Community College of Aurora Takes Unprecedented Step of Mimicking Hollywood Studio System within Curriculum, with Students Generating Business Models and Creative Pitches

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Grant funding for CCA, a community college in Colorado, allows for creation of movies to be intermingled with the real-life struggles of filmmakers to sell their vision to a team of executives using hard data that touches upon demographics and money making possibilities

Will Hicks introduces some of the conceptual ideas behind the “Apprentice Project” to Computer Science students at CCA. The students are paired with film producers as part of the exercise.

You’ll actually see students pitching for their lives to get their movies made

Community College of Aurora students are about to get the Hollywood treatment.

Up for grabs to numerous teams of Colorado Film School producers and their assembled interdisciplinary support staff: a piece of real grant funding already secured through the Colorado Community College System approval process to make movies.

Only three groups of students ultimately will succeed during two pitch sessions in April in convincing a panel of seven judges -- comprised mainly of local business leaders -- to green light their projects. That top trio secures the funding, with the biggest financial windfall going to the No. 1 idea. Four other teams will be eliminated.

It’s a realistic taste of the studio system, disappointments and all, brought into the classroom -- or several in this case. Four departments and six classes, in total, will be involved as part of a game-based, immersive learning initiative that has gained steam at the Colorado community college in recent semesters and allows for a real-life learning experience.

Not only will the creative producers try to get their ideas on camera by developing compelling stories they’ll have students in such disciplines as accounting, marketing, computer information systems, graphic design and business communications supporting their semester-long efforts. Those ancillary classes will help derive sales forecasts, develop budgets, identify demographics, invent market strategies and apply visual elements that speak to each project’s viability.

And it will all come down to how well that well-rounded approach strikes the judging panel that will determine a thumbs up or down.

If it sounds a little like the TV show, “Shark Tank,” it has a bit of those elements squeezed into the project. It’s about getting buy-in before buying. The overall endeavor, though, still is known by its original name “The Apprentice Project,” That idea since has been greatly modified since its inception, in large part because firing students who failed individual tasks was rightly deemed a non-starter.

Still, there figures to be boardroom drama, even if it’s without Donald Trump’s hair as a distraction.

“You’ll actually see students pitching for their lives to get their movies made," said William Hicks, who helms the project and also in charge of the Creative Producing class tasked with commissioning scripts.

Hicks’ own research surmises that this is the first time a concept a college has fully mimicked the studio-system experience nationally. The Colorado Film School has been on Hollywood Reporter’s list of top 25 film schools in the world, so innovation isn’t foreign at this little gem housed on CCA’s Lowry campus in Denver (http://www.ccaurora.edu).

One of the driving forces at the film school is that the business side of making movies is understood just as clearly as the creative aspects. That approach will allow for students to knowledgably enter the movie-making business with a 360-degree view of the process.

“Now they’ll see the ramifications of everything they do,” said Frederic Lahey, director of Colorado Film School. “We’ve been trying to reach them from an aesthetic perspective but now we're teaching it from a real-world market perspective. It’s completely revolutionary.”

In the so-called Apprentice Project, the development of the pitch will ultimately result in the creation of the three winning “sizzle reels.” Those will likely debut next fall and are essentially a long trailer that gives a glimpse into the storytelling aspects.

Some of the ideas that are currently in the works in this disciplinary exercise are steeped in comedy, science fiction and drama. One producer is working on a premise about a chip implanted in humans that allows them to pay for food, but penalizes them for choosing unhealthy items. One examines the question of whether Prince Charming never arrived in time to kiss Sleeping Beauty. Another focuses on the power of imagination, and whether blindness may actually be beneficial because the sometimes-ugly world in which we live is out of view.

The student producer is the front man on each project. The marketing, ROI reports, revenue streams, demographic studies and promotional pieces such as movie posters, DVD cases and art components for such films will be handled by Business Communications, Intro to PC Applications, Accounting Principles II, Principles of Marketing, and Graphic Design classes.

“It’s going to be super-intense,” said Andrew Scites, one of the student producers. “And it’s going to be great.”

There are upwards of 100 people in total participating on the seven competing teams.

“One of the things we obviously want to get out of the project is more funding after the project is over,” said Maria Guillory-Flippen, CCA grant project manager for the School of Business. “This is a 13-month grant funded by CCCS, and once it’s over it’s over.”

Other schools could model this idea. But the hope is that a similar project can be financed by private entities in the future for an even more expansive competition and that it can become a staple of Community College of Aurora’s curriculum.

“What we were looking for was a deliverable that we can then invite people to,” Hicks said, adding that time constraints in a half-semester’s work mean that credit producers will make their trailers in a future semester for viewing. “The natural thing was to create these films and showcase them with a screening.”

This isn’t the first time CCA has endeavored to bring real-life learning into the classroom with projects that join seemingly disparate entities. Other projects, among many, have used Crime Scene Investigation techniques to solve a faux murder, which ended with an accompanying mock trial, and will soon bring the big-picture concept of the United Nations to campus to explore world issues, conflicts and cultures on CCA’s diverse campuses.

The college recently was awarded $435,000 in grant funding to implement five new immersive-learning projects through June 2014.

A documentary crew will follow the Apprentice Project before the two big pitch sessions in April.

“I’m excited to see where this goes,” Hicks said.

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About CCA
Community College of Aurora has campuses at CentreTech and Lowry in the greater Denver area. Equipped with the latest technologies, CCA allows students to study new and traditional programs, while also offering Colorado online classes and degrees. CCA’s service community spans 325,000 people in a 350-square-mile area and CCA’s student population reflects that diversity. The college provides lifelong educational opportunities, prepares the current and future workforce, and promotes excellence in teaching, learning and service.

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Lee Rasizer
Community College of Aurora
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