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April 10, 2019

AMPAS Celebrates 90 Years of USC Cinema

Featuring a Discussion with Oscar Nominees and USC Alums

By Desa Philadelphia

From left: Jennifer Todd, John Singleton, Stacy Sher, and Kevin Feige (Credit: Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S.)

On Monday April 8th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) hosted An Evening with Distinguished USC Alumni, featuring a panel of Oscar-nominated filmmakers: producer Kevin Feige, Marvel President (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War); producer Stacey Sher, Co-President of Activision Blizzard Studios (Erin Brockovich, Django Unchained); and writer/director John Singleton (Boyz N The Hood). Producer Jennifer Todd, a fellow USC alumnus who is also a member of the Academy’s Board of Governors, moderated their discussion.

It was a celebration of the School’s founding, ninety years ago, as a partnership between USC and the Academy. In 1929, the same year the Academy Awards debuted, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. – the organization’s founding President – organized a who’s who of Hollywood to teach a class called Introduction to Photoplay. Taught by such industry luminaries as director Ernst Lubistch, producer Irving Thalberg and actress Mary Pickford, among others. The class launched a cinema program that, after nine decades is now a distinct School with seven divisions and hundreds of classes. "I hope it is a bit like giving a birthday party for your child," said School of Cinematic Arts Dean Elizabeth Daley, as she thanked the AMPAS hosts.

The evening started with a clip reel, directed by SCA alumna Cassie Brooksbank, rattling off the biggest hits of films, televisions and game design projects made by School of Cinematic Alumni. John Bailey, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, then welcomed the audience. An alumnus of USC’s first graduate level cinema class in 1965, Bailey was part of an impressive cohort that would shape a generation of filmmaking—Walter Murch, John Milius, George Lucas, Randall Kleiser, Caleb Deschanel, Thom Anderson, Willard Huyck, Bob Dalva, Don Glut, Hal Barwood, and Matt Robbins. Back then, Bailey recalled, students were advised to never reveal to potential employers at the studios that they’d been educated at a “hoity-toity film school.”

Dean Daley followed Bailey and underscored the rise of the cinematic arts as an academic field of study, noting that even if they aren’t studying cinema, more than half of USC’s students take at least one course at the School.  “One of the founding documents says, and I paraphrase, ‘Now that film is a mature art form and critical to the economic well-being of the United States, it should be accorded the same respect in institutions of higher education as law and medicine,”  she said, adding: “It’s dated 1929. We are beginning I think, at least at USC, to reach that goal.  It’s only taken 90 years.”

The lively panel discussion centered around clips chosen by Feige, Sher and Singleton. Each filmmaker showed two clips –– one from a film they loved and from one of their own celebrated projects. The format was a hit with the audience, made up of USC Cinema students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters, including USC Interim President Dr. Wanda Austin, and university trustees Amy Ross, Suzanne Dworak-Peck, and Frank Price, who founded and has chaired the School of Cinematic Arts Board of Councilors for 28 years. “We’re going to be watching clips and talking about movies, something everybody in this room loves to do,” said moderator Todd.

Academy President John Bailey, Elizabeth Daley, Professor and Dean, USC School of Cinematic Arts, and
Interim President of USC, Dr. Wanda Austin prior to A Celebration of the USC School of Cinematic Arts'
90th Aniversary at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills on Monday, April 8, 2019.
(Credit Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S.)

Singleton chose clips from Akira Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai (1954) and from Boyz N The Hood (1991), his debut film that made him the first African-American and youngest person ever nominated for a directing Oscar. He told the audience that growing up he watched movies with his dad. While he was a big Bruce Lee fan, his dad would always say that Kurosawa’s leading man Toshiro Mifune would cut Bruce Lee into bits. While he was still in high school, he said, he would go to the Cinematic Arts Library in Doheny Library where he “caught up on [his] Kurosawa” and was especially struck by the emotional, physical acting the director encouraged from Mifune and others. Singleton said Mifune’s performance in Seven Samurai influenced the way he directed his actors in Boyz N The Hood, encouraging their swaggers: “I kept telling Ice Cube,” he said, “You’re my Mifune. You’re my Mifune. And he didn’t know what that meant, but…”

Sher screened scenes from Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975) and Erin Brockovich (2000), the Academy Award-winning film she produced about the law clerk who became an environmental activist. Ashby films, she said, are like “pulling back the curtain on adulthood.” Sher, who graduated from the Stark program, remembered the program’s founder Art Murphy requiring his trainee producers to wear suits and skirts to class, a practice that elicited teasing from jeans-clad production students. “He gave us book, and made us watch The Bad and the Beautiful, in which Kirk Douglas plays a ruthless Hollywood producer who garners the hate of everyone he works with –– but at the film’s end, the screenwriter, director, lead actor, they are all waiting by the phone call for him to call,” she said.

Feige showed Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982) and Iron Man (2008), the blockbuster he produced that launched the latest, globally-dominant iteration of the Marvel Universe. Feige chose the iconic scene from Khan in which Vulcan Spock chooses to go to the engine room of the Enterprise, sacrificing his life to save his shipmates, and marveled at the less-is-more special effects in the film, comparing it to the choices they made in Iron Man where budget constraints actually led to the creation of the one of the best scenes in the film.

Feige joked that although his budgets have gotten a little bigger of late, he and his team still try to ask if less is more, something he’s been doing since he was a student; especially considering the pace in which Marvel makes and releases their blockbuster projects.  “My entire career at Marvel has been 290s [the School’s introductory production class],” he said. “I’m still making 290s. Instead of due dates to show my films in class, I have release dates to show my films to the world. I’m just working with a slightly bigger budget.”

The panelists, including Todd, reminisced about classes, faculty and upgrades to the USC facilities. They talked about trips back to campus to talk to students, and the community atmosphere that has endured.

Feige recounted seeing “Reality Ends Here” etched into the concrete of the first George Lucas Building and thinking “I don’t know how this could get any better.” Laughingly referring to the School’s state-of-the-art Cinematic Arts Complex, he added, “and then I saw how it could get better!” Sher said: “I ask [students] ‘Have you ever been on a studio lot?” It’s a lot worse than this!” Singleton, who has taught at the School, says he frequently calls to ask what films are screening in classes then goes to campus to watch with students and hold discussions afterwards.

The evening ended with a group photo of all the alumni in attendance, and a lot of conversation about how much had occurred over the last ninety years. As Dean Daley put it: “The School today would surely astound Douglas Fairbanks and the original faculty of Academy members who had the foresight to create it.”