program. Sher not only mentors ASU students, he also gives them an opportunity for hands-on learning through his website ShotDeck, which is a visual-references platform where students can add content and learn about cinematography.
Sher frequently reminds students that working in the creative arts is something that’s attainable — a skill set that can be taught and cultivated.
“So anytime I’m able to sort of talk to people that are at the beginning of their career, in school or just on the start of it — I just want to help,” said Sher.
No matter the outcome on Oscar Sunday, Sher is grateful for his nomination. “It’s a dream," he said. "It’s a real dream, and you realize it doesn’t come around that often.”
As he gets ready for his next project, the DC Comics film “Black Adam” starring Dwayne Johnson, Sher explains how he has been able to maintain longevity in an evolving industry.
“You don’t choose movies you think will be successful, but you try to make the movies you do be as successful as they can be,” said Sher. “And just keep pushing yourself to new challenges.”
As ASU builds its film program in Arizona, the university also has been embedding itself in the heart of Hollywood for some time. Film Spark, often referred to as ASU’s embassy in Hollywood, is the university’s industry-relations arm in the greater Los Angeles area.
Adam Collis, the director of ASU Film Spark and professor of practice of film directing, has connected ASU students with top leaders in the entertainment industry for more than a decade now. In fact, Sher was his first guest via video conference back in 2009. Students screened “Garden State” and then asked the cinematographer questions about his work on the film. It was a hit. Collis then sought out other highly acclaimed filmmakers and executives to connect with students. In 2015, ASU recognized the success of this format and established Film Spark at the ASU California Center in Santa Monica.
“To be able to be a part of such an innovative and frankly revolutionary university and help our students fulfill their dreams at the same time — and do it with guys like (Sher) — it’s just the best,” said Collis.
Sher appreciates the structure of ASU’s film program, especially since he believes getting into the film industry requires more than theoretical practices learned in the classroom.
“(Adam Collis] keeps pushing forward, forward, forward on allowing these students to have an actual path to success in the film industry,” he said.
ASU Film Spark has helped students accelerate their careers through professional development and career fairs, like the one being held on Friday, Feb. 7, at the Culver Hotel in Culver City, California. ASU film students will have the opportunity to talk with employers throughout the entertainment industry about open positions or internships.
As Collis explains, sometimes Hollywood comes to Tempe. Other times, Tempe goes to Hollywood. Either way, ASU is creating a seamless connection for film students, regardless of where they plan to start their careers. And the options are only broadening with ASU @ Mesa City Center and ASU’s planned move to the historic Herald Examiner building in downtown Los Angeles. The Arizona Board of Regents approved the building lease in April 2019. Once renovations are complete in 2021, ASU will occupy 87% of the space.
Top photo: ASU Professor of Practice Adam Collis (left) and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Larry Sher chat with ASU via video conference about mentoring film students over the years.