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March 3, 2020

Stark 40th

Stark Production Program Celebrates its 40th Anniversary

By Michael Lane

In the fall of 1979, the Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program opened its doors to its first class of students. A lot has changed since then—in the industry, at SCA, and within Stark. But as the old adage goes, the more things change the more they stay the same. Four decades later the fundamentals of a Stark education are still intact and are a large part of why it remains the premier program in creative producing for media, new and traditional forms. It’s also the reason why its alumni speak so passionately about their time in the program and the people with whom they spent that time. On October 20th, 2019, SCA welcomed those alumni back to campus to reminisce and celebrate this milestone together.

It all started with a generous gift from famed producer Ray Stark and his wife, Frances—enough to endow the program and get it on its feet. They asked that the program be named in honor of their recently deceased son, Peter. Its first Chair was film critic and Professor Art Murphy. The program was organized as a way of combining the educations of art and commerce. Students would take some classes within the film school, which was then a department within the School of Performing Arts, and other classes at USC’s business school. From the time the program started, students were required to have internships or jobs in the industry, so most classes were held at night. Academy Award-winning producer Ed Saxon (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia,) class of 1984, remembers the business school classes were not as film specific as he had hoped. “I was still in the part of the program where half would be business courses. There were some real business-y courses. There were a couple of classes where I had trouble connecting the dots.”

Ray Stark with early “Starkies” as the program’s students are known. During the first few years of the program students were required to wear business attire at classes.

Eventually, the program would bring all of its classes in house and the Chair would be responsible for securing faculty from both the creative disciplines of the industry and its business corners. Under consummate producer Larry Turman (The Graduate, American History X), Stark began to focus on creativity and the business courses were seen as tools to achieving those creative goals. “I don’t know if I can teach creativity, but I try to have the students get in touch with themselves, get in touch with their creativity, and unleash it so that each one will receive the most personal satisfaction and hopefully create work meaningful not only to themselves but to the larger community,” says Turman.

Stark continues to be about the delicate dance between art and commerce that dictates decision-making in Hollywood. As such, students don’t just learn how to be creative or how to make good business decisions, but how to, as Turman puts it, “think like a producer.” The program actually changes the way students think about a creative project, any creative project. They learn to assess its creative merits while simultaneously vetting its business viability and thus strategizing how it should be made, when, where, and for whom. Screenwriter/ playwright/tech entrepreneur John August (Big Fish, Go, Highland) class of ’94, notes, “It wasn’t strictly a creative degree, it wasn’t just about ‘let’s make art,’ it was also, ‘let’s run a business.’ So, if you are developing apps, then you are figuring out: Who is the market? Who are the competitors? Who are the gatekeepers that we need to impress in order to get people to take us seriously? Those are the same things you ask for movies. Same thing happens in theater. Stuff I learned in Stark translated beyond just film and television.” Oscar nominated producer Stacey Sher (Pulp Fiction, Erin Brockovich) class of ’85, echoes the sentiment: “Grads always bring the eye of looking at the zeitgeist and marketplace, the times we live in, along with the history/critical background and the sensibility that you get from Stark.”

The program has seen a number of changes over the years, including dropping “Motion Picture” from its name. It is now known as The Peter Stark Producing Program as acknowledgement of the fact that television and new media like games and interactive experiences have been incorporated into the program in significant ways. Famously, the first Stark students had to wear suits and dresses to class. Some might still turn up in a suit, especially if they are coming from a job or internship, but jeans and sweats are prevalent, especially during the weeks when final projects are due.

While Stark always selects the best candidates from its applicant pool, perhaps the biggest change has been the demographics of the students. In the early days, cohorts were often predominantly straight, white, and male. As its reputation has continued to grow the pool has broadened, and the program now attracts a more diverse student body, including many candidates from outside the United States. The class of 2000, for example, graduated just four women out of 24 students. In recent years, classes have been 50%- 70% women, and often majority minority. The most recently admitted class has as many black women as it has white men, and women of color outrank men almost 2:1. The results are immediately apparent in the creative work students are producing, which represents a much broader swath of human experience than in those early days. At a time when Hollywood is still wrestling with representation, it will be exciting to see the impact these Stark grads will undoubtedly have.

