It's an oft-told bit of Jacksonville lore that early in the 20th century the city competed with New York and Los Angeles as a center of motion picture production. But by 1917, political opposition here and a milder climate there led filmmakers to abandon Jacksonville for Hollywood.
A vestige of Jacksonville's decade as a film capital is located on Arlington Road: the old Norman Studios, built in 1916, which a nonprofit foundation is trying to turn into a museum.
Now administrators at Jacksonville University, a few blocks from that piece of the city's movie past, are hoping the school can become a significant part of Jacksonville's movie future.
In July, JU President Kerry Romesberg and Bill Hill, JU dean of fine arts, hired Rich Heller to become executive director of the university's film and television program. Heller said one of his goals is to open a multimillion-dollar working film studio on campus, which could provide students with practical experience and attract projects from outside filmmakers.
Heller, 60, spent about four decades working in Hollywood, mostly as an executive with various television production companies. He was an executive at Columbia Pictures Television in the 1980s when the studio made such shows as "Hill Street Blues," "Trapper John, M.D." and "Designing Women."
Making a move, movie
About a year ago, he and his wife, Max, decided they were tired of living in Los Angeles, Heller said in a recent interview. Max had grown up in Jacksonville, so they decided to relocate to Atlantic Beach.
One of the first people he met after arriving was Fran Kinne, JU's former president, who has a lot of Hollywood connections. She introduced Heller to Romesberg and Hill.
Three years ago, JU began offering a major in film and television production. The program is still small - the first class of four film majors graduated last spring. The university had long-range plans to build the program's reputation and add a graduate degree, a master's of fine arts, Hill said. But those plans sat on the back burner until they met Heller.
"I couldn't let that opportunity pass," Hill said. "He's a very dynamic individual with an extensive background in the industry."
Romesberg said he had the same reaction. "Here's a guy who just has an unbelievable background," he said. "When we met Rich, I thought, 'Boy, how lucky we are.'"
Meanwhile, Todd Roobin, head of the city's film and television office, had heard about Heller's move from Steve Papasian, president of Worldwide Physical Production at Warner Bros. Pictures. Papasian and Roobin met during production of "Pointman," a television series that filmed in Jacksonville in 1995. Roobin said Papasian gave him a heads-up that Heller was someone Roobin should know.
"It's a huge coup for JU to have him on board," Roobin said. "Rich is very visionary and very well-connected in Los Angeles."
"We are lucky to have a Hollywood insider with such an accomplished body of work and his ability to pick up the phone and make things happen," said Mike Ossi, a Jacksonville entertainment attorney whose clients include John Travolta. "He will be a driving force with the entertainment industry in Florida."
During his years in Hollywood, Heller's jobs included: senior vice president for development at Krofft Productions, the company that produced such shows as "H.R. Pufnstuf" and "Land of the Lost"; vice president of Twentieth Century Fox Television, vice president for comedy at NBC; senior vice president, comedy programming, for Columbia Pictures Television, where he helped develop and produce about 40 pilots, including his favorite project, "Designing Women"; and president of Lee Rich Television Productions, for which he produced a number of TV movies.
His feature film credits include co-producing the 1995 Pauly Shore movie, "Jury Duty," and serving as executive producer of the 1997 movie "Masterminds." For the last seven years he was a partner with Jerry Weintraub, former chairman of United Artists, who produced this summer's "Karate Kid" (as well as the original) and the "Ocean's" trilogy.
To be or not to be?
Heller said he has had no regrets about leaving L.A. for Jacksonville.
"Jacksonville is very different than Hollywood," he said. "It's an extraordinary place to be because of the folks who live here. ... Nobody has an agenda."
He said his goals for the JU film program include building it in size and prestige. One of his plans for doing that is getting people he knows from the industry to teach by offering them a master's degree in return.
"My offer will be: Come here and teach for six weeks. I'll give you an MFA," he said.
His most ambitious goal is to build a working studio on the JU campus "that could be a destination for filmmakers." That would involve raising $5 million to $12 million, he said, and is not something he expects to happen in the immediate future.
Hill said that while JU will never have a film program that can compete with top-tier film schools such as USC, New York University, Northwestern or Florida State, he wants to be at "the top of the second tier."
Heller's understanding that film is both a "viable art form" and "a business our students can be employed in" makes him the ideal man to guide the JU film program toward that goal, Hill said.
"Why Jacksonville University?" Heller asked. "My response is: Why not? ... This is my passion right now."
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