For many aspiring TV producers, having their sitcom air on national television is a distant dream. But for Reece Cardwell, a second-year graduate student at Boston University’s College of Communication, that dream will soon become a reality.
Thanks to a collaboration between Boston University, mtvU and MSN, Cardwell and many other BU students had the chance to create a pilot episode for a new student-generated sitcom. In March, mtvU will air behind-the-scenes coverage of the project for three weeks leading up to the pilot’s anticipated premiere.
The idea for this innovative new project came from Paul Schneider, who once directed episodes of "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Jag." Schneider now teaches TV writing at BU and said "it was obvious that we had some excellent writers in our television writing program but the students had no outlet for their work."
Wanting students to have an opportunity to showcase their original TV scripts similar to the way film students screen their short films at festivals, Schneider set out to create a TV writing competition to be judged by industry experts. He and the College of Communication approached mtvU, a 24-hour music and news television network broadcast at college campuses across the country and online worldwide.
"It was a no-brainer for us," said Ross Martin, vice president of programming for mtvU. "The network is powered on air and online by student-generated content, so it made complete sense from the moment they approached us. We’re really excited to work with the students at BU."
Once mtvU agreed to broadcast the winning sitcom and MSN agreed to fund the project, the next step was to choose a script. Dozens of students in Schneider’s Advanced Television Writing class pitched their sitcom ideas and panelists in Los Angeles reviewed the five finalists last spring. Led by Hollywood names like Jason Alexander, Ted Herbert (president/CEO of E!Networks), Greg Malins (executive producer of "Will and Grace") and Rob Reiner (director of "Sleepless in Seattle"), the panel chose "Roller Palace" by Liz Coopersmith, who completed her master’s in screenwriting at BU last May.
According to Schneider, Coopersmith’s "dialogue and characters are very appealing – they jump off the page!"
The half-hour pilot centers on a Manhattan family who relocate to New Jersey, where the mother marries her high school sweetheart and the daughter finds herself out of place at the local roller rink. "I worked in a roller skating diner one summer," explains Coopersmith. "I found it inherently funny, people who are really enthusiastic about hot dogs and roller skate. It [the script] is also about culture clash and families combining."
To bring this "fish out of water story" to life, Schneider hand-picked a fourteen-student class to serve as the show’s crew, doing everything from choosing the actors and locations to mixing the sound and editing footage. The group met twice a week, learning "the professional model" from industry insiders, then implementing their classroom lessons during film shoots on the weekend.
Location scouts chose Salem, Massachusetts to stand in for Manhattan, so students drove out to Salem early on Saturday mornings to prepare for a 14-hour day of shooting, which made for a grueling schedule. Cardwell, the show’s producer, juggled all the logistical details from catering to transportation to last minute scheduling conflicts. In between takes, she observed that "what looks unbelievably simple on TV becomes unbelievably complicated when you try to do it!"
Still, students get far more than eight academic credits out of the semester-long project – they also get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn TV hands-on and, hopefully, launch their careers.
Already, Coopersmith, the show’s writer, plans to relocate to Los Angeles this month. She said E!Network President Ted Harper, who helped select her script, has been "super helpful and encouraging [with career advice], but I’m trying not to count my chickens before they hatch."
In addition to working behind the scenes, school students also appear on camera in "Roller Palace." Casting directors chose two students from BU’s School of Theatre Arts to play the main characters, while Sophomore Andrew Karlsruher served as mtvU’s correspondent for the "making of" coverage. mtvU’s Ross Martin said Karlsruher will take viewers "from the germ of an idea in Liz Coopersmith’s mind to a fully staffed and produced sitcom pilot – the journey is all on tape."
That journey was also documented using an MSN blog and other MSN technology. Wanting to look outside the Boston talent pool, casting directors held a national casting call online using MSN webcams and chose Sandra Afloarei from Arizona State University to play a supporting role.
Martin believes these types of creative collaborations are just the beginning for the entertainment industry. "College students are inventing the future of digital content every day on campuses across the country," he says. "And mtvU will always be a creative laboratory for that audience."
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