In the late 1920s, a clan of the silent film era’s most popular players, which included the likes of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford, embarked on an ambitious endeavor: to establish the world’s first film school.
After being turned down by several Ivy League schools, Fairbanks Sr., who was at the time the president of the newly created Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, took his proposal to the University of Southern California, the institution closest to Hollywood.
And on Feb. 6, 1929, USC held its inaugural cinema class, called Intro to Photoplay, with Fairbanks Sr. as the lecturer.
When reflecting on the School of Cinematic Arts’ not-so-humble beginnings, it is hardly a surprise that the school that was once comprised of rustic bungalows is now a sprawling, mini-metropolis of sorts that bears the names of Hollywood heavyweights George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, a bronze statue of Fairbanks Sr., as of Thursday, a square block of marble just outside the school’s massive gates that will have pedestrians believe they have stumbled upon a displaced portion of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
In celebration of the School of Cinematic Arts’ 80th anniversary, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce presented the school with a “star of recognition,” a distinction reserved solely for institutions. Though the star is a spitting image of those dotting the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard, it bears USC’s logo where a film reel or microphone would normally be placed.
“A Walk of Fame star is only given to entertainers, so USC does not qualify,” explained Ana Martinez-Holler, vice president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. “A ‘star of recognition’ is an award for excellence. So far, less than 10 stars [of recognition] have been handed out — we don’t do this very often.”
Other institutions that have received this recognition include the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and Disneyland, the latter of which displays its star outside of the park’s main gates — much like the School of Cinematic Arts’ display of its own star.
“The star is to honor us because we’re the oldest film school in the country,” said Marlene Loadvine, senior dean of SCA external relations. “The Chamber also recognized that we continue to produce so many prominent people in the entertainment industry.”
Akin to how the School of Cinematic Arts has maintained its prestige for the past 80 years, the school received the commemorative star through a technique alumni have perfected throughout the years: networking, or what alumni, current students and faculty affectionately nicknamed the Trojan Mafia.
“One of our alums, Don Tillman, came up with the idea to celebrate the school’s 80th anniversary with a star,” Loadvine said. “It’s a very political process that takes about a year of going through applications and nominations.”
However political the process might be, it also greatly helps that Tillman previously worked for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce for 12 years.
“Tillman, who used to be on the Hollywood board, was the first to approach us about USC receiving a star,” Martinez-Holler said. “USC, really, is the first school because they are the only ones who’ve ever approached us … But I’m sure many more schools will be knocking at our door.”
Until then, the School of Cinematic Arts is milking its new precedent for all its worth.
The star’s official unveiling, which took place Thursday morning before the bronze eyes of Fairbanks Sr., was a quick yet well-stocked event that featured speeches from School of Cinematic Arts Dean Elizabeth Daley and Hollywood Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Leron Gubler, a performance from the Spirit of Troy marching band and an explosion of cardinal and gold confetti.
“More than anything, this event highlights the incredible talent, innovation and energy our alumni have brought to film,” Daley said. “For taking reality and reflecting it in new ways.”
Yet the star is not an emblem of USC’s devotion to the art form but a reminder of the school’s unwavering presence in all aspects of the studio system, a reminder that was further reinforced as theme songs from beloved blockbusters — such as Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Back to the Future — either directed or produced by USC alumni blared from large speakers set on the outskirts of the event. Notable alumni like John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) and Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) mingled with former Academy president Sid Ganis and members of the Hitchcock family. A reading of a list of award-winning alumni took up a majority of the event.
As Daley proceeded to describe the film school’s newest amenities, from the building’s old Hollywood throwback design to an in-house gallery displaying film cameras, one cannot help but get the sense that as much as the School of Cinematic Arts is a premier institution, it is slowly morphing into a must-see Southern California attraction — and unabashedly so.
As Gubler stated in his speech minutes before the star’s unveiling: “USC and the Hollywood Walk of Fame are two of the most recognized icons of Southern California,”
Fairbanks Sr. sealed the School of Cinematic Arts’ fate as both a creative and business vehicle for aspiring film-minded talent the day he sat down with USC President Rufus B. von KleinSmid and collaborated on an unprecedented film institution.
Now, 80 years later with an extensive list of notable alumni and the school’s newest distinction of excellence cemented into the ground for all to see, it appears the School of Cinematic Arts won’t be leaving Hollywood anytime soon.