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Chapman University Launches a Production Arm, But Can Schools Produce Profitable Movies?

Chapman University Launches a Production Arm, But Can Schools Produce Profitable Movies?

Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, a private Orange County film school, is moving into film production with Chapman Filmed Entertainment. Launched a little over a year ago, the company will begin filming the thriller “Trigger” this summer with the goal of leveraging the school’s alumni and equipment to produce a slate of microbudget films that will put Chapman on the industry’s radar — and make a little money.

It’s a plan that looks good on paper, and Chapman’s ample facilities are state-of-the-art. But that was also the case with the University of Texas’ Burnt Orange Prods.

Owned by the University of Texas Communication Foundation, Burnt Orange was a for-profit production company launched about 10 years ago in collaboration with the University of Texas Film Institute. It produced four films, including “The Cassidy Kids,” “Homo Erectus” (aka ‘National Lampoon’s Stoned Age’) and “Elvis and Anabelle.” The most significant release was Burnt Orange’s first project, the Jamie Babbit-directed drama “The Quiet,” which Sony Pictures Classics released in 2005. (Domestic gross: $381,000.) The company folded in 2008.

Bob Bassett, CEO of Chapman Film Entertainment and Dodge’s dean, knows the story well; he sought out Burnt Orange principals Carolyn Pfeiffer and Tom Schatz when he began toying with a similar idea for Chapman. After a Texas visit during production of their final film, Bassett decided he needed to distinguish his production model.

“Their model is not one I was interested in,” Bassett said. “They’re in Texas. We’re close enough to Hollywood that our kids get internships all over town. Their kids needed real productions to work on beyond student films. Our model is that it is not for students to do internships on, even though some students may work on the films. It’s for alumni. And we have all these talented alumni shooting commercials and music videos, and we will have very accomplished alums head all the departments.”

While directing, editing and production designer roles would go to talented alumni, Bassett wants to staff the key line producer, first assistant director and casting director positions with professionals in an effort to avoid the pitfalls of amateurism. “The danger always for film that’s being done outside of the system is that the film doesn’t get finished and the second danger is it goes over budget,” he said. “So by having people more used to scheduling, knowing what things cost and managing the production, that will help us.”

Chapman plans to annually produce four to six films in the $250,000-$625,000 range (though it should be noted that the plan has already been scaled down from its initial intent to make from five to 10 films per year). “Trigger,” about a father and son wrestling with obsession and evil, was written by Max Enscoe (“Johnny Kapahala: Back On Board”). Basel Owies, who graduated from Dodge College’s Conservatory of Motion Pictures in 2010, will direct.

Chapman Filmed Entertainment exec Travis Knox (“The Bucket List”) is producing. Bob Yari (“Crash”) and William Immerman will serve as executive producers along with former Chapman faculty member Adam Rosenfelt and his business partner Brian Pitt.

Bassett said he’s discussed distribution possibilities with Screen Gems and Lionsgate, though they’re waiting to see “Trigger” in its final form before committing to anything. “The consideration would be not so much just this film, but maybe we could create a template together,” said Bassett. “But that’s just a discussion, there’s no commitment there at all.”

Like most indie films, it’s likely that the release would top out in VOD or DVD. Bassett knows that’s dependent to some degree on casting, and he said he’s prepared to pitch some of his students’ famous parents on appearing in Chapman films.

It’s entirely possible that Dodge College graduates will gain valuable experience and exposure making films for Chapman Filmed Entertainment. That kind of hands-on practice is essential for building expertise, and having cheap access to good equipment circumvents a major roadblock to forging an independent career.

But the truth is that Chapman may as well create its own digital distribution arm. Finding a home for the work that puts it in front of a sizable audience remains a major challenge.

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