“We Don’t Do That Here”

Jeff Vande Zande learned firsthand how the phrase can be the kiss of death to innovation, change and growth -- and then experienced the results of a very different approach.

June 1, 2017
 
Delta College film program
 

Over the last few years, I’ve presented at a number of regional and national conferences regarding Delta College’s advanced certificate in digital film production and its more recently developed two-year degree. Keep in mind that Delta is a midsize community college in the middle of Michigan, which is pretty far removed from the film centers of Los Angeles and New York City. Michigan’s tax incentives for out-of-state production companies have dried up so, as you can imagine, out-of-state production companies are seldom coming to the state anymore.

Regardless, Delta’s film program, which is geared toward independent filmmakers, continues to thrive. As a result, I continue to have opportunities to present at conferences about the evolution of the program.

My conference presentations tend to have titles like “Can a Community College Also Be a Film School?” What those who attend my presentations lack in number, they make up for in passion and interest. As I go through the development of Delta’s film program and subsequently illustrate the courses that it comprises, I see many of my attendees go slack-jawed. If the program’s scope doesn’t wow them, then ending by showing a couple of our student films usually does. None of this is bragging. For a community college, our program curriculum is extensive. If I may say so, our best student films are quite impressive, too.

When I finish, the attendees don’t file out to the next presentation. They stay. They have more specific questions about how our program came about. I ask them questions as well. Usually what I end up hearing about are the roadblocks that they’ve encountered. One gentleman told me, “I’ve been trying to develop an introductory screenwriting course at my college for the last six years. I always hear the same thing -- ‘We are a community college. We don’t do that here.’ I just can’t believe everything that Delta has done. How did you make that happen?”

I will admit that it wasn’t easy, especially the development of the two-year program. Our course offerings must look remarkable to someone who’s been trying to develop one course for six years. Courses in our program include: Introduction to Screenwriting, Advanced Screenwriting, Digital Cinematography for Film, Advanced Postproduction and Digital Film Capstone, in addition to many courses that already existed at Delta that make up the certificate and two-year degree.

The seed of the idea for a film program was planted years ago. While teaching my fiction-writing course, I continued to encounter students who really wanted to learn screenwriting, but Delta didn’t offer anything like that. Eventually, having heard students express the desire for a screenwriting course enough times, I went back and took courses in the genre. I used my experience to develop Introduction to Screenwriting. As I recall, it went through the curriculum process fairly quickly and was available to students in less than a year. As rationale, I had presented evidence of student desire for the course, and the evidence must have been accurate, because when the course was offered for the first time, it filled in six days. That was seven years ago, and since then, the course has run every fall and winter semester (and some spring semesters). Its sequel course, Advanced Screenwriting, runs at least once a year.

While I kept meeting fiction writers who really wanted to be screenwriters, a colleague of mine in the humanities was encountering broadcasting students who really wanted to be filmmakers. As a result, we sat down and cobbled together the advanced certificate in digital film production. To make it as easy as possible, we used existing courses and only later developed the more nuanced offerings mentioned above. After the certificate program existed for a few years, we began to hear from students who wanted more: the opportunity to earn a two-year degree in film production.

The endeavor of expanding into that kind of offering, admittedly, did take longer. In fact, it ended up taking about three years. We had to conduct a needs study and consult with our advisory board multiple times. We twice had to essentially start over due to administrative turnover, which meant bringing a new dean up to speed on the program. So, yes, there were hurdles and roadblocks, but never once did I have a chair, associate dean, dean, vice president or even a board member say, “A film production program? We are a community college. We don’t do that here.”

Instead, what I encountered sounded closer to, “A film production program? That sounds complicated and involved. It also sounds innovative and like a growth opportunity for the school. Proceed.” OK, nobody actually ever stated it quite like that, but that’s the vibe I felt as I worked through the process.

Had I been told “We don’t do that here” enough times, I probably would have backed down from the Introduction to Screenwriting course, which really got everything started in the first place. I have worked at other institutions where I heard “We don’t do that here.” It is the kiss of death to innovation, change and growth.

Had I heard “We don’t do that here” and listened, Delta College would not have an advanced certificate in digital film production or an associate’s degree. The college would not have all of the credit hours or the students the program generates. Many mid-Michigan students would not be able to pursue their dreams of film production, at least not at such a reasonable tuition.

Since we formed the program, our student films have begun to appear in regional film festivals. Some have won awards. One of our students recently landed a job in New York with the production company of a very well-known filmmaker. Why? Because the powers that be at Delta College didn’t say, “We don’t do that here.” Instead, they said, “Maybe we could do that here.” And that has made all the difference.

Bio

Jeff Vande Zande teaches fiction and screenwriting at Delta College. He has written screenplays that have been developed into short films and screened at regional and national film festivals. His novel American Poet won a Michigan Notable Book Award from the Library of Michigan. His most recent novel, Detroit Muscle, was influenced by his screenwriting knowledge.

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