Bears In The Biz

October 13, 2003

Last spring and early summer, director John Lee Hancock was busy overseeing a Mexican uprising on a sprawling movie set outside of Austin, Texas -- the $90 million production of "The Alamo," a Disney film starring Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid set for release this Christmas. 
That this Texas City native was recreating the historical legend of the classic underdog -- 200 Texans under siege for 13 days in 1836 by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna's numerous forces -- seems fitting for the Baylor undergraduate and Law School alumnus who admits he enjoys taking on the odds.
"It keeps you on your toes," Hancock says. "I always felt a strong sense of having a great education combined with a bit of that underdog status. Especially in sports, it always seemed that Baylor had to work harder than some other universities for deserved recognition."
The sports analogy is fitting for the Hancock family: His father, John Lee Hancock Sr., BS '53, lettered in football in 1950 and 1951 and brother, Kevin, BBA '87, was a linebacker who lettered from 1981-84. When John Lee finished Baylor Law School in 1982, he went to work for a Houston law firm but found he couldn't abandon his true interest. An English major as an undergraduate, he diligently kept at his writing, working on screenplays and plays. Before long, he left his promising legal career and moved to Southern California, depending on his muse and his wits to make a go of it.
"The worst advice I got was to take the California bar and practice here while I was writing and waiting for my break," Hancock says. Instead, the solitude and uncertainty forced him to concentrate on his craft -- and make his own breaks. 
"I feel the spartan existence of loneliness in the big city was actually a good thing for my writing as I'd moved here from Houston, where I had literally hundreds of friends and fun things to do on any given day or night," he says.
Hancock held numerous jobs those next few years, took acting classes, worked in local theater and, with a screenplay written in 1991, he finally got noticed. Clint Eastwood discovered Hancock's script set in the 1950s about an escaped convict who kidnaps a little boy as he flees across Texas. "A Perfect World," released in 1993 and starring Kevin Costner, caught the attention of the critics, although it didn't do particularly well in theaters. 
Since then, Hancock has built an impressive résumé as one of Hollywood's brightest writers/directors/producers: "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," "My Dog Skip," "The Rookie" and the television series, "L.A. Doctors." 
As director of "The Alamo," Hancock took charge of one of the biggest-budgeted films ever shot in Texas on one of the largest sets -- 51 acres. Yet, despite the pressures, fellow Baylor alumni and movie extra Chris Jones, MDiv '01, says Hancock earned the trust and loyalty of the cast and crew.
"John Lee remained a humble, well-tempered figure, choosing to chew down his fingernails rather than chew out a fellow worker," Jones says. "He gave us a sense of ownership in the project, driving us to do our best work." (See related story)
As Hancock waits for the film's December release, he's already committed to writing "King Arthur," an action-adventure due out in December 2004, and has at least three other films in development -- "RADS," "Shooter" and "Take Down." 
Two other Baylor alums, screenwriters Derek Haas, BA '91, MA '95, and Michael Brandt, BBA '91, MA '94, are busy writing some history of their own. In June, their much-anticipated "2 Fast 2 Furious" by Universal Pictures was released, and 20th Century Fox's "Mission Without Permission," an action/adventure/comedy, is slated for release in January. They also are in the midst of work on "Spy-Hunter," based on the video game of the same name that became an arcade favorite soon after its 1983 debut, and are writing a remake of the Western "3:10 to Yuma" for Sony Pictures. "The Photograph," another of their scripts, is in preproduction at Lion's Gate Films.
The two, friends since their days at Baylor, are close, and it shows in their work. "We share a voice," Haas says. "Even though there are two of us writing, it comes from one voice."
The collaboration began in a graduate school screenwriting class at Baylor when they discovered they both wanted to be writers. With their graduate degrees in hand, however, they went their separate ways in 1994 -- Brandt to Los Angeles as a film editor and Haas to Atlanta to work in advertising. While 3,000 miles apart, they began corresponding, and then writing a movie script, via e-mail. The result was "The Courier," a story about a man who delivers things to people who don't want to be reached. 
"We came up with this idea for 'The Courier' and started passing it back and forth via e-mail. We hadn't seen each other for three years, but we kept writing together at night," Haas says. "We conceived, wrote and sold it without seeing each other," Brandt adds.
The day after "The Courier" sold in the six-figure range, Haas quit his job at the Atlanta advertising firm, and he and his wife, Kristi, BSE '95, moved to Los Angeles. Today, the script continues to wend its way through the arcane world of Hollywood studios - and financing. 
Even though now in the same city, they continue to write separately, e-mailing each other their work. "The power to write on your own and make mistakes on your own without someone looking over your shoulder is much better," Brandt says. "It's like we're constantly rewriting ourselves and each other. By the time it's a finished script, it's been through a lot of self-editing. The studio gets something that's much further along."
