Now Playing

In just over 20 years, the Program in Film and Media Studies has grown to become a national “Contender,” thanks to passionate students, dedicated faculty, and a state-of-the-art new home in the Centre Theatre.

In just over 20 years, the Program in Film and Media Studies has grown to become a national “Contender,” thanks to passionate students, dedicated faculty, and a state-of-the-art new home in the Centre Theatre.

By Mary K. Zajac
Photography by Will Kirk

When Linda DeLibero began teaching in Johns Hopkins’ Program in Film and Media Studies (FMS) in the late 1990s, the program consisted of a desk in the English department on the first floor of Gilman Hall, three faculty members, and roughly a dozen students. No class was complete without an unwieldy television anchored to a rolling cart with shelf space underneath for a VCR; larger screenings were held in the darkness of the blue velvet-draped Donovan Room with its overflowing storage room. “It was like Fibber McGee’s closet,” remembers program director DeLibero. “Any equipment we had—16 mm cameras, a couple of video cameras, anything—it was just all in there.”

DeLibero taught film criticism. Writer Lucy Bucknell, now a senior lecturer, taught screenwriting and film history. John Mann, a documentary filmmaker and senior lecturer, taught all the production courses. There was an editing room on the second floor of Gilman that was locked on weekends, limiting the available time students could work. But Mann recalls stopping by his office on a Saturday and being surprised to find students in the editing room working on a film. “Over Friday they had left the window ajar, and then on Saturday morning, they climbed up and crawled through the window to get in,” says Mann. “That was the level of energy.”

Just over 20 years later, the FMS faculty has grown to 10; the number of graduating majors has doubled to 25 on average; alumni work in the film industry in Los Angeles and New York as producers, agents, and screenwriters; and the Master of Arts in film and media, offered through the Krieger School’s Advanced Academic Programs, recently celebrated its first birthday. But perhaps the biggest change is the most visible one. No longer confined to undersized space, the program now calls home the second floor of the resurrected Centre Theatre near the intersection of North Avenue and St. Paul Street, in Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

“The new facilities are an enormous game-changer,” says DeLibero. “But the important thing is that our core values remain the same.”

DeLiebro“We tell students, ‘We’re going to try to teach you as thoughtful and demanding an approach to film as we can think of. And we really believe that giving you those tools will allow you to do anything you want to do in that industry. It’s just a comprehensive education.’” Linda DeLibero, Program Director

Growing a film program

Despite its 20-year history, the Program in Film and Media Studies can feel a little under the radar both inside and outside of Johns Hopkins. And throughout her long tenure as program director, DeLibero says she has been asked why the study of film and media is an appropriate part of a research university. “We are kind of an anomaly,” DeLibero admits. “The program began because students wanted to make films, so there was always a production aspect to it. But when the major was created, we were adamant that it needed to have academic rigor and a heavy component in theory, history, and criticism.”

This curriculum, along with the program’s small size, says DeLibero, is what sets Hopkins’ program apart from larger and better known film programs, like the University of Southern California or New York University. Students make films here, certainly, but they are also immersed in content. In the Fall 2016 semester alone, students chose among classes devoted to dramatic writing, sound on film, digital film production, animation, and close studies of Hitchcock and silent films. “Our students have the benefit of a Hopkins education, so not only do they have this comprehensive education in film and media, they also have taken courses in political science, Romance languages, English literature, and the sciences,” says DeLibero. “We hope there’s a certain creativity, imagination, thoughtfulness, and critical acumen that is going to carry students through to a place they couldn’t get to if they were just learning camera technique—which is what a lot of the other film schools focus on. We want smart, savvy artists who really care about what they’re doing.”

Or as a student of John Mann’s once explained to his professor: “Other film schools teach you how to shoot films, and we learn why you shoot films.”

