LAWNDALE — DePaul University is more than holding its own against more renowned film schools in New York City and Los Angeles thanks to its burgeoning partnership with Cinespace Chicago, the booming set of film studios on the West Side.
DePaul is in the fourth year of what's become a 10-year lease to rent a studio at Cinespace, recently adding a second sound stage that can be partitioned to create a third.
John Corba, director of DePaul's Cinespace Studios, calls the complex "the lab," and says its emphasis on hands-on instruction in cinematography, lighting and other technical aspects of the industry has enabled the school to act as a "pipeline" to fill positions on the many commercial productions being filmed there, including Fox's "Empire" and Dick Wolf's cottage industry of Chicago-based series for NBC that began with "Chicago Fire."
The studio has 30 stages, including DePaul's two, and all of them are fully booked.
"If I had the space, I could add probably another four TV shows right now," said Alexander Pissios, founder and chief executive officer of Cinespace.
"What's great is that there's so much opportunity," Corba said. "It helps when there's so much work.
"All these stages are peppered with DePaul alumni," he added. "That's very gratifying."
A DePaul-To-TV Pipeline
The Cinespace partnership has led to dramatic growth in the School of Cinematic Arts, which Corba said has expanded "exponentially" in about 15 years from "a few hundred" students to more than 1,200, making it the fastest-growing major at the university and the largest outside of the business program.
The key, Corba said, is "we're a pipeline," providing technical workers to fill the growing number of TV productions at Cinespace, "sometimes even before they graduate."
"That speaks to parents," Corba said, especially those who might be reluctant to let their kids study the arts, where traditionally jobs and hiring are not as robust as in more business-oriented fields. "They might get a job before half [of] the business majors," Corba added.
DePaul's cinema school is based Downtown at the Loop campus, but it was already using space at what would become Cinespace for productions when the studio complex got off the ground in 2010. Pissios was looking to add some type of incubator program to grow the studios organically, and DePaul sealed an agreement for a studio in 2013.
"Kids were not staying here. They were either going to New York or L.A.," Pissios said. "These students would be my future tenants one day.
"We didn't plan it to be a job incubator," Pissios added, but it's turned out that way, in part because "DePaul, they jumped into the pool full blast."
A Two-Way Street
According to Corba, the university agreed to an initial $2 million investment, with the goal of creating a working studio alongside the commercial studios at Cinespace, with classrooms on the side.
"I always thought of it as trying to design a professional production studio that can acclimate to an academic environment, as opposed to a school that is trying to play grown-up," Corba said.
There are sets — a bar and an apartment most prominently right now — but also rooms of well-organized props, equipment and state-of-the-art dollies, cameras and editing decks. A green screen should be ready next week.
Then there are classrooms and meeting rooms for students off to the sides.
"Everything we do there, we model after what they can expect to see in the industry," Corba said. "They're familiar with the industry. They know the equipment. They know the terminology. They're good listeners.
"You're in the classroom, and go right onto the set and start your craft," he added. "They really are working on a very real environment, instead of the theoretical idea of how we make movies."
It doesn't hurt to be working in a genuine studio complex where the occasional Hollywood star will amble by.
"When they're getting off the shuttle and going into the classroom and they see Taylor Kinney or any number of people working from 'Empire,' you know, there's a little more pep in their step," Corba said. "They want to prove themselves."
Corba cited the "exceptional" quality of their technical work.
"I can't always speak to the writing. Students are going to write what they're going to write," Corba said with a tolerant smile. "But the production quality — I'll match anything you see on the big screen with what our students are doing, with what you'll see on TV."
Another key, Corba said, was the school's conscious decision to concentrate on digital media and not dabble in film, like more storied film programs at New York University, the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California.
With the film and TV industries moving more toward digital production, that focus has given DePaul students a leg up, he said, as has its crossovers with the animation and computer-gaming fields that have become increasingly integrated with cinema.
At the same time, it's been an obvious complement to DePaul's well-regarded theater program.
According to Corba, DePaul is now drawing about 13-20 percent of its students from the East and West Coasts, where in the past those students wouldn't have looked beyond NYU, UCLA and USC. The expanding school has also called for an expanded and upgraded faculty.
"It's an industry that's bi-coastal, but you can almost call us the Third Coast," Corba said.
Chicago: A New TV Destination
Pissios agreed, pointing out that the boom in TV series, including those presented through streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, has forced production to be more nimble.
The days of a network series like "ER" shooting all its interior scenes in Hollywood and only coming to Chicago to shoot exteriors a handful of times a year are over. It has to all be done quickly, on budget and in one place, which has made Chicago and Cinespace a desirable production destination.
Pissios said a show like "Chicago Fire" spends $7-$10 million an episode. Multiply that by 24 episodes a season and three other NBC series and three other Fox shows shooting at Cinespace, and it adds up quickly.
Pissios credited Gov. Bruce Rauner, who backed off an early threat to curtail the state's tax incentives for movie shooting once he recognized the multifaceted benefits (think of the lumber and paint for sets, all the ancillary industries surrounding film production and even catering to feed the actors). He also praised Mayor Rahm Emanuel for supporting the industry.
DePaul's Cinespace Studios should also benefit from a new independent production incubator based at Studio 18 next door. (DePaul occupies studios 15 and 16.)
Pissios also touted the CineCares Foundation, which looks to expand the approach to homegrown talent found at the DePaul studios and open it to local Chicagoans and Lawndale residents.
Pissios said he had already squired a couple of dutiful workers into regular positions at the studio through an unofficial apprentice program, and "now I just want to take it to another level."
CineCares Executive Director Sheila Brown agreed: "Not everyone's going to go to college."
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