The general idea many people have about what goes into the making of a movie is as follows: The screenwriter provides the script, the director does most of the work (and gets most of the credit), the actors act (in between bouts of stomping off to their trailers and demanding fancy beverages, of course) and the producer sits in an office in a skyscraper somewhere, signing checks (or, sometimes, refusing to sign checks).
Bruce Sheridan is out to change the notion that a film producer should be a business-savvy individual who just so happens to work with films. As the Chair of the Film and Video department at Columbia College Chicago, Sheridan recently created the school’s new MFA in Creative Producing program. Sheridan took the time to answer some questions about the degree program and explain why films need a creative producer.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): What led Columbia College Chicago to start the new MFA Creative Producing program? What does the program offer that makes it different from taking other classes on producing at other schools?
Bruce Sheridan (BS): When I came to Columbia College in 2001 I had already articulated a plan for how education should be conceptualized for the future. One of the key principles of that plan was that truly creative producers (as opposed to people with financial, business or legal expertise who apply that expertise to film production) would be central to the evolution of film and other visual media. So an MFA in Creative Producing was on my agenda from 2001. I started the formal process about five years ago (things take a while in academia) so that the degree would enroll its first students around 12 to 18 months after the Media Production Center (another key concept in the plan) was completed and working.
The differences of our MFA in Creative Producing to other programs are significant. It fully synthesizes the logistical and creative aspects of filmmaking—it’s not based on gluing a piece of an MBA to a piece of a traditional MFA. Students have 12 weeks of their formal learning in our semester in LA at the Raleigh Studios lot, and this overlaps with the American Film Market where, as part of their course work, they will participate in AFM. All students will produce high-level short films and develop a feature of their own ready for the market in order to graduate. (There are a number of graduate producing programs students can graduate from without actually producing any films.) Just being a full MFA rather than either a diploma or an MBA/MFA hybrid is a also a differentiation from some other (often high profile) programs.
MM: A lot of people think that a producer just controls the budget; what sets a “creative producer” apart? Are there certain types off productions (indies, large studio films, etc.) that would benefit more from having a creative producer?
BS: As Sundance director John Cooper said at a festival screening at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, the future health of independent film is in the hands of creative producers. With studios ossifying and marketing and distribution fragmenting, these are the people who will nurture and make good on the potential of the best projects. Every type of project would benefit from a true creative producer.
MM: A creative producer would have to be knowledgeable about a variety of aspects of moviemaking in order to offer insight in all of those areas—with so much ground to cover, how will the program go about making sure everyone’s “caught up?”
BS: The program is designed to have a mixed cohort of students, some straight from undergraduate film programs and some coming in with prior professional experience. One primary mechanism to establish an even starting point is a three-week “pre-semester” all the students must participate in late in the summer before their first fall semester. This is designed to discover levels of experience and competencies and also to help fill gaps for individuals.
MM: How will the knowledge received in the MFA program prepare students to get jobs in film? After graduation, what credits will they have to help them start their careers in producing?
BS: They will have produced very high-level short films. We just sold one of the advanced practicum films for worldwide distribution, and these films are generally more complex and sophisticated than the term “student film” implies. They play in festivals around the world. The students will also have a developed a feature film they own and have ready for production.
MM: What will Columbia College Chicago’s new Media Production Center add to the college’s Film and Video Department?
BS: It’s been in operation for six months and the best word to use is “metamorphosis.” The complexity and sophistication of teaching, learning and production have all increased exponentially as a result of having the building and its innovative design—it is much more than a classroom you can shoot in or a studio you can teach in.
For more information on Columbia College Chicago’s MFA in Creative Producing, visit http://www.colum.edu/Academics/Graduate_Study/Graduate_Programs/Creative_Producing/.