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The first thing that visitors to the courtyard of the new School of Cinematic Arts complex at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles are greeted by is the swashbuckling bronze likeness of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. -- but not because he was so dazzling in The Mark of Zorro (or in any of his other legendary roles). It was Fairbanks, a titan of the silent-film era as well as one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who, around 1927, first suggested to his fencing partner, USC president Rufus B. von KleinSmid, that establishing a film class at the university might be a boffo idea (see time-line entry number one).

Since that seminal chitchat, USC’s film school has grown into arguably the finest in the world. It has produced names immediately recognizable to any movie buff, including George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Ron Howard, and Judd Apatow. Since 1973, at least one alumnus has been nominated annually for an Academy Award, with 256 nominations and 78 victories during that span.

And if bountiful resources provide both a boost to the learning process as well as a lure for gifted new filmmakers, that list may grow much larger. Lucas, who already has his name on one building from donations in a previous era, gifted at least $175 million via his organization Lucasfilm (other Hollywood contributors tossed in another $50 million) to construct and support a resplendent, state-of-the-industry compound that would have made Jack Warner jealous.

The USC School of Cinema Arts has lived by the longtime motto “Reality Ends Here.” After sizing up its new digs, it’s hard to argue.

Follow the Path to Where Reality Ends -- and Fantasy Begins

The inaugural class, Introduction to Photoplay, takes place on February 6, 1929; Fairbanks (above) himself is the first lecturer. Other speakers include Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille, and Irving Thalberg. It is this course that plants the seed for an entire film-training program.

The first Academy Awards ceremony takes place on May 16, 1929, at the swanky Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. In this debut presentation, the results are not a secret but rather are announced three months earlier; this practice changes permanently the following year.

In 1940, the newly renamed Department of Cinema program moves into a building nicknamed the Stables, so called because of its resemblance to a small horse barn and its dire lack of amenities. The school now has six full-time instructors and goes on to house the cinema department for the next 40 years.

In 1941, 25–year-old Orson Welles becomes the first person to ever receive Academy Award nominations in four categories -- producer, director, writer, and actor -- for Citizen Kane, the story of a ruthless newspaper publisher that is loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst.

In 1975, Jaws, a movie about a shark that dines on swimmers, debuts. The Steven Spielberg– directed thriller pulls in a whopping $7 million in its opening weekend (and has earned more than $260 million to date). The then-staggering numbers signal the beginning of the box-office-blockbuster era.

In early 1980, three years after the smash success of Star Wars, George Lucas spearheads an effort to create a new complex of buildings for the film school. By 1984, through the efforts of Lucas; his then-wife, Marcia; Steven Spielberg; Johnny Carson; and others, the film school is housed in five gleaming new structures. The school is rechristened the USC School of Cinema-Television.

In 2009, two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep receives her 15th Academy Award nomination for her role in the film adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt. Although she loses to Kate Winslet for The Reader, Streep pads her lead as the most nominated actor or actress of all time.

George Lucas agrees to pledge at least $175 million to USC for a new film school -- but only if he has strict control over the design and construction. The massive new Cinematic Arts Campus opens in January of 2009. An animation building and soundstages are currently being built.


Most successful directors you may not recognize on the street: JAY ROACH (Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, and the Austin Powers series; won an Emmy in 2008 for Recount) JOHN SINGLETON (youngest person, at 23, to be nominated in the Best Director category, and the first African-American, for Boyz n the Hood) // Most successful producing team: BRIAN GRAZER and RON HOWARD (won the Best Picture Oscar for A Beautiful Mind in 2002; nominated for Best Picture for Frost/Nixon in 2009) // Most honored cinematographer: CONRAD L. HALL (nominated 10 times, won thrice, for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1970, American Beauty in 2000, and Road to Perdition in 2003)