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Summer 1998
Modern Times
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Used to be the moguls who made the movies were street-smart schemers and dreamers. Today Hollywood is powered by a generation trained in university cinema studies programs. UCLA’s film school is one of the first and best.

by Jon Lewis Ph.D. ’83
Illustration by Richard McGuire

The first university film course in the United States was conducted in 1915, the year D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was released nationwide. The class was offered through university extension at Columbia in New York and focused on the “photoplay” as a literary genre. It was taught by university faculty and local theater and film professionals and designed as a hybrid, at once an academic course (like literary studies) and a trade school skills class (like auto repair). At the time, Columbia administrators and faculty were hedging their bet on cinema studies; the course was not associated with any degree program nor part of the regular curriculum.

There were, to be sure, plenty of people -- enrolled students and adults taking classes via university extension alike -- interested in classes on the new art form-mechanical wonder-popular obsession. But key questions needed answering: Was cinema an appropriate subject for the academy? Were the movies worthy of scholarly debate? Columbia's experiment with cinema studies didn't catch on anywhere else; the answer, at that time, was no.

As the film industry moved west, popular magazines carried ads for correspondence schools offering classes on how to write a screenplay, how to direct a film. But these were the offerings of schools of dubious distinction teaching the tricks of a new trade. Roughly coinciding with the arrival of sound on film and the first ever Academy Awards came a second significant academic experiment with cinema studies. Organized and administered at Harvard by Joseph Kennedy in 1927, the mis-titled “Introduction to the Photoplay” class was in reality a business course offered in the graduate business program and taught by an impressive group of Hollywood industry players: Adolph Zukor, Cecil B. DeMille, Marcus Loew, William Fox, Jack Warner, Sam Katz, Robert Cochrane and Louis B. Mayer. By all accounts, the class was a hit but it proved too expensive and too difficult to repeat. Cross-country travel was time-consuming in the 1920s and the studio executives were far too busy to make the Harvard course an annual event.

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