A creative hub

It’s nearly impossible to talk about film and media studies at Johns Hopkins without talking about the second floor of the Centre Theatre, the onetime car dealership and, later, movie theater, that has been transformed into a state-of-the-art filmmaking facility. The 20,000 square feet of classroom and production space (complete with soundstage, sound studio, screening room, and editing suites), shared with the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Film and Video Arts Department, makes for new, previously unimaginable possibilities for professors and students alike. “When we were in Gilman, we didn’t have a computer lab, and we would do a one-day workshop in the [campus] Digital Media Center,” explains Jimmy Joe Roche, a lecturer and interdisciplinary artist whose work encompasses video, sculpture, and performance. “Now I have an entire lab and a really killer studio to teach in and that students can use, which is wonderful.” Along with the computer lab, Roche uses the 2,000-square-foot soundstage, with its acid-green cyclorama screen, to teach students the basic fundamentals of digital filmmaking and for workshops in shooting portraits.

“You can address your assignments and learn more directly with a nice studio space,” he adds, as sunlight glows behind banks of glass block windows in an open-space area of the facility. “There’s just a lot of hands-on learning you can do.”

Cutting-edge equipment and technology have also affected student projects, adds award-winning filmmaker Matthew Porterfield, who is also a lecturer in the program. “The facilities and the equipment at the center really expand pedagogically what we can do,” says Porterfield. “And student projects are of a much higher quality because they have access to better and more editing software and cameras. It’s remarkable.”

Karen Yasinsky, an artist and filmmaker who works with experimental film, animation, and drawing, concurs. “Having this space, like the sound studio, the green room, it’s like respecting what the students can do, respecting their potential, and it’s an investment in their potential,” says Yasinsky. “I think when they see it, they rise to it.”

Yasinsky says she has observed the evolution of the film center as a creative hub among film and media studies students. “There’s something about being off campus in their own space that allows students to really feel like they’re part of a creative enterprise,” she says.

This sense of community extends to faculty, as well. Yasinsky and Roche note more collaboration among students and their teachers, and Roche is thrilled at how the new space brings him in closer contact with his students as they work on their own films. “I love being right there when people are starting to make their first film, watching them go, helping them discover their voice,” he says. “I go back to that feeling whenever I’m stuck in my own artistic process. That joy and vitality is so important in life, and I want to be around it.”

On the set

Porterfield, who was shooting his forthcoming film, Sollers Point, in Baltimore last summer, uses the center as a production hub, and evidence of the film in process is scattered around the offices and classrooms of the facility. Rolling wardrobe racks draped with clothing flank walls pasted with photo collages. A 4-foot-tall, color-coded production schedule hangs over a desk, and cases of bottled water ready for the outdoor set bookend a sofa.

In a corner office, Gillian Waldo ’18 works with the film’s art director assembling props. Waldo, a film and media studies major, with a museums and society minor, is one of seven FMS students working as a production assistant on Porterfield’s film, one of many hands-on opportunities the program offers students (other students have worked on the set of the Netflix series, House of Cards, which films in Baltimore, and as production assistants for endeavors in Los Angeles and New York). As an assistant in the art department, Waldo has worked on all manner of set design, from creating fake posters to dressing the set. “It’s definitely not stuff you can learn in a classroom,” says Waldo, who also co-directs the JHU Film Society, a student-run film series. “There’s just a lot you can’t really be prepared for until you’re thrown into it, especially on the set.”

Under the auspices of a Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship, Waldo, an aspiring documentary filmmaker and a devotee of 16mm film, plans to shoot a film about Baltimore’s Arabbers, the iconic fruit and vegetable vendors who are as recognizable for their chanted sales patter as they are for their horse-drawn carts. The opportunity to work on Porterfield’s set is invaluable, she says—an inside peek into the world she hopes to be a part of someday.

Porterfield is equally pleased to have his students on the set. Having students learning on the job ups the game of the professionals on the set, he says, and the benefits to the students are many. “Being on a film production crew can change their perspective on the industry and the craft,” explains Porterfield. “They’re going to realize very quickly whether film production is something that they take to…and they’re going to understand that collaboration is the key component of the filmmaking process.”

