The donation of 300 screenplays to the University of Richmond last spring could not have come at a better time. Just as the gift was announced, the faculty voted to establish a film studies major.

“The screenplay donation was a great synchronicity,” says English professor Abigail Cheever, who led the effort to establish the major. “When I saw the list of screenplays I was amazed at the depth and range of the materials. … The collection is an unexpected resource that will come in handy for students who are interested in pursuing film studies.”

The screenplays, many of them first or second revisions including directors’ notes and changes, were donated by the Virginia Screenwriters’ Forum and will be housed at Boatwright Memorial Library. The collection includes screenplays from both classic and contemporary films in a number of genres, from “Gone with the Wind” and “Annie Hall,” to “The Sixth Sense” and “Sling Blade.”

The Right Time for Film Studies

Paired with the library's 10,000 video titles, the screenplay collection will provide a rich source of primary study materials for film studies majors. The new major was established in response to student interest combined with a nationwide trend.

“A surprising number of colleges and universities are starting new film studies programs,” Cheever says. “It is only in the last two or so years I felt we had the number of faculty we needed and the resources. It has been a really exciting time.” Since arriving at the university eight years ago to teach film studies classes, Cheever says she has heard from many students who wanted to delve more deeply into the topic.

Classes in the major will be taught by existing faculty, many of whom were already teaching classes about film. Majors must take nine classes to fulfill their requirements, with six of these classes as electives. With offerings ranging from film theory and documentary journalism, to Russian cinema and writing for the stage and screen, students will be able to customize the program to suit their interests. Although students cannot declare the major until fall 2010, classes taken prior to this date will count toward the major.

Intrepreting, Analyzing Visual Text

With today’s students growing up in a world saturated by visual media, it’s only natural they would want to make sense out of “the tsunami of visual text,” Cheever says. “Doing visual interpretation and analysis of film extends naturally from that exposure.”

Film can be studied in a variety of different ways, making film studies a highly interdisciplinary major. Filmmaking is big business, and students can examine the economy of the industry and the way in which films are marketed. Film criticism involves a study of both the mechanics and aesthetics of a film. By learning about screenwriting and film production techniques, students can make their own films and documentaries.

Through studying international films, students “gain access to different cultures and areas of experience they may not otherwise be exposed to,” Cheever says. “Film can become for students a vehicle through which they understand the cultures and traditions of another country.”

Richmond has long offered students and the community opportunities to examine the world through film. Its free International Film Series, organized by Media Resource Center Director Paul Porterfield, is in its 21st year. The university is also a co-sponsor, along with Virginia Commonwealth University, of the French Film Festival held in Richmond each spring.

Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures.