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USM Plays Role in State’s Emerging Film Industry

By KAREN NELSON of the Sun Herald

OHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD University of Southern Mississippi film school graduate Francisco Gonzalez shoots video for the History Channel show ‘Picked Off’ at the Gautier Antique Fair.

The University of Southern Mississippi has had a film school for more than 35 years. It’s the only four-year program of its kind in the state, and it’s located in Long Beach.

Students learn to write scripts and shoot, edit and produce a film. They also learn the academic skills of film history and criticism. And they get a taste of what it’s like to be in the industry.

There are no graduate classes.

“We are a very small program,” said Dixon McDowell, who heads it with one other professor. They have 50 students enrolled at a time.

“A lot of people don’t know we exist,” he said.

But it has been producing 10 to 15 graduates a year for decades and they have come to populate the film industry in Mississippi at a time when the state has recognized the potential of the that lucrative industry and made moves to attract it here.

With new film incentives in place and the state’s understanding that filming “The Help” brought $13 million in economic impact to Greenwood is looking for new prospects.

The school could be considered a key piece in the state’s hopes to grow film into a true industry here, McDowell and others say, but other important considerations are training skilled, experienced local crews and building infrastructure, as well as promotion and marketing.

A USM film graduate is running the new film crew-training program at Hinds Community College, McDowell said. A USM grad, Nina Parikh, works in the Mississippi Film Office.

“Major production companies in the state are heavily populated with USM graduates,” he said. “They are successful and out there. You could say they are driving this expansion.”

On the ground

Fancisco Gonzalez has been shooting with the History Channel for about two weeks and has two more weeks of work to go.

For this production, he’s a camerman. They have filmed in Louisiana and Florida, and on Sunday, he was in Gautier as they shot a segment for “American Pickers.”

Gonzalez is a 1982 graduate of USM’s film school and lives in Biloxi.

“I try to stay busy here,” he said. “It’s not easy.”

He travels where the business takes him.

He makes independent films and works on television commercials and documentaries. He was director of photography on a film from Venezuela that received Academy-Award consideration, and he has a documentary at the Cannes Film Festival this year, he said.

But while working with a production that came to Mississippi recently, he noted that only three in a crew of 50 were from Mississippi. The others were brought in from Louisiana, which has a bigger pool of skilled workers.

Gonzalez said he’d like to see that change, and hopes Mississippi’s efforts will make a difference.

“I think incentives are excellent, but we need to train and train and train some more,” he said. “I want to see us prosper because we have an incredible amount of talent here.”

Film culture

McDowell has been teaching at USM for 22 years and his career is interspersed with freelance film work and documentaries.

“Mississippi is not known for being a film place,” he said. “But a lot of good films have been shot here.”

He said his students are given a chance to discover what it feels like to do a job before they pursue it as a career.

They leave having finished two short films and completed a screen play.

“But a film degree and $5 will get you a cup of coffee as Starbucks or some other fancy coffee place,” he said. There’s a lot of work ahead.

And remember, film is not just about shooting pictures, editing and acting, he said. “It has to be financed and marketed.”

His graduates work as crew members on films, he said. Some have started production companies for commercials and businesses. Some work their way up through the Hollywood system as assistant directors or writers.

Diego Velasco graduated in the late 1990s, McDowell said, worked consistently in Hollywood in cinematography and at various crew positions then developed a script, produced and directed a movie in Venezeula in 2008 and 2009.

“La Hora Cero” or “The Last Hour” became the highest grossing film in that country, McDowell said. It’s on HBO Latin now and is out on DVD.

That film will play at the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center in Ocean Springs in two weeks as part of USM’s film series. USM and the Mary C. are working together to screen films the community wouldn’t normally be able to see and to grow a culture of film on the Coast, he said, a Coast Film Society of people who are interested and want to see films produced in Mississippi.

“We need to develop a film culture here as well train technicians,” he said.

McDowell sees US’s film program as setting the ground work.

“It used to be you get a degree and go to California,” he said. “Now I encourage them to look at Louisiana first. Hopefully, I’ll be able to say, don’t move, you can do it right here.”

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