Gary Novak is the Director of the School of Cinematic Arts.
What brought you to DePaul?
In 2001, I was an adjunct professor at a bunch of different places. I saw an ad for part-time instructors teaching film and screenwriting classes at DePaul, and I was fortunate enough to get hired teaching part-time in the Department of Communications.
At about that time, there were conversations about starting a film program at DePaul for the first time. They were teaching film courses in Communications, but it wasn’t a bona fide degree.
The person who was teaching film and screenwriting classes full time floated the idea of creating a film degree to Helmut Epp, the Dean of the School of Computing, Telecommunications, and Information Systems (CTI). It was just after the dotcom bubble had burst, computer science enrollments were dropping, and Helmut thought it was a good time to diversify. At the time, there was this new thing on the horizon called “Digital Cinema.” The digital revolution of filmmaking, and he was intrigued by that. They decided to start the program here (CTI) with the shift to digital in mind because it seemed to fit.
They needed a full-time person in a position to help start the degree program, and I was fortunate enough to be hired as the first full-time person in the Digital Cinema program. I was one of a few people who basically designed the film program here.
What was the state of filmmaking in Chicago at that time?
It was basically the same way it had been for many years, which was primarily focused on commercials. An occasional feature film would come into town and shoot, and then disappear. There was no episodic show production here. There was production here, but there wasn’t a lot. The shift to digital promised the democratization of the medium, which meant the cost of filmmaking would drop exponentially. People who couldn’t make movies in the past would now have the means to tell their stories. We were really embracing the digital revolution and the ability to tell more stories, hear from diverse voices, and provide access. That’s what we’ve been about from day one. I guess we viewed ourselves as somewhat revolutionary.
We didn’t shoot film. Back in 2003, most of the other film schools in town were still shooting film and then maybe doing some digital. We went all-in on digital.
Digital filmmaking meant that you didn’t have to go to the coasts in order to pursue a career. There were also more and more feature films coming into town and shooting. The tax incentive made it more economically attractive for Hollywood to shoot here. That led to an uptick in production.
How has Cinespace changed the landscape?
About ten years ago, the Toronto studio company, Cinespace, was looking to expand. They thought Chicago would be the place to do it. They found the Ryerson Steel Plant on the near southwest side. They bought it and started converting the steel mill into sound stages.
Once Cinespace built sound stages, the industry started doing episodic shows in Chicago. The beauty of episodic is that they are continual. While a feature film may be in town for a few weeks, a series will shoot for a good chunk of the year. When the first episodic show started filming in Cinespace, I believe they only had three or four sound stages. The rest was still the steel mill that they were in the process of converting.
Due to some fortunate circumstances, we had a faculty member who was out there working on shows to keep his union card active. He suggested to the rest of the faculty that we might want to get involved with Cinespace.
Cinespace had a model in Toronto where they partnered with a local university. They were looking to do that in Chicago. They believed that partnering with a university would serve as a feeder program for the industry.
I give the university credit for supporting the partnership with Cinespace. It may have seemed like a gamble at the time, but it paid off. DePaul has this entrepreneurial spirit. If they think something is a good idea, they’ll get behind it. That’s what happened at Cinespace.
Since the early days at Cinespace, it has filled up. Dick Wolf shows from NBC are shooting there. Empire is shooting there. Netflix. Amazon. HBO. Now the place is packed. Initially, DePaul had one sound stage. Within a year or two of being in there, we were at maximum capacity. We have expanded to about 35,000 square feet to meet the needs of our students.
How has the Film School changed since the beginning?
Obviously, it has changed significantly. Cinespace helps a lot. The university stages are run like professional sound stages. Our students are getting on-the-job training before they ever get on the job. They can literally walk off our stage and go to Chicago Fire or Chicago PD and know how everything is laid out and what they need to do. Over 100 of our alumni are currently working on shows out there. Our stages are a feeder for the industry.
The other change is the improvement of our facilities and the number of faculty. In the early days, we had one writer, one director, and one cinematographer. Now every facet of the industry is represented in the faculty, and our students are exposed to all of those facets.
The other change from the beginning is that we have started an LA quarter about seven years ago. Students get to spend a full quarter in Los Angeles. They take classes and they intern in the industry. It has been really popular and successful for our students. When we first started, we did it one quarter out of the year. Now it’s year round. We have facilities on the Sunset Gower lot, which used to be the old Columbia pictures lot. We are smack dab in the middle of old Hollywood. A study found that 90% of the students who do the LA quarter and stay after graduation are employed in the industry.
How does DePaul encourage underrepresented voices in film?
I think DePaul attracts a diverse population by the nature of the university. Relatively speaking compared to other film schools, we have a fairly diverse student body. This leads to more diverse stories being told in movies.
We have many initiatives that promote accessibility. Our summer CHA program is one. High school students who are CHA residents are mentored by faculty, industry professionals, and graduate students. Depending on the program, they make documentary films, participate in an interdisciplinary design program, or write screenplays.
The documentary film program is the longest running. Some of those films have done very well on the festival circuit. Many of these students have never thought of film as a career option. By participating in this program, they realize they can actually make films.
We also have a great relationship with Free Spirit Media, which is based in North Lawndale where Cinespace is located. Free Spirit helps underrepresented communities get involved in the film industry. We partner with them on the InPathways Cohort, which is basically a series of workshops that students take at no charge. In addition to having faculty help with the workshops, they also make a film at the end. The last two years those films have been made in partnership with DePaul where we had DePaul students and crew members working with them.
What stories do students want to tell?
They want to tell their stories. They want to tell stories that they can relate to and to share those stories with the world. To me, that's the key to ensuring that film will continue to be a relevant art form.