The film program at Penn State was originally housed in the Department of Theatre within the College of Arts and Architecture. It started out as a single course taught in the 1960s by David Shepard, a renowned film archivist from the American Film Institute, who later served as vice president of Blackhawk Films, a distributor of vintage and silent films.
While the program was still at the College of Arts and Architecture, a number of faculty members specializing in production were hired. The program received a major boost in the early 1970s when George Bouwman, who ran the undergraduate film program at New York University when the celebrated filmmaker Martin Scorsese was teaching there, decided he needed a change of pace and moved to Penn State, where he was appointed professor of theatre arts.
One of the first people he asked to join the program upon assuming his new position was Dorn Hetzel, a graduate of the film program at New York University, who at the time was working in the industry. While the program was housed at the College of Arts and Architecture, roughly 700 students were enrolled each semester in the four sections of “The Art of Cinema” that were offered.
In 1984, former President Bryce Jordan appointed a communications study group, which recommended that Penn State strive to achieve national prominence in communications study. Jordan proposed to the Board of Trustees establishing an independent school of communications that would incorporate into what was then the School of Journalism both the film program and the telecommunications program. The faculty in the film program were initially reluctant to make the move, feeling that their natural place was in the College of Arts and Architecture. Ultimately, however, they understood that the invitation to join the new school represented recognition of the important work they were doing. Approved by the Board of Trustees, the new school began operating on July 1, 1985, with R. Dean Mills serving as acting dean.
“The faculty were very apprehensive about the move,” recalls Hetzel, the longtime head of Penn State’s film-video program. “We thought that people from all these other disciplines wouldn’t understand what we do. It turns out that we were 100 percent wrong about that. It came from a common misconception that only like will appreciate like. As a matter of fact, though, we learned that traditional academics were excited about having us guys in the pretentious black turtlenecks join them. It came as a very severe shock to our system to find that what we did was often better understood and appreciated than before.”
The introductory film course that was developed at the time, continues Hetzel, “was an attempt to find a way for young people who had academic experience, an orientation toward words, to learn how to ‘read’ and understand visual images. For this reason, there was a consensus among faculty right from the start on the need to develop a curriculum that would balance the creative with the critical. There was a belief that you couldn’t learn to make films if you didn’t see and think about films.”
In 1995, the College of Communications was created — a significant change in clarifying its independent status within Penn State, and in fall 2000, under the leadership of Dean Doug Anderson, the college departmentalized, with each department head reporting to the dean. As part of this process, two separate majors — film-video and media studies — were combined into one department.
The media studies program had sprouted out of the old communications studies major, created in the 1960s as an inter-departmental offering of what had been the School of Journalism and the speech communications department — both housed in the College of Liberal Arts.
Professor John Nichols, who headed the media studies program before the restructuring, chaired the committee that drafted the proposal to departmentalize the college. The decision to merge film-video and media studies into one department, he said, was based on the fact that the film-video program did not have a critical mass of faculty and students at the time for the university to approve it as an independent department.
“Media studies was somewhat larger than film-video but still smaller than the other new departments — journalism, telecommunications and advertising/public relations,” he recalls. “So logistically, combining film-video and media studies made sense.” There was also a natural academic connection between the two programs, he notes. “Film studies was integral to both the film-video production-oriented major and the media studies academically oriented major, and a number of film studies courses were required of students of both majors. The combination also integrated the professional and academic missions of the college.”
The newly formed department, initially headed by Mary Mander, is now chaired by Anthony Olorunnisola. It houses a unique combination of leading scholars, teachers and practitioners with expertise in media effects; media policy; international and political communication; political economy; cultural studies; and film theory, history and criticism, as well as film and video production. Its curriculum is guided by the principle that theory and practice are complementary and mutually reinforcing, with course offerings encouraging theoretical and applied approaches to cultural studies, research methods and production in film, video and other digital media.