Want to make great movies? You might think UCLA film school is the only way, but think again! This time, consider what it takes to make great Christian movies. I had the opportunity to speak with Scotty Curlee about their film program at Liberty University. You might be surprised where else a great film-school education can be found.
Tell us how Liberty University Cinematic Arts Department got started.
Liberty University’s film program has been in existence for about three years now, and it is the brain child of Stephan Schultze, our executive Director. We were poised to start a film school because there’s such a great demand for Christian storytellers. People have been wanting to get into the movie industry. They want to study the craft of filmmaking, but there really wasn’t a cohesive sort of film program that integrated the real world filmmaking scenarios along with the academic model.
How do you integrate it?
We work in a cohort system. We acclimate the students to real world filmmaking. In their career, they’re going to learn various kinds of things. So we actually teach them everything: from development, to pre-production, to production, to post-production, and then to distribution. In their journey at the cinema school here, they’re going to write, produce and direct their own short film. They’re going to write a feature screenplay. They’re going to put together a marketing and distribution plan for that screenplay, along with a business plan that explains what the return on investment is for the investor.
You mentioned real world filmmaking scenarios…
They’re also going to work on a feature film that will have meaningful distribution, which means worldwide distribution on television or theatrical to DVD. They are with recognizable names within the Christian market like Erin Bethea from Fireproof, Robert Amaya from Courageous, and Rachel Hendrix from October Baby, who were in one of our feature length films produced and filmed here at Liberty University called 77 Chances. So, it’s notable talent that we brought on board, and every year we try to raise the bar.
What is the benefit of learning every aspect of the business?
In order to be really good at one thing, filmmakers have to understand how things look from a thirty-thousand-foot view. When they understand the big picture, then they can narrow things down to a certain position or role. And they understand how that role fits into the big picture.
How do they discover their own talents?
Part of the curriculum is that they do their own [short] film, but in the feature film, they actually have two departments they can request. In the first half of the movie, they’ll be in one department, and in the second half, we switch them up so they have a diverse opportunity to learn from various department heads. Sometimes they have a perception of what a job is, and then they get into it and say, “Wow, it’s totally different than what I thought it was.” So we have students that really seem to shine in this particular area. And then we have other students that try something and say, “Wow! I really like camera more than sound, or sound more than camera.”
Is there one particular department that has emerged as a specialty field?
We’re working on the Masters in Screenwriting online and the Masters in Producing. The story is so important. One of the things we see most often in the Christian film space is that filmmakers want to rush to get the movie done without really nailing down the story. So we focus on telling a great story. We use Syd Field’s book, Screenplay, and Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, and we really drill down the Save the Cat model. The character has to be likeable. You have to hook the audience in the first ten pages. Your opening scene contrasting with the closing scene. We preach that sort of religiously because all great successful films—I mean, marketing is very important, we understand that—but if you’re going to have a lot of word of mouth and a positive run with the movie, it’s got to be a great story.
And the Masters in Producing?
The producing aspect is because we need great producers that can package movies, that understand marketing and distribution, who can reverse engineer content for a specific market. How many times do you hear that story where a filmmaker makes a passion project and it has no audience? They show it to their friends and then put it on the shelf. We really want them to understand, “Guys, don’t just miraculously hope that your film’s going to pick up distribution. Build in certain quadrants and target audiences or affinity groups… Give the people who are marketing the movie some hooks that they can market it with.” So that’s all part of the producing. Also, the necessities of producing like staying under a budget, understanding what a budget is, and using film incentive money from various areas.
With so many directors being forced to write their own scripts, are you hoping to see more collaboration?
I think it’s important for people to understand that they can’t do it all. You really do need a team of people to make a movie. You’ve got to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. I tell people, if a kid said to me “I want to be the next Michael Jordan” and he’s 4’2”, I’d probably say, “Look, I love ya kid, but it’s probably not likely you’re going to make it into the NBA.” I’ve got to be honest with people and say, “Your strength is in directing,” or “Your strength is in cinematography,” or “You have a great ear, so you would be great in sound.” So part of our program is identifying where those strengths in those developmental areas are, and then along with prayer, insight from their parents, and really searching internally, to lead them down the right path.
What are you hoping for your graduates, to go to Hollywood or pursue Christian films?
