USC series offers students sneak peeks

In 2008, Alex Ago faced a familiar conundrum for a film programmer ­­— he had too many movies and not enough screens.

Ago programs the weekly screening for film critic Leonard Maltin’s Wednesday night symposium at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Ago realized that the number of films he wanted to show far outnumbered the amount of films he could actually screen in class. With that in mind, he started the Outside the Box [Office] series at USC. Each week, Ago showcases films not available in a theater near you, often because they have yet to be released. They’re all free, and they’re available to anyone at USC.

The initial focus of Outside the Box [Office] was international cinema. Maltin’s class requires a speaker to accompany each film, but for foreign releases, those guests weren’t always available. These films then became the backbone of Outside the Box [Office].

Screening those films, however, meant finding the right room with the proper equipment.

“Outside the Box [Office] started as a Wednesday night program, but at the time I was limited to a theater that could not project 35mm,” Ago said. “Foreign films, for the most part, only had 35mm prints available.”

To solve the problem, Ago turned Outside the Box [Office] into a biweekly series. International films that came on a 35mm print found a home on Sunday nights, while films distributed on Blu-ray or digital video, including domestic films, screened on Wednesday nights.

“Over the years, I’ve found that there’s all sorts of stuff we can bring in,” Ago said. “Not just international cinema, but a lot of documentary cinema and a lot of independent cinema as well.”

When the School of Cinematic Arts welcomed the addition of the villa-style Steven Spielberg and George Lucas buildings, Outside the Box [Office] grew with it. Now, with the Albert and Dana Broccoli Theatre, Ray Stark Family Theatre and Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre available, Ago can showcase multiple films throughout the week in both digital and 35mm formats.

An actor, director or producer of the film is present for a Q&A session after 60 to 70 percent of the screenings. Ago’s goal with Outside the Box [Office] is to screen films that — even if they are released in Los Angeles — might be difficult for students to find in theaters.

“[The ones we show] typically get released in a few theaters, frequently for a short period of time with little marketing and [are] in theaters that are frequently on the other side of town,” Ago said. “I thought it would be great to actually bring them to campus.”

Outside the Box [Office] has featured films from about 30 different countries, Ago said, attracting a variety of audiences.

“When you screen an Indonesian film or a Filipino film and you get a room full of USC Indonesian students that’s sort of exciting because it’s saying there’s something for all,” Ago said. “It exposes people to different cultures, which I think is important to a liberal arts education.”

The documentaries, including the suspenseful Catfish or The Lottery, which focuses on inner city schools in New York City, similarly blend broad appeal and niche audiences.

“Documentaries often have a great interest with very specific groups because there is subject matter being discussed that has relevance to all kinds of cross-campus departments or student organizations,” Ago said. “We’re doing a screening of Crude that examines some very interesting legal and ethical issues, so that’s something we think the law students and the business students and potentially the journalism students might be interested in.”

There’s even room for cult hits, like the 1990 classic Troll 2, which ran back-to-back with Best Worst Movie, the documentary chronicling the strange journey of Troll 2. Best Worst Movie director and Troll 2 star Michael Stephenson was even present for the screening.

“The films we’ve brought in are all offering something unique,” Ago said. “I don’t ever feel like something wasn’t worth doing. Even when something is not a masterpiece, it’s got something about it that really was worth your time, whether it’s the kind of story it’s telling, the culture it’s exposing you to or the subject matter of a documentary that might open your eyes to something you haven’t thought of our didn’t know about.”

For a full schedule, or to RSVP for screenings, visit Students are allowed one guest, but come early — there’s often only standing room available.