Because of their industry savvy, Stark grads are formidable forces from the moment they graduate. Saxon recalls lessons from the first Chair of the program, the late Art Murphy, who would tell him and his classmates: “You will know more about the movie business than ninety-five percent of the people who work in it.’ That was his promise.” That continued to be true beyond Murphy’s tenure, says David Kramer, President of United Talent Agency (UTA), class of ’92. “When I came to UTA I knew lots of information that other people didn’t. They were super smart, but they didn’t have those couple of years that I had. They didn’t have the terms of art if you will. They hadn’t read contracts, they didn’t know about WGA, DGA, SAG, so they had a lot of work to do. They had to learn it on the job as things came up. I didn’t.”

Legendary producer Larry Turman has been Chair of the Stark Producing Program since 1991.

Producer Hieu Ho, class of 2007, who recently launched new company Imminent Collision with actor Randall Park and writer Michael Golamco, had worked in the industry prior to attending Stark. He remembers that part of his motivation for enrolling was the ability to get that in-depth knowledge: “One of the advantages of the program is it provides such a holistic and practical understanding of the business across all different sectors, from financial modeling to business affairs to actually screenwriting. That was not something that I had from being an assistant.”

While the program relies heavily on the lessons of Hollywood history, it is always looking forward. The industry has seen significantly more upheaval in the past forty years than it did in its previous hundred and Stark students have had a front row seat for it all.

Stark’s curriculum evolves alongside the industry, often anticipating where the industry is headed. Five years before Apple launched the iTunes store for music and eight years before YouTube went live, Stark students in the late ’90s were learning about “digital lockers” where film and tv content would be stored electronically and sold directly to consumers on a per-title, subscription, or ad-supported basis. The key is the faculty, “all working professionals, all top of their game,” as Turman likes to point out. High-level executives are brought in, sometimes even making their own offices the classroom in order to give students insight into the most current industry practices.” This offers an edge in a business that, in the current climate, is always trying to be the first to the next development, be it creative, technological, or fiscal. “Having that real-world experience, with all the teachers who are also working, it was just invaluable because you’re having real-time conversations about things that are happening now, not just theoretical,” says Monique Keller, class of 2015, currently an executive at Amazon Studios.

But the foundation at Stark remains a creative education; its graduates earn an MFA. The core experience for the students is learning how to be impactful storytellers. “The Stark Program seemed to mesh up with what I wanted to do both creatively, in terms of being a creative producer, director, writer, and my entrepreneurial instincts,” says writer/director Walt Becker (Clifford the Big Red Dog, Wild Hogs), class of ’94. “Some of the best story classes at the time were taught by the Stark Program, in terms of just learning to tell stories, learning what a screenplay is.” Ho, who helped launch the film division at Buzzfeed at a time when big data was starting to affect content decisions, says storytelling is important, regardless of what’s happening with technology. “The entertainment industry is shifting—and it’s a fairly big shift these days—but there’s always going to be a need to support great storytelling across any platform. Not just film and television.”

The anniversary event, held in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Courtyard at SCA, was a reunion of Starkies from every decade who are now working across the globe in multiple countries, genres and platforms. It was also an occasion to celebrate the long and ongoing tenure of Larry Turman, who became Chair in 1991. Led by class of ’94 alumni John August, Walt Becker, and Sam Dickerman, the alumni have generously pooled resources to form a fund in Larry’s name. From Turman’s early days through the program’s most recent grads, alumni have strong and fond feelings for their mentor. Kramer, midway through the program when Turman became Chair, remembers: “I don’t think he even started until a few weeks before the program started that year. He had to get his sea legs. He had to figure it all out. What I loved about Larry, his energy was so positive, so optimistic, he was completely committed to the program and you could really feel that.” Flashforward twenty-two years and producer Steven Love (The Land, Wednesdays), class of 2014, remembers Larry in similar terms: “Larry was always trying to make it better. I mean, even now. Last time I talked to him; he was trying to figure out how to do it better. Even though he’s been doing it for so long.”

LEFT TO RIGHT: Kathy Fogg, former Associate Director of the Peter Stark Producing Program; legendary producer Ray Stark, who, with his wife Frances, endowed the program and named it in memory of their late son; and Art Murphy, the former film critic who created the program and served as it’s first Chair.

In today’s world, it’s a remarkable thing for a person to dedicate a quarter century to a single project, a project that has never been broken but, in his eyes, can always be improved. Turman’s devotion is felt by the students from their first contact with him, and appreciated by alumni who are deep into their careers. Perhaps Turman himself says it best. His regular refrain to his dedicated faculty and staff is: “We’re here for the students, nothing else.”