How ASU creates opportunity for film students

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When Arizona State University decided to name its film school after Sidney Poitier, it was a perfect fit because the legendary actor was outspoken about the need for representation in Hollywood, and that is the mission of The Sidney Poitier New American Film School.

“We are supporting filmmakers in front of and behind the camera,” said Cheryl Boone Isaacs, founding director of the school, during a panel on “The Future of Film Education” at the ASU California Center Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. The event was part of a series of events in Fall 2022 celebrating the opening of the ASU California Center in Los Angeles and ASU’s L.A.-based programs.

Boone Isaacs showed an interview clip from the Apple TV documentary “Poitier,” in which he says, “If there were equal opportunity in this business, there would be 15 Sidney Poitiers and 10 or 12 Harry Belafontes. But there is not.”

“That is the reason we are here,” said Boone Isaacs, a past president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“You go to the movies and at the end of the two hours, and these days sometimes three hours, you’re sitting through at least 10 minutes of names and positions that support the story. We are all about supporting the story,” she said.

“Our goal at the Poitier Film School is to create as much opportunity for our students to participate in every single facet of the entertainment business, whether around production or the team that supports production, which is a vast field.”

Peter Murrieta, deputy director of the school, has decades of experience in television as a writer and showrunner. He said that in 2002, his show “Greetings from Tucson” was on the air, along with a few other shows that also featured Latinos.

“There was a real feeling of, ‘This is about to happen. We’ve been waiting,’” he said of the Latino representation.

“And then all those shows went away and that was it for a while. And then another wave happened and went away.”

So he realized there had to be another way, and joined the faculty at ASU in 2018.

“It’s this idea that we’re not going to be able to take over Hollywood in this other way, (so) I’ll create an army to keep coming,” he said.

Murrieta is involved in a new program for California community college students who can transfer to the film program at the ASU California Center to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Students in the Poitier Film School also have the opportunity to work with two recent MacArthur Fellows: Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera, who are building a lab for Latino filmmaking and representation in film. The pair is based in Los Angeles at the ASU California Center Broadway.

While the Latino population of the nation is 20%, and 30% in Arizona, Latinos make up less than 5% of TV directors and showrunners as well as film directors, Ibarra said during the ASU California Center Broadway opening celebrations. 

 “It’s an urgent issue of workforce equity and representation,” Rivera said. “I see it as a cultural emergency.”

The lab will work with mid-career interdependent filmmakers to produce new works and connect with students. Learn more about the lab and read a Q&A with Ibarra and Rivera.

Nonny de la Peña described the Narrative and Emerging Media program, a joint undertaking by the Poitier Film School and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is the founder and CEO of Emblematic Group, a digital media company focused on immersive virtual, mixed and augmented reality.

De la Peña, the founding director of the Narrative and Emerging Media program, showed clips of some of her groundbreaking immersive journalism, including a piece she did for “Frontline” about life in a solitary confinement cell.

“You are in that room. It puts people on the scene and in real stories,” she said.

Students in the program are taught virtual production using game engine technology to make three-dimensional environments, which they then merge with film and audio of real actors.

“The facilities here are so good that we have our own virtual production studio,” she said.

Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, said that when ASU was considering naming the film school, he approached the Poitier family, telling them that ASU’s law school is named for Sandra Day O’Connor and ASU’s journalism school is named for Walter Cronkite.

“Sandra Day O’Connor, Walter Cronkite and Sidney Poitier — those are three American heroes,” he said.

“Those are three people who embody dignity, statesmanship and excellence at the highest levels.”

Photos by Charlie Leight.
A version of this story originally appeared in ASU News.