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October 5, 2014

Lunch with Larry

Catching up with the chair of the Peter Stark Program

By Ryan Gilmour

Tucked away on the third floor of the George Lucas Building, a small, four-office suite has been launching the careers of some of SCA’s most successful and well-known graduates. From Robert Greenblatt ’87, President of NBC, to Twilight writer Melissa Rosenberg ’90, to Producer Ed Saxon ’84, who won an Oscar for Silence of the Lambs to Paul Gerard ’99, Creative Director of DisneyToon Studios—Stark success stories are as diverse as the entertainment industry itself.

To understand how the Stark Program is evolving, In Motion sat down with Larry Turman, Chair of the Peter Stark Producing Program, whose fifty-year career includes films such as The Graduate, American History X and Short Circuit. Turman also wrote one of the benchmark books on the art of creative producing “So You Want to be a Producer.” Our conversation ranged from the philosophy and practices of the Stark program, to the future of the entertainment industry and the success of the musical The Book of Mormon (which he loves), with Turman articulating his views with his characteristic intensity and charm. It was easy to see why he is such a legendary producer.

Right away, Turman wanted to make it clear that the Stark program is not an entertainment industry MBA. He said the program got a reputation for being business-focused because of its founder Art Murphy, who was a mathematician by training and, as the lead film critic for Variety, pioneered the practice of reporting on grosses. Murphy recruited producer Ray Stark, who endowed the division in honor of his son Peter. Turman said Murphy approached the Stark curriculum as training for the entertainment business. “He was one of those visionaries who brought a brand new perspective to the business,” he said. “He was one of the first people to articulate the business with statistics— a great business mind.”

When Turman joined Stark in 1991, he changed the program to approach producing as a creative position, broadening its spectrum to include courses that focused on the creative challenges of making movies. “The main difference from my tenure has been philosophical,” said Turman. “My primary philosophy is to train creative and entrepreneurial producers.”

Essentially, Turman believes that today’s producers have to be knowledgeable about the whole process, because they are frequently the people who are moving everyone forward. “Producing, I believe is a noble profession,” he stressed. “Most of the movies that get made only get made because a producer kept pushing and pushing and pushing and never gave up. Stark business courses are very focused on how the theories are actually being employed in the business, and are taught by people who are currently working on those deals. Turman explained it this way: “I preach art but I teach commerce. There are hundreds of film schools in America. All of them will teach you how to make a movie. I teach how to get a movie made.”

Turman’s philosophy is in line with the evolution in the industry as increasingly producers are seen both as the creative forces behind projects, as well as among the main benefactors of their success, so they have input both creatively and commercially. Ironically, many of Art Murphy’s former students helped re-shape the industry in this new mold. Consider that people like John Wells ’82 (ER, Shameless), Stacey Sher ’85 (Erin Brokovich, Django Unchained), Ed Saxon ’84 (The Silence of the Lambs) and Neal Moritz ’85 (Fast and Furious franchise), are all seen as creative collaborators.

Turman also included television, and eventually interactive media to a curriculum that was previously all about film. He said television offered “more job opportunities and more opportunity to do serious content.” And the program’s students are increasingly as likely to be working on web animation projects or a multi-player video game. They also increasingly become multi-genre practitioners, like writer John August ’94 who wrote both the film and Broadway musical scripts of Big Fish, and was nominated for a Grammy for writing the lyrics of “Wonka’s Welcome Song” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—one of several of director Tim Burton’s films that he has scripted.

The Peter Stark Producing Program is a two-year graduate program that admits twenty-five students a year. Students take courses in writing, marketing, budgeting and all other aspects of the entertainment industry. In the second year, all Stark classes are in the evening so that students can either work jobs in the industry or, if they are more interested in independent producing, can focus on their creative work.

And what does Larry look for in a Stark student? “It’s ineffable. You know when you see it. There’s no way that someone can prepare other than his or her life. What I look for is entrepreneurial spirit, someone who is smart. Some people have one or the other. I have turned down straight A students from Harvard and taken a B student from Southwest Texas State who, on his application said in his junior year he started a car wash business on fraternity row and had five kids working for him.”

As lunch wound down, I asked Larry for some parting wisdom for the next generation of entertainment industry luminaries, “I’ve learned how much I don’t know,” was his reply. “I’m still looking for wisdom myself. Wise decisions come from making several poor decisions.” But then he offered this: “Here’s my wisdom: Follow your bliss. As they’ve said for years in the entertainment business, if someone can talk you out of it, you don’t belong in it.”

Food for thought.

Larry Turman