We want them to be great storytellers. Some of these people want to pursue mainstream, some right down the line overtly Christian films in the vein of Fireproof, Courageous and War Room. Other people want to tell redemptive stories. For example, in Man on Fire, there are very strong overtones in that movie and a very strong Christian worldview in Creasy’s character. Now, that’s not a movie that was created for the Christian audience specifically, but when you see a Tony Scott movie starring Denzel Washington, playing a strong character like that with redeeming themes, and they’re quoting scripture, we need those movies too. We don’t believe that there is one type of story to reach everybody. I hope some of these students make superhero movies with strong redemptive qualities! I hope some of them make Christian movies that are right down the barrel for the choir. I hope some of them make, I wouldn’t say risky, but bold movies that have strong characters that live in the real world. And the real world is a dangerous, challenging place.
What is the typical profile of your professors?
The beauty is that there is no typical profile. We all come from very vast, different backgrounds. Stephan Schultze, our Executive Director, was a writer and a working DT in Hollywood. He’s worked with Jim Cameron and some big players like Brian Cranston on a movie. One of our screenwriting professors who has an MFA, was a stunt man and an actor in Hollywood, and a screenwriter - Doug Miller is from Regent University. He’s also a working professional that has done probably…I don’t know how many hundreds of commercials. James Walls, he used to work for the Dave Matthews Band, and he transitioned to film. We also have the only THX certified sound mixing/dubbing station on the east coast of the United States [for the sound department]. I come from a business background and I’ve been producing movies for eight or nine years now. So, we don’t just bring academia, we bring real world, “Hey, here’s what it’s like to survive and thrive right now in the movie world.” That’s the beauty of it, to be able to speak out of experience.
What’s your role at the Film school?
I have fourteen or fifteen students that I take all the way from development into marketing and distribution. But I also specialize in marketing and distribution specifically, and then branding and entrepreneurship. Part of my job is to help them to understand that they are a brand. In one of the classes, they build their own website to brand themselves as a filmmaker. They start a Facebook page. They have a twitter account that goes with the FB page. They have a business card that has all that information on it. I help them transition their thought patterns from “I’m a student” to “I’m a working professional.”
To give you an example, when Kirk Cameron came here the first time, the students didn’t have a business card. The second visit, they were prepared. They had a business card, a website, a demo reel on that website, and a fan page. So when Kirk came through, they’d hand him a business card and say, “Hey, if you ever need something or somebody to do some editing for you, or someone to work on a vignette, or on some behind the scenes stuff, contact me.”
Tell us about some of the films the program has already created?
The first movie we did was a movie called 77 Chances, and the second movie we did was called Alter Egos, and it’s a church comedy. This movie that we’re doing [now] is called God’s Compass, finding God’s direction for your life. Right now, we’re really focusing on doing things from within, developing either true life IPs (Intellectual Properties) with established work or something that we’re really passionate about.
So what is next for your feature films?
The next movie we plan to do, and of course things always change, will be called Extraordinary about a 33-year veteran professor here at Liberty who has run enough miles in his career to run around the earth 4.5 times. He’s also run across the continental U.S. and he’s a legend. But most importantly, and what’s most impressive about him, is that he has affected the lives of students who have come here to Liberty for their education for 33 years. He’s been a mentor, a rock for them. He’s been their encourager. The stuff he’s been through has been really extraordinary, so it’s a movie called Extraordinary that we’ll hopefully be doing spring 2016.
Another project we’re exciting about doing is the two-time Olympic gold medalist for softball. Her name is Dot Richardson. She’s a Christian lady, and it’s a Title 9 situation with women in sports. What’s amazing is that she’s now the head softball coach here at Liberty. So Lord-willing we’ll be telling her story. I say Lord willing because you never know day-to-day what’s going to change.
Since your first class graduated last summer (2014), where are those students now?
Those students are now out there working in the professional workforce. Many of our students have interned on bigger films like Mom’s Night Out, Woodlawn and the Kendrick’s next movie, War Room. We’ve got one student working for Shane Hurlbut, one of the top cinematographers in Hollywood, who did Act of Valor, Terminator: Salvage, and a bunch of other movies. Then we have other students transplanted all over the country. We’ve got some headed down to Atlanta, some to Nashville, and we have some that are working in the industry here because we are constantly creating content here.
Any closing thoughts?
One thing I’d like to emphasize is that we’re really trying to do what God’s called us to do, which is preparing the next generation of great storytellers. This medium that we have of storytelling, whether it’s film or TV, it is such a powerful medium. I don’t think there has been enough great talent, especially in the Christian world, so that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to bridge that gap. Christian movies are where Christian music was fifteen or twenty years ago. We’re way behind the curvel, but we’re trying to bridge that gap right now.
Thanks to Scotty Curlee from Liberty University for taking the time to share with us about the way Liberty University is advancing the cause of Christian film!!