Thanks to an ongoing partnership between Turner Classic Movies and Ball State University, movie fans once again have the chance to do a deep-dive into a classic film-related topic in a free online class, and this year’s theme is definitely something to dance about.
This summer’s online course is titled ‘Mad About Musicals‘ and will focus on the history of the Hollywood Musical. Class will be in session June 3-30, 2018 and Ball State and TCM have a lot up their sleeves this year, from the Musicals Fan Meet-Up at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival to the network’s spotlight on Hollywood Musicals in June.
The free online courses have been led by Dr. Richard Edwards, Executive Director for Strategic Learning at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, since 2015 with ‘Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir.’ Beginning with ‘Slapstick Fall’ in 2016, the project has become an immersive learning opportunity for Ball State students called the Let’s Movie Design Studio, in which the students help create original content for TCM’s social media channels and the annual online courses.
I caught up with Edwards over the phone to talk Ball State’s partnership with TCM, the lowdown on this summer’s ‘Mad About Musicals’ free online course, and what he’s looking forward to at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival.
CINEMA CROSSROADS: How did the partnership between Ball State University and TCM come about?
RICHARD EDWARDS: Back in 2014 the Director of Business Development and Strategy at TCM, Shannon Clute, was exploring the possibility of teaching an online course and he reached out to me at Ball State as someone with a PhD and director of an online learning program. There was a really great intersection between what we do here at Ball State with online education and emerging media. What TCM was looking for as part of their mission was to curate and contextualize American film to offer an additional educational experience.
Ball State is a leader in creating immersive learning opportunities for its students. What role do the students play in creating the TCM online courses?
One of the things TCM was very interested in was getting Ball State students involved in the experience. A lot of this comes from the idea of exploring fresh ideas on how to activate audiences around a love of classic film. We know that people love film in general, but classic films aren’t necessarily finding a younger audience. So, one of the great opportunities here is to have Ball State students who are under 25 years of age helping craft a strategy to draw in new viewers to TCM. The students help build social media campaigns and video lecture material, and they are thinking about ways to share the love of classic films broadly, not only to TCM viewers already familiar with the network, but also to attract new viewers.
Shannon came up to Muncie in January to pitch the ideas that they’re looking for the students to develop, and the students create a lot of material that gets approved and validated by TCM’s social media team: social videos to promote the course and movies, GIFs, Twitter campaigns, Facebook posts, Tumblr posts. So, the students operate as a design studio to realize new ideas to promote online education and classic movies for TCM, and it’s really nice that their work actually gets pushed out on TCM’s social media channels.
So far, the course topics have included Noir, Slapstick, and Hitchcock. How do you decide on a theme each year?
When it started in 2014, we didn’t know what genre we were going to do first. Shannon and I have co-written a book on film noir and as we were discussing a partnership between Ball State and and TCM, it was actually my boss at the time that said, “Hey, you’re experts on film noir, you should do a class on noir.” It’s kind of obvious in retrospect, but at the time we weren’t thinking about our own specialty at first—we were thinking about an educational initiative. Then turned out that TCM already had ‘Summer of Darkness’ on tap, so it worked out perfectly. It was a very successful activation experience for the network, so they wanted to do it again in 2016 and it was TCM’s General Manager Jennifer Dorian who picked out the topic of Slapstick Comedy. As it was going into the third year, we saw TCM was going to program 50 Years of Hitchcock in July 2017 and it became obvious that Hitchcock would be a great academic subject.
When we were going into year four, we had been surveying the students who took the first three online courses and the number one genre that was suggested was Musicals. The other reason we picked Musicals is that I wanted to get some new people in teaching like Vanessa Ament, who teaches a Musicals course [on Ball State’s campus]. And even before we were thinking about what genre we would pick for this year Vanessa offered to teach an online course on Musicals, so like with film noir, the magic, everything lined up. And TCM was already thinking about highlighting Musicals in their 2018 programming. Between the skills we have here at Ball State and amazing professors like Vanessa and the programming initiatives, a lot of these things have lined up in really powerful ways.
What can we expect from this summer’s ‘Mad About Musicals’ online course?
What you can expect from the ‘Mad About Musicals’ course is a lot of excitement. We’re doing a lot of things we’ve never done in the course. There’s the new instructor, Vanessa Ament, who I’m nicknaming “The Performing PhD” because she sings, dances, acts, and also has a PhD. We’re breaking up the film discussions to bring in more experts than ever before. Seven-time Academy Award®-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom (Ready Player One, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2) is going to be joining Vanessa to talk about the Musicals in the video lectures. Wes Gehring is coming back to talk about the role of comedy in Musicals. I’m coming in with a series of lectures talking about some of the darker themes in the Hollywood Musicals and the way melodrama and noir has played out in Musicals of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.
We always want to make the courses fun and engaging, so we’re also having the return of the games, including a new version of the hangman game and “A Quiz is Born” where you’ll play against Vanessa in a timed quiz to test your Musical acumen. We’re also developing different games that will be around recognizing some of the songs and images from the Musicals. We’re still going to be live tweeting so people can watch along with these great films. There will also be “Daily Doses of Delight,” our daily video clip which started back with the film noir as the “Daily Dose of Darkness.” New this year we’ll have a podcast where Vanessa and I will enter into a longer conversation every Friday about the history of the Hollywood Musicals. There will be badges and certificates like before. The course will be shorter this year—just four weeks—and it will run in exactly the same time frame as the programming on TCM in June.
You’ll be co-hosting the Musicals Fans Meet-Up at TCMFF 2018. What else are you looking forward to at the festival this year?
I’m obviously looking forward to the Musicals meet-up because Vanessa, who is a professional singer, will be leading a sing-along of Classic Hollywood show tunes. I don’t think that should be missed because there are a lot of things you do at film fests but one of the things people need to do a little bit more is singing songs together. There will also be an informal discussion and a special ribbon you can get. It’s going to be a really fun and engaging event and I hope people can check it out.
There are so many great films at the fest as always, but I’m really looking forward to The Producers. Mel Brooks is the guest of honor and it’s opening night at the Chinese Theatre; it’s absolutely a highlight. [TCM] always does such a great job connecting Hollywood stars to relive, discuss, experience, and share with the audience the great films they starred in or worked on, so the film fest is just one of those once-a-year opportunities to embrace one’s full love of the movies with one of my favorite communities. It’s also so great to see so many people who have taken our online courses over the last three years, and there are a lot of mini reunions that are happening, too. Every time I go to the fest I feel I’m truly in the land of film lovers.
Enrollment for ‘Mad About Musicals’ is now open! Click HERE to register for this FREE online course which runs June 3-30, 2018. Tune in to TCM every Tuesday and Thursday in June for TCM’s Spotlight on the Hollywood Musical (full schedule HERE) and join the conversation on Twitter using #TCMusicals.
Julia is an alumna of Ball State University. Responses have been edited for clarity.