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Moving beyond the camera
Already a creative force, FSU film school students now can learn about distributing films.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 13, 2007
Assistant cameraman John Sackman, left, and director of photography Scott Garrison, prepare to film a scene of "The Cape" on the Florida State University campus, with the main character played by Elizabeth Torres, right. The FSU Film School is starting its own for-profit film distribution and production company, a first for Florida and one of the few in the country.
[Daniel Wallace | Times]
TALLAHASSEE -- The calls were coming from Hollywood, and often. ¶ Agents and producers would reach out to Florida State University film school dean Frank Patterson, seeking young talent for their projects. ¶ He directed them to his most talented students, then watched as they graduated from the award-winning film school and took jobs in New York and Los Angeles. ¶ "I had mixed feelings about that because we were sort of quietly exporting our talent outside the state," Patterson said. "There was nowhere for them to go here in the state." ¶ Patterson hopes to reverse that exodus with the fall launch of Torchlight, a for-profit distribution company that will put FSU's aspiring filmmakers to work distributing independent movies and developing feature-length projects.
It is the first initiative of its kind among state universities, and a rarity among U.S. film schools.
Torchlight aims to give students hands-on experience with one of the most difficult stages of filmmaking -- actually getting the movie into theaters -- while boosting the caliber of Florida's $3.9-billion-a-year entertainment industry, which recently got $25-million in state incentives from lawmakers.
"The real business of our business is at the end, at the distribution," said Patterson. "And while we do a great job teaching students preproduction, production and postproduction, we don't do a good job teaching them the end stages of marketing and distribution.
"So I needed to create a company that would allow them to get that experience."
Torchlight is set to debut this fall with more than $5-million in private investment from the film industry. Though affiliated with FSU, it will be a separate, for-profit corporation.
Torchlight's distribution arm will hunt for worthy movies at film festivals like Sundance and Tribeca, and the production arm will turn out original feature-length movies.
"Rather than go to New York City or L.A., students can actually have a place in this state where they can continue their education and get real work," said film school faculty member Paul Cohen, a veteran indie film distributor.
Cohen, a native New Yorker with more than three decades in film, talks fast and favors sleek black ensembles. He drops names like Weinstein and "Harvey" as in Keitel without skipping a beat. His credits include the Academy Award-winning Mephisto and Bad Lieutenant with Keitel.
Cohen first taught at FSU in the mid 1990s, when Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him to promote independent motion picture production in the state.
This year, Patterson persuaded Cohen and his wife to move from fast-paced New York City to sleepy Tallahassee. Patterson gave Cohen two major challenges: teach courses on the business side of filmmaking, and use his connections to start Torchlight.
Cohen has spent the summer drumming up interest -- and private money -- for Torchlight. Last month, he was at the Sundance Producers Conference. Next month, he'll be at the Toronto Film Festival.
Patterson said he and Cohen have secured commitments for the $5-million to start Torchlight, but they're working to raise an additional $10-million.
The only other film school model close to Torchlight is the University of Texas Film Institute's for-profit Burnt Orange Productions, Cohen said. The 4-year-old production company last year released its first production, Sony Pictures Classics' The Quiet starring Edie Falco of The Sopranos.
Patterson, a former UT film school professor and adviser for Burnt Orange, said Torchlight will differ from Burnt Orange because its primary mission will be distributing already-made films.
By next month, Cohen plans to announce Torchlight's first release and have the first group of students at work.
In pitching Torchlight to private investors, Cohen points filmmakers to FSU's proven track record and reputation.
It is the only film school in the United States that covers the production costs for all students' film projects.
The faculty includes independent filmmaker Victor Nunez of Ulee's Gold fame and Academy Award-winning sound mixer Richard Portman, whose resume includes The Godfather.
The school's alumni include Ali Bell, a development and production executive for Heyday Films, which produced the Harry Potter series; and Jonathan King, executive vice president of production at Focus Features, the Universal Pictures arm that produced Brokeback Mountain and Dreamgirls.
Film school students regularly win top honors at national and international festivals, including Cannes and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Patrick Alexander, 29, took home the student version of an Oscar this year for Rundown, a dark thriller about an ambitious television journalist who covers the story of a pedestrian she ran down only hours earlier.
It was the fourth time in three years that a student Academy Award went to an FSU film school student.
"I could put together a feature film right now with every student and alumni, and put them in every key position and make a great film," said associate film school dean Reb Braddock. "I know that."