The university wants to play a major role in the city’s movie future.
By Charlie Patton
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."
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.
"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."
To be or not to be?
"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."
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.
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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