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The Front Street Free Film School

The Front Street retail project sits empty on Saturday, January 28, 2012. As it has. For years.

The website ehow.com makes it seem so simple.  “How to start a film school” in seven easy steps.  First, fundraise. Second, contact potential faculty. Third, Hire staff to handle admissions and financial aid. Fourth, find space.  Fifth, purchase tables, chairs and desks. Sixth, acquire film equipment and seventh, bring in the students.

What if I want to do it out of order, ehow? The great information hive mind of the internet doesn’t have an answer for when you have the space first: Front Street – the magnificent, empty thousands of idle square feet of windowed and columned façade.

There’s even a movie theater there. The classrooms and showrooms of the film school are built, already. At taxpayer expense. We’re paying interest on Front Street, even though it is not generating a nickel.

The thousands who drive by on their daily commutes ignore the lonely signs saying space for rent.  Perhaps only the skateboarders who ollie the curbs think about the gravel floors and exposed beams behind the windows, and how cool an indoor skate park might be, while they look for other things to do with it.

For my money, investing in retail infrastructure was known as a mistake 10 years ago when the bonding when through, it was known as a mistake when construction crews went in with the bulldozers, and now, those who pass by there daily, know it as a mistake sitting there like an inert gas.

But what if we filled the Front Street retail infrastructure with a film school?  Connecticut initiated a much hyped film tax credit in 2006.  Rick Green of the Hartford Courant wrote this laudatory verse back in November 2011:

“Since the tax credits began in 2006, production spending in Connecticut has grown to roughly $815 million. About $169 million worth of tax credits have been issued.” Green noted hundreds of permanent jobs, not just part-time Indiana Jones is filming in New Haven jobs, have been created because of the tax.

Green cited Connecticut Voices for Children, which argues that the credits cost us 80 cents for every dollar we bring in.

Green finished his column with a kicker: “Voices for Children is right about one thing: The tax credits don’t come cheap. But that misses the larger picture just now coming into focus. After five years we have bricks and mortar — and jobs — to prove that a new, desirable industry is taking shape here. We should continue to help it grow.”

So why shouldn’t we open a world class film institute to help develop this burgeoning industry in Connecticut? We have a spot – Front Street.

We have ideal partners – the Wadsworth has an acclaimed film series that has brought directors like John Sayles here.  The Wadsworth has participated in local film fests, too. Real Art Ways has its own proud movie tradition. Cinestudio over at Trinity, too.

Perhaps we can get the University of Hartford involved, too. Or why not recruit the traditional Los Angeles powerhouse American Film Institute to set up shop here? It worked with Jackson Labs, it could work with other industries.

Connecticut has its share of filthy rich movie stars and directors who I am sure would be happy to have a wing of the Front Street facility named after them, for a small donation, of course.  Maybe the Ron Howard School of Directors? Howard lives in Greenwich.

How about the Robert Redford Institute for Producers. Redford put his Connecticut home up for sale in October 2011, but perhaps we can get him to have a Sundance class here on independent documentaries. Or appeal to his sense of loyalty to old Paul Newman, the Nutmeg stalwart.

It seems like a smart idea, and a way to build the industry for the future. If educational infrastructure is a route to investment and growth, then why not?

Of course, the film school must not charge tuition. It pains me to see young people acquiring skills at the cost of $100,000 and eight percent interest. So why not make it free. Only accept the best and brightest directors.

Include a high school component, like WNPR is doing with the Hartford Public School System on journalism (although we hope that a film academy will produce films, unlike the journalism academy, which has yet to produce a newspaper as far as I can tell – if anyone finds one, please let me know).

Next, a partnership with Capital Community College to generate a pipeline to film industry jobs would be inevitable. It all makes sense. It seems so easy to do. Like what ehow says. Raise money. Attract staff.

But it’s not, is it. Having started a youth development program, I understand that all the stars need to line up. As my friend Alan MacKenzie would say, you need to stack the deck for success.

Ehow.com  doesn’t talk about lining up political support, which would be essential. Having a hero at the state capital to push this idea forward would be something. But the state of Connecticut, with its burgeoning budget deficits, is not about to pitch in on education.

Trustees at the University of Connecticut, that bastion of really expensive public education, just raised tuition again. This is because the legislature refuses to fund UConn to the fullest. So we shift the burden to students.

If I am building a school, I tell you, it must be free. A free, appropriate education is a recognized as a constitutional right in Connecticut. If only we could get people to act on it.

Ehow.com doesn’t elaborate on the particulars of fundraising. How does a normal schmoe like me get in touch with one of the fabulously wealthy like a Redford or a Ron Howard? I am a mere mortal. Talking to the uber-famous and uber-rich is something we can’t all do.

We need champions to believe in the idea and carry it to potential funders. Connecticut has plenty of billionaires, too. If we had a champion in the state house, they could suggest raising taxes on the billionaires to pay for such a great project, and a series of additional job training projects.

If we lived in the  Great Depression, FDR would probably have put created the funding. Think of the great film projects and photographers and artists to emerge from the Depression, whose best work was financed by the government, like the Works Progress Administration.

Perhaps our Front Street Free Film School could produce documentaries about local Hartford issues, play them for free on cable access television.

All it takes is someone to get the ball rolling. Otherwise, how much longer do we let Front Street’s infrastructure, the gleaming buildings built on loans, sit empty, before we demand a return on our public investment? For me, the answer was yesterday.


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