One of the first Baylor grads to catch Hollywood's attention was the son of Baylor's president emeritus Herbert H. Reynolds. Kevin "Hal" Reynolds directed the box-office success "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" in 1991. Riding high from its critical and popular acclaim, he launched into production of "Waterworld," a post-apocalyptic, budget-buster of a film starring Costner, his good friend and "Robin Hood" star. Released in 1995, the film was a dismal failure, receiving scathing reviews and languishing in the market. Reynolds felt the full brunt of the roller-coaster ride that is Hollywood.
Two years later, he came out with a smaller film -- almost anything would have qualified after "Waterworld" -- called "187," a story about an inner-city high school teacher starring Samuel L. Jackson. "The Count of Monte Cristo," released in 2002, put his career back on Hollywood's front burner. Reynolds was in Europe last summer working on an adaptation of "Tristan and Isolde," with Ridley Scott serving as executive producer. His resurrection with "The Count of Monte Cristo" taught him another valuable lesson: "All success in this business is fleeting," he says.
Reynolds discovered theater in high school and nurtured his interest through his undergraduate years at Baylor. Bowing to his family's career goals for him, he attended Baylor Law School and went to work for a firm in Austin after graduation. In 1979, though, he left Texas and moved to Los Angeles to attend the filmmaking program at the University of Southern California.
Reynolds found his inspiration at Baylor from a handful of professors, one of whom was the English department's Tom Hanks. "His energy and attitude made even the driest literature come to life," Reynolds says. Another favorite was Dr. Stanley Campbell in the history department. "Though I only took one class from him, the way he taught, the discussions we had in his office, were terrific and open-ended," he says. Not surprisingly, Reynolds has made his mark primarily with films based on historic incidents.
In past decades, several generations of Bears have migrated to Los Angeles and burrowed deeply into "the biz" -- movies, television, music, video production and artist representation. The fact that so many Baylor grads have "made it," or are in the process of doing so, in such a tough business not only stems from the education they received but also as a result of the age-old maxim: It's not only what you know, it's who you know.
Baylor's telecommunication studies department chair Michael Korpi and senior lecturer Brian Elliott made sure Baylor graduates would have that network. Through their efforts, a true community of the green and gold has established itself in the land of milk and honey. Nearly a decade ago, Dr. Korpi began developing an alumni e-mail list so students and alumni could keep abreast of what was going on in New York and Los Angeles. "We needed some kind of contact back to Baylor so that five, eight years later, new people coming out would still be able to connect," he says.
Elliott, BA '84, MA '90, teaches a variety of telecommunication subjects and serves as director of interns for the department. He is the primary point of connection for alumni.
Jay Gammill, BA '03, began classes at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television this fall to work toward an MFA in film and television. He says Elliott shares more than just the how-to's of the business. "I have learned more of the practical and producing side of the film industry, but I also have been able to talk with him one-on-one about concerns I've had about going into the entertainment industry and career path choices. His support and care have really encouraged me to press on with my goals and not give up."
That mentoring relationship is exactly what Elliott wants to provide for students. "Students come to me and my job is to listen and help counsel them, then try to facilitate them getting where they want to be. One of the ways to do that is to help connect them with other people." 
Before "LA" meant a city in California to alumnus Geoff Moore, it meant liberal arts. Moore, BA '98, is a fast-rising development director at Mad Chance Productions and had a hand in bringing such films as "Space Cowboys," "The War Between Cats and Dogs" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" to the screen. He credits his wide-ranging courses at Baylor for his success. "The University Scholars Program was the best thing I could have done in terms of having a grounded liberal arts education," he says. "It allowed me in one semester to take classes in philosophy, history and screenwriting."
Getting a good education is one thing; surviving in Hollywood once you get there is another. During their first months on the West Coast, screenwriters Brandt and Haas say their Baylor connection was a lifeline.
"Half of surviving in Hollywood your first year is being able to find friends who are normal," Haas says. "When I moved out here, there were at least a dozen people we knew from Baylor who were living in Los Angeles. It was great to be able to come out here and immediately have that network of friends."
Although there's no single educational formula for success in the business, many have come through Baylor's communication studies department, which offers majors in speech communication, telecommunication and communication specialist, and minors in corporate communication, performance studies, broadcast management and telecommunication production. Telecommunication has about 250 students, Dr. Korpi says, and is small enough to offer students firsthand experience and close working relationships with professors and graduate students.
It worked for Brandt and Haas, who were able to make two student movies before they left Waco. "If I had gone to USC or UCLA, I would have been a minnow swimming along with the school, and you're lucky if you get to make a movie," Brandt says. "Because Baylor's telecom department is relatively small, the professors have so much more room to maneuver. Everything I did in the department was geared toward my goals."
Kevin Childress, BA '94, has worked as a film editor on various music videos and concerts featuring artists such as Henry Rollins, Green Day and Chris Rock. In the past two years, he's become known for his creative editing and production of theatrical trailers and TV commercials, including for "Memento," which received two Golden Trailer Awards and a nomination for the Best Dramatic Trailer at the 2001 Key Art Awards. 
