Partnering with other on-campus groups, including DukeArts and DEMAN, Kip Frey, director of the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, launched the StudioDuke program this year. The program enables students with arts-related projects to interact with alumni professionals in the entertainment industry for mentoring and evaluation.
Previous arts-related programs at Duke have been focused on giving students opportunities to build their networks or introduce them to different forms of art. However, StudioDuke is tailored to students with specific art projects to get feedback from professionals. The interest of students participating in the program ranges from screenwriting to artificial intelligence, representing diverse fields in the arts and entertainment industries.
When the program began to receive applications last year, most students submitted projects that they had already been working on either as individuals or a a part of their classes.
“The assumption of StudioDuke is not that a student comes to I&E and we help them come up with an idea,” Frey said. “This is really for projects that are far enough for professionals to be able to evaluate and help with them.”
After the program committee selected students based on projects that they had submitted, the students were paired with alumni members in the arts and entertainment industries according to their shared interests. Frey recalled that alumni were very willing to contribute to the program as mentors.
“The alumni in the entertainment industry are extremely loyal to Duke and are very anxious to be helpful in ways like this,” Frey said. “It was quite easy to recruit a very impressive list of mentors.”
Beginning this semester, students in the program have been communicating with their mentors to develop their projects further.
Senior Jacqueline Monetta has been working on her project, a screenplay titled “Escape from Tehran,” with Ryan White, Trinity ‘04, a director and executive producer of several films and series, including Netflix’s “The Keepers.”.
Monetta’s script is based on a book that her grandfather, a former Iranian government official imprisoned during the Iranian Revolution, published a few years ago as well as on conversations with her grandmother and mother. Monetta said her grandfather met her grandmother, an American woman from Minnesota, while attending college in the U.S. The couple, with their two children, moved to Iran, where Monetta’s grandfather served as vice minister of health before being arrested during the revolution. After escaping from jail, Monetta’s grandfather wrote a book based on the notes that he had taken on his conversations with other imprisoned government officials, passing them to his wife through the laundry.
Monetta is turning her grandfather’s story into a film. With the help of Jody McAuliffe, professor of the practice of Theater Studies, Monetta was able to write a draft of the script. Meeting with White during DEMAN Arts & Media Weekend, Monetta discovered their shared interest in films that spark political and social action. Through the StudioDuke program, they met each other again and began to polish Monetta’s script further.
Communicating with Monetta over the phone, White, who lives in Los Angeles, gives her advice on how to pitch her film in an accessible way to the public. White wrote in an email that he was willing to help undergraduate students not only develop interest in creative industries, but also learn the practical sides of them.
“I want them to have creative growth but also learn practical skill and knowledge that could aid them in a creative career after college,” he wrote.
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Meanwhile, junior Robin Wang is working on a science fiction and mystery film called “SWITCH.” He got the inspiration for the film, which is about a professor who becomes ill and hires an artificial intelligence assistant to teach his students for him, from his linear algebra class in his freshman year. One day, he and his classmates had “a beautiful, young female teacher” that replaced their respectable but elderly professor whose lectures they often found confusing.
“Her teaching was so lucid that we just wanted her to stay with us from then on,” he wrote in an email. “Then I had an idea: Could she be an artificial intelligence created by the older professor, while he is somewhere else monitoring how we would respond to his experiment/creation?”
It took more than a year for Wang to write his screenplay, shoot the film and work on its post-production under the guidance of several Duke professors. As a member of the StudioDuke program, he is now working with Mark Vahradian, Trinity ‘89, who works as a film producer at Paramount Pictures, on pitching his film to studio executives.
Vahradian wrote in an email that he is also helping other Duke students establish connections in the film industry.
“The film and television business is a hard industry to crack even if you went to an incredible undergraduate or graduate film school, because you need to know people here to break in,” he wrote. “I got involved in the [StudioDuke], DEMAN and Duke in L.A. programs ... to share my knowledge and contacts with students who want to break in.”
Both students and mentors in the program saw it as a great opportunity outside of classes.
“There are so many amazing people out there that graduated from Duke that are willing to help you,” Monetta said. “StudioDuke concentrates that into your interest.”