“The film industry is all about relationships,” he adds. “And if you have a good first experience on set, people are going to remember and recommend you for other jobs. That’s how people find jobs in the industry.”

For alumna Alexandra Byer ’11, working on Porterfield’s earlier films while she was a student helped define her interest in the film industry, sometimes by process of elimination. “I started to figure out what I didn’t like before I figured out what I did like,” says Byer. Ultimately, she discovered producing, and her work as a producer on Sollers Point marks her fourth time producing a feature film and her second time as full producer. Byer is generous in offering current students the same opportunities she had, and is confident that her Hopkins education has helped open doors for her.

“When I tell people I went to Hopkins, they say, ‘What? They have a film program?’” she says. “And I love that I stand out, that I’m not lumped with the larger set of filmmakers.”

Jobs in film

In many cases, the film and media studies alumni are key in helping current students find their way in the industry. It was during a program-sponsored trip to Hollywood to meet and network with LA-based Hopkins program alumni that Brian McConnell ’18, a double major in FMS and economics, became aware of the range of careers in the film industry (the program also sponsors trips to film festivals like Cannes and Sundance). Based on that experience, he plans to apply for one of several agent-training programs in Los Angeles after graduation. Relentlessly upbeat, McConnell, who is the executive chair of Studio North, a student-run organization that awards grants to student filmmakers, is candid in explaining that he believes his gifts lie in the business, rather than the artistic, side of filmmaking. His eyes light up when he talks about the trip that let him “see all kinds of jobs and imagine what I could be doing.”

When you get right down to it, says Linda DeLibero, “Film and media is actually a pretty practical course of study because jobs in the entertainment industry aren’t going anywhere.” More and more, Hollywood, New York, London, and other entertainment centers will need screenwriters and directors, producers and sound designers, and the program listens to what is going on in the industry and adds courses, like the relatively new one in producing, as needed.

“I think all of us in our program do what we do to expose students to ‘the power of beauty,’ that ineffable experience of film that changes the way you see the world, that transforms you in the most personal way,” she says. “I think we’re a bunch of people who all believe that film can change your life—as old-fashioned as that sounds.” ■


Out and About

Within the last year, the Program in Film and Media Studies has embarked on a number of new projects. From encouraging the artistic skills of Baltimore’s youth to creating opportunities for local filmmakers to offering a part-time master’s degree for students interested in entering the film and television industries, FMS is changing the media landscape in Baltimore and beyond.

  • Baltimore Youth Documentary and Film Arts Program
    Funded by a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Baltimore Youth Documentary and Film Arts Program gives students and young adults from neighborhoods across Baltimore the opportunity to document their world on film. Under the direction of Lucy Bucknell, a senior lecturer and principal investigator for the project, students between the ages of 16 and 29 (including ex-offenders) take workshops on moviemaking and photography and create art while they learn technical skills and get professional experience that could lead to long-term jobs.
  • The Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund in Film and Media Studies
    Launched through a $1 million grant from the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation, the fund creates an incubator for budding filmmakers from Johns Hopkins and the Baltimore area, by helping them turn good ideas into viable projects. The fund empowers new Baltimore voices by connecting them with veteran artists, executives, and entrepreneurs who can offer advice and networking to jumpstart work that will ultimately be developed and produced in Baltimore. Free workshops on topics ranging from lighting design to professional development are also underwritten by the fund. Zaentz, who died in 2014, was a three-time Academy Award-winning producer whose work included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, and The English Patient.
  • Master’s in Film and Media Studies
    In response to the film industry’s growing need for seasoned screenwriters, forward-looking film executives, and skilled sound engineers, Johns Hopkins now offers a Master of Arts in film and media, focusing on the business of film, writing for film and television, and sound production. Part of the Krieger School’s Advanced Academic Programs, this part-time graduate degree is tailored to students who wish to advance their current career as well as those looking to change careers and work in the entertainment industry.