In the eight years since Sydney Patapoff graduated from film school and went to work in Hollywood there’s been a change in how people react on set or in the studio when they learn she went to Biola University, a small, private Christian school in La Mirada.
“When I first started out you kind of got a blank look,” says Patapoff, a second assistant director on TV series such as “How To Get Away With Murder” and “The Middle.”
” ‘Biola? You mean Loyola?’” she says of the typical response. “Later on they’d say, ‘Viola? Viola Davis?’”
Loyola Marymount University, of course, has a film school, as do similarly prestigious programs at the University of Southern California, UCLA, Chapman University, the American Film Institute, and the California Institute of the Arts. But Biola and its Department of Cinema and Media Arts has been until recently so under the radar that by Patapoff’s anecdote there are some in Hollywood more likely to believe that actress Viola Davis – winner of an Oscar for “Fences” and an Emmy for “How To Get Away With Murder” – actually has a film school than they are to have heard of Biola.
Now, though, that’s changing, slowly, perhaps, but steadily as students become interns and interns graduate into the Industry, spreading word of the quality of the program and its people with each new connection they make.
Scott Derrickson took film classes at Biola before going on to direct movies such as the 2016 Marvel Studios hit “Doctor Strange” and the thriller “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Visual and digital effects supervisor Rob Bredow worked at Sony for years on films such as “The Polar Express” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” before moving last year to Industrial Light & Magic where he’s now vice president of new media. And Zach King, who found fame through viral videos on YouTube and Vine, has a book series in development at Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and a company with 14 employees working to develop other film and TV projects.
“We’re smaller, and we haven’t been around as long,” says Gerald Fisher, interim chair of the Cinema and Media Arts department, and a professor at Biola since 1999. “So we’re not as well-known as a USC, Chapman, AFI.
“But among people who have come in contact with our graduates and work with them on a daily basis, or the people who take our students for interns, they become aware of who we are and the caliber of student we have.”
Even Fisher, though, has experienced the confusion that’s still out there in some parts of Hollywood.
“It’s not unusual for us to get confused with Loyola,” he says. ” ‘No, that’s the Catholic school. We’re the Christian school.’ ”
Anna Vogt graduated from Biola in 2004, when the department was much smaller and the major was still known as radio, television and film. Because it was small she says she was able to test out different areas of film-making and find out which ones she liked and which she did not.
“I was the second AD on a student film and that was my first introduction into what that job was,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Wow, this is the job for me. It falls into my personality. I’m very Type A, I’m good at wrangling things on the set.’”
After a few years working at a talent agency, and then as an assistant to an executive at New Regency Productions, Vogt entered the Directors Guild of America’s trainee program, a sort of three-year apprenticeship, and has worked as a second AD ever since on shows such as Emmy-winning Amazon series “Transparent” and soon the second season of Drew Barrymore’s Netflix series “The Santa Clarita Diet.”
To some of her co-workers neither of those shows – “Transparent,” a comedy about a father of adult children deciding to embrace true self as a trans woman, and “Santa Clarita,” a horror-comedy about family in which the wife and mother is a vampire – seem like the kind of fare on which a Christian film-maker would work, Vogt says.
“I think a lot of them are surprised,” she says, though the bigger surprise came from how working on a show about transgender people, and meeting trans men and women in the process, affected her.
“I’d never really been in that world before, and I truly believe it was divine intervention that I was put on that show, because it truly opened my eyes and my heart,” Vogt says.
It’s important to note that a film school at a Christian university doesn’t mean it’s a Christian film school, though when the department was started that was one of the motivations, Fisher says.
“You go back to the ’80s, there was the Billy Graham Association, which was starting to produce a lot of feature films, and there was the growth of Christian television networks,” he says. “So that was the motivation – to give students the opportunity to work in the growing religious film and television market.
“But in the ’90s we made a choice that, no, we’re not about finding and training and educating students to work in Christian media,” Fisher says. “That’s not our focus. Our focus is that you are trained, developed, educated so that you can pursue media in whatever way you want.”
Instructor Camille Tucker has taught full-time at Biola for three years, focusing on her specialty of screenwriting. While she says describes Biola as “a school where students can express and grow in their faith,” in her classes her students invariably are drawn to mainstream ideas and topics more than religious ones.
“I had 18 screenwriters in my freshman class and none of them wrote inspirational or quote-unquote faith-based films,” Tucker says. “I had a student write a murder thriller. I had a student write an indie drama. I had a student write a fantasy about trolls and hip-hop dancing.”
Faith nonetheless flows through the curriculum of the film school as it does all of Biola.
“We follow God as the ultimate creative force and communicate this to the world around us through our craft,” reads part of the mission statement for the Department of Cinema and Media Arts. “Our goal is to work out the enduring truths found in the person and work of Christ and in the entirety of Christian Scriptures in an effort to create and bring society transcendent, authentic, redemptive stories.”
Associate professor Dean Yamada, who earned his undergrad and graduate degrees in film at USC, says that faith and film fit together best when the story comes first.
“We want to be relevant as storytellers, and we want to tell good stories,” says Yamada, who has taught at Biola since 2005. “And the story should come before the message, because otherwise it becomes propaganda.
“Of course faith is important to all of us, and that should be just a reflection of the films we make,” he says. “But we definitely want to get away from the pedantic, preachy films that feel the need to hit people over the head with a message.”
Biola students in recent semesters have interned everywhere from Marvel, Disney and Amblin Productions to HBO, Nickelodeon and NBC Universal. Fisher, the interim chair, says the feedback the department gets is almost always glowing praise for the openness and honesty and integrity of the undergrads. Alumni say they’ve heard that kind of story, too.
“Always when I’m working with a production company, they usually have worked with someone at Biola,” says 2013 grad Zach King, who started making viral videos on his YouTube channel while at Biola, and later became a star on the Vine video platform, and now runs his own media company. “The people who know them have had a really positive experience.”
Vogt says she’s brought in Biola students or grads into entry-level positions on some of the sets where she’s worked. At first she admits she was nervous – “Biola can be a bubble,” she says. “I don’t want someone to be freaked out about being on a set.”
But that’s never happened: “They always impress me, no matter what,” Vogt says.
That kind of networking helped Andrew Watkins, who left Biola in 2009 and after finishing a final class graduated in 2012, land a job at Sony a few years.
Rob Bredow, another Biola graduate who worked there at the time helped him get in there, which in turn gave him the experience to land his current job last fall, working as a media – which in turn led him to his current job as a media producer for Disney Imagineering on projects such as the just-opened Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout attraction at Disneyland.
“I think the name (of Biola) is getting better and better brand recognition because people who are coming out of it are doing cooler and cooler things,” Watkins says.
Patapoff, who with Watkins co-founded an alumni networking group after graduating, said she’s experience an upswing in name recognition lately, too.
“In recent years you’d say, ‘Oh, I went to a small liberal arts college called Biola,’ and you’d get a light of recognition: ‘Oh! I’ve worked with somebody from that school, and they’re great’” Patapoff says.
“They may not know where the school is or what the school is doing, but they recognize that there are good people doing good work out of that school.”