Universities Make Their Mark On Big, Small Screens

By: AP
By: AP

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Many know of the University of Michigan through its famous alumni — Madonna, Gerald Ford, Arthur Miller. And ... Gregory House, and Gerald and Karen DeGroot.

The first three names are really well-known in the fields of public policy, music and theater.

The last three aren't real at all.

House, the lead character on the Fox medical drama of the same name, is a Michigan medical school graduate, and the DeGroots are Michigan doctoral candidates who founded the mysterious Dharma Initiative at the center of the ABC serial "Lost."

Such tie-ins allow TV and film productions to be more authentic while at the same time providing universities with free advertising and the chance to up their coolness quotient.

"It's fun for everyone — alumni and students — to see their university pop up in film," said Lee Doyle, who heads up the University of Michigan's film office.

And while that may be, it sometimes can be serious business for Doyle and others who hold the equivalent job at major universities.

They have their school's reputation to consider in weighing whether to allow it to be associated with a TV show or movie.

The University of Southern California, which sits in the heart of the entertainment universe, often receives requests to use its name in the form of diplomas, shirts, pennants and the like.

"If we feel that the script is a positive reflection of higher education in general, as well as USC specifically, then we will approve the use of the item," said Torie Daves, the school's director of campus filming.

Princeton University also weighs filmed entertainment pitches on a case-by-case basis. One of the considerations sometimes is whether the production supports a university effort or initiative.

"We try to look for synergies with the project," said university spokeswoman Emily Aronson. "For instance, our interest in having more young women apply to the university and movies such as `A Cinderella Story,' and `Spanglish,' which featured female characters who apply to Princeton."

Another Ivy League school, Yale University, took extra steps to assist a production team in making Rory Gilmore's campus accommodations authentically Yale for the Connecticut-based but California-shot TV show "Gilmore Girls."

Helaine Klasky, Yale's director of public affairs, said the show's attention to detail was such that it even asked the school to supply some names of area restaurants for when Rory's family members come to visit and want to take her out for a meal.

The University of Michigan similarly assisted the U.K. production of the 2005 Joan Allen-Kevin Costner flick "The Upside of Anger" in staging a full-on commencement ceremony for Alicia Witt's character — complete with visually accurate representations of the university seal and caps and gowns.

Michigan also created and shipped to "House" a diploma to be placed on the wall in the good doctor's office on the show, which aired its season finale on Monday.

Another critical hit, "Lost," wraps up its season with a two-hour show on Wednesday. But unlike "House," "Lost" decided to go ahead with its Michigan connection without any input from the school — a move that at first was a tad unsettling for Doyle, the film office chief.

She found out about it while watching the show.

"I was sitting in the living room with my husband and said 'Oh my goodness!' I won't quote exactly what I said. (It was) more colorful than that," she said, laughing.

The university talked about it, but opted against reaching out to the "Lost" producers to discuss the use of the name.

"We decided to let it ride," Doyle said. "As time goes on, it's more apparent they're (the Dharma Initiative) not horrible people."


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