The Birth of Ball-E-Wood

August 5, 2008

It was the kind of pitch that’s usually made over a three-martini lunch in Los Angeles, and certainly not in the halls of academe. But when Rodger Smith sought funding to produce a new indie film, the Ball State University faculty member went to an unlikely place.

“I had to pitch this to the president and the provost, and for some strange reason they decided to go along with me,” said Smith, who is the producer of "My Name is Jerry," a film bankrolled in large part by Ball State. “This is not something a university does.”

Indeed. The university, based in Muncie, Ind., appears to be making a bit of history. As a lead producer of the film, Ball State may well be the first-ever university to put its money behind a privately developed commercial motion picture, according to those involved in the production.

A film crew of about 70 people, including about 45 students from Ball State, will wrap up shooting on “My Name is Jerry” in Muncie this week. The story centers on Jerry Arthur, a middle-aged, Midwestern encyclopedia salesman whose life is turned on its head when he meets a group of young punk rockers.

Jerry is played by Doug Jones, a Ball State alumnus who garnered cult status playing creepy creatures in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the “Hellboy” movies. Jones says he was attracted to the script, written by two Ball State alumni, as well as the idea of working on a film that was designed as an educational experience for students at the university.

“This being an educational endeavor is unlike anything I’ve ever done before, because we are filming a lot on a college campus, and our entire crew is college kids with the department heads that are all professionals,” said Jones, interviewed by phone from a hotel housed above Ball State’s student center.

“There is a learning curve going on in this film that is not present in other movies,” Jones added. “You just allow for that -- you do, or shouldn’t be involved in it. I should have said ‘no’ to this if I was going to roll my eyes at mistakes. But there aren’t enough mistakes to be of note, honestly. These kids are learning really fast.”

Smith, who heads the Institute for Digital Entertainment and Education at Ball State, wanted to ensure that the students actually contributed to the production – and didn’t drag it down because of their relative inexperience. In the weeks before shooting began, students were put through a boot camp of sorts. They ran basic drills, hustling to trucks to grab sandbags and lighting equipment that they’d need to be able to identify once shooting began.

“They kind of reminded me of cartoon characters bouncing into each other [early in the shoot],” Smith said. “But by the second week, now they’re moving ahead with some determination.”

The hope of those involved is that the real-world experience of working on the set of a commercial film will help propel Ball State graduates into careers in film making, as well as other emerging media. In addition to those working on the film set, about a dozen Ball State students have designed a substantial Internet-based marketing campaign that includes a Web site, as well as a presence on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Vying to Become a Major Player

Ball State has been marshalling resources toward media programs for years, helped in large part by two separate grants from the Lilly Foundation, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that has given more than $40 million to the university in the last several years for media-related programs.

While the university boasts state-of-the-art equipment thanks to those grants, Ball State has no film school and lacks the reputation of places like New York University and the University of Southern California, which are often regarded as the major players in film.

But Jo Ann Gora, Ball State’s president, has expressed an interest in transforming Indiana into a new hub for film making, much as Shreveport, La., has become in recent years. Some think that “Jerry” may plant the seed for such a movement, and that Ball State students will have more and more chances to experience the industry from the inside.

“Nobody knows about Ball State,” said David Hamilton, screenwriter for “Jerry.” “But I’m fairly certain they will.”

Of course, if “Jerry” finds distribution and proves a financial success -- or just manages to break even -- there may be other universities getting into the movie making business. Jones, the film’s star, certainly thinks so.

“I’ll bet you a dollar -- OK, mark my words -- that there will be copycat universities popping up everywhere doing this,” he said. “The bet’s on.”

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