August 5, 2015

Seats Available: Leonard Maltin’s Film Symposium

Zach Braff, James Franco, Professor Leonard Maltin and Dean Elizabeth Daley

It’s rare that a college class becomes iconic. Even at the School of Cinematic Arts, the list is probably less than five classes long. Any list of iconic classes from the USC School of Cinematic Arts would be incomplete without Professor Leonard Maltin’s CTCS 466: Film Symposium. Leonard Maltin recently sat down with to discuss his course, what students can expect when they enroll, and how sometimes Film Symposium becomes bigger than even the medium of film.

There are still seats available in 466. To find out more about the course or enroll, please visit:

What is 466: Film Symposium.  Leonard Maltin: I think the best way to describe it is a film appreciation seminar intended not solely for film students or aspiring filmmakers but for a general audience. My goal is to make my students a smarter exposing them to films they might not otherwise see, and introducing them to filmmakers of all kinds. Not just directors, writers, and producers, but costume designers, production designers, composers, and a variety of others who collaborate in this medium.

At the beginning of every semester I warn the class that I haven’t always seen the films we’re screening ahead of time. Not every one may be a winner—and every now and then we get a clinker. But, believe it or not, you can often learn as much from someone who has made a bad movie as you can from someone who has made a good one. Fortunately, we have a pretty good batting average when it comes to showing good movies.

The other overarching lesson has to do with the moviegoing experience. I take a show of hands as to how many people liked last week's movie, disliked last week's movie, or had mixed feelings about it. This leads to interesting discussions because we all saw the same movie at the same time in the same setting.

Why, then, is there such disagreement? It's because there is no right or wrong when it comes to evaluating a movie. There is only your individual experience: what you've experienced or haven’t experienced in life…where you come from…how you were raised…what movies you've seen and haven't seen. All of these things have a direct bearing on how you respond to a given film. This inspires some pretty lively class discussions.

What kind of guests and films can students expect for this upcoming year? We show everything from major studio blockbusters in 3D to micro-indie movies, documentaries, and foreign language films. That's deliberate. We want to show a wide variety of films. I don't want to simply screen films that the students would be going to see that weekend on their own. I want to expose them to different kinds of films. On opening night I say, "If you’re here just to see the new blockbusters, you're in the wrong class." That goes for guests, as well. We've very lucky to have famous filmmakers, actors, and even movie stars, but we want as broad a spectrum of filmmakers as possible.

How many years have you been teaching film symposium? Since 1998. The class, of course, is much older than that. It has a storied history with guests ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to John Cassavetes. Of course, when graduates and alumni of the School come, they are especially proud to be on stage in the same class where they once sat as students. Our visiting alumni have ranged from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and other genuine luminaries to young, up-and-coming filmmakers who have just made their first feature. That has real meaning to them, and I hope is inspiring to the students who hope to follow in their footsteps.

I always ask successful graduates what they took away from the USC Cinema experience that still informs their present day work, and the answer is usually the same: "the people." The people they connected with, many of whom they still work with on a regular basis.

What's one of your favorite memories from your time teaching this course?  We’ve had so many great guests, from Spike Jonze to Sidney Poitier. But early on, I screened an Oscar-winning documentary called The Last Days, during the first year I was teaching. It won an Academy Award. It was presented by Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation.

It's a very moving film and the director, James Moll, a USC grad, was a great guest. He brought with him a remarkable woman named Renee Firestone, who is an interviewee in the film. She was a child at the time of the Holocaust. Like so many survivors, she feels it is her mission in life, her mandate, to meet young people and share her experiences. It was a very moving class. What really sticks with me was a huge cluster of students who came to the front of the auditorium after the screening. They not only wanted to meet her, one-on-one…they wanted to touch her. 

This goes beyond the normal purview of a film class. It was on another plateau, another level. I will never forget it.

Where can people find out more about the class? It’s online. They can find it at