"If it wasn't for Baylor and their film department, I probably never would have found that I love editing, that I actually have some talent in that area and that I could pursue editing as a career," he says. Childress adds that the department helped him get an internship at a postproduction facility in Hollywood one summer, which was his start in the business.
An added bonus for Baylor students is that the telecommunication studies department has stayed ahead of the technology curve. The University was one of the first to install digital nonlinear editing systems, years before the film departments in most state schools, Dr. Korpi says. Those editing systems now are the industry norm. 
Baylor also was involved in the early stages of the High Definition Television (HDTV) revolution. The department currently is looking at cutting-edge interactive television and video-gaming technologies. "We're not interested in the entry-level jobs," Dr. Korpi says. "We were always interested in where our students are going to be 10, 15 years down the road."
As important as the practical knowledge and the access to technology are, what matters most to many alumni were the relationships and the Christian mission of Baylor -- both of which have served the Bears in Hollywood well.
That background has enabled Reynolds to endure and ultimately succeed in a system known for crushing dreams. It also has impacted his work. "I suppose if there's one recurring theme in my work," he says, "it's an obsession with loss of innocence -- that inevitability that every human being undergoes in the process of living a life." At the same time, his passion to make fiercely independent films has not waned, despite numerous setbacks.
"The professors in the telecom department genuinely want so much for their students to succeed," says Gavin Black, BA '98, director of acquisitions and development for Providence Entertainment in Los Angeles, a theatrical distributor for family-friendly films such as "Extreme Days" and "The Joyriders." He adds, "To this day they are still in touch with me. Most important, they showed me that I can have a positive influence on the world through media."
As graduates of a Baptist university, many of these alumni depend on their Christian heritage to keep them centered in a culture not always amenable to their beliefs. Given the massive sway media has on America's collective psyche, that Baylor can send forth a cadre of its own to impact Tinseltown is not inconsequential.
"My hope is that our kids would not only be shaped by an industry, but have enough inside of them that they would begin to shape that industry as well," Elliott says. "If our grads are not continuing to be the whole, wonderful people that they are, what's the point?"
"Christians are finally seeing Hollywood as a mission field and not Satan's playground," says Bryan Belknap, BA '94, media editor for Group magazine. Belknap wrote, produced and directed "Behind the Messiah," a video that retells the life of Christ and spoofs the VH1 "Behind the Music" series; it was released earlier this year. His screenplay, "Mr. Popularity," has been optioned by a producer and a spec script for the "Bernie Mac" televison series is making the rounds in the studios as well.
"I'm grateful for the knowledge, discipline and clarity of moral integrity that I received at Baylor, but above all, Baylor was the place that I began my relationship with Jesus Christ," says Jeffrey Coates, BBA '78, MBA '79. He has held a variety of jobs in Hollywood, including producer of the Hallmark production, "The Summer of Ben Tyler." He adds, "I know this sounds corny, but the obvious and truly outstanding influence has been my relationship with God. His love and guidance have given me strength and wisdom beyond all understanding to build, sustain and enjoy a full career."
Group magazine's Belknap adds that living in Los Angeles will, inevitably, change anyone who moves there. "Either you're going to grow stronger and more firm in your spiritual beliefs or you'll go off the deep end and indulge in all the forbidden things you've only read about in trashy magazines," he says. "The thing is, no one holds you accountable out here. No one expects you to live by Christian ideals, so there's no reason to -- unless you really believe them."
Baylor Bears in Hollywood: It's a plot line nobody would believe and proof that truth can be stranger than fiction. Close to 50 names of Baylor alumni working in the industry rolled in from one contact or another when accumulating information for this story. And the road from Central Texas to Hollywood continues to carry new recruits every year. This past year saw current Baylor students interning with such powerhouses as Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Ridley Scott's Scott Free, the Shapiro Lichtman Talent Agency, Immortal Entertainment, L.A. Digital Post, VH1 and Sony. Three other students interned at the legendary Cannes Film Festival.
So, is this the first wave of a full-scale invasion by Baylor students? At the very least, as Brandt points out, the opportunities and contacts are there. "I don't think there's anything in the water," he jokes. "There's not one specific skill people are learning at Baylor, but I think that the pipeline is open. Once that happens, that creates a channel that makes it a little easier for people to come out here. There's a little bit of a Baylor rock to hang onto when you get here."
"The friendships I made in Baylor continue to this day," John Lee Hancock adds. "My friends keep me grounded and in touch with life outside Los Angeles."
And, in the end, "once a Bear, always a Bear" has its advantages. Geoff Moore, for instance, is credited with bringing Haas and Brandt to Mad Chance for "Mission Without Permission." Valerie K. Dillingham, BA '92, a senior writer/producer for NBC on-air promotions in Los Angeles, puts it bluntly: "The more people that come out here and succeed, the more opportunities there are for others who wish to follow. Let's be honest," she says, "two equally impressive résumés come across your desk, one from Baylor, chances are, you're gonna help a Bear."

Additional reporting by Vicki Marsh Kabat