Peter Rosten still talks like a Hollywood insider. A former television and movie producer who retired to Montana in 2001, Rosten discusses “green-lighting” projects and acting like he’s the head of a production studio. He says his current work is the same as creating a “pilot episode,” a test show television networks judge before picking up a full series. And Rosten does more than just talk like he’s still in the entertainment industry—he acts like it as well, treating MAPS: Media Arts in the Public Schools, which he founded two years ago, as if it’s a multi-million-dollar prime-time program rather than a promising school-to-work program for Montana teenagers.
“I train these kids the same way I was taught in Hollywood because this is what I know,” says Rosten. “It would be silly for me to approach this as an academic. I started in the business 25 years ago as a truck driver for a movie company and worked my way up, rank and file. I see it as this: you can’t teach creativity. You cannot teach someone how to make a film. I think you can show them how to do it, share the experience with them, and then it’s up to them whether they have the fire and the voice to do it.”
MAPS began in September 2004 in Corvallis with Rosten showing 30 high school students about the media arts through first-hand experience, including writing, producing, filming and editing everything from commercials and public service announcements to music videos and feature-length movies. This school year the program expanded to 60 participants (the demand was greater but staffing and funding limitations capped enrollment) and added an advanced independent study level where second-year students take control of a personal project from start to finish. Designated as part of a school-to-work curriculum by the Corvallis school district, the idea is that MAPS combines traditional educational activities with professional experiences. For instance, the program recently completed two professional-level commercials for the Ravalli County DUI Task Force; in addition to the experience, students working on the project were compensated with scholarship money.
“They paid us a fee, so we treated it like a business,” says Rosten. “The kids had to interact with adult clients on a one-to-one basis, in a client-vendor atmosphere. They can’t afford to be goofy kids or else we’re not going to get the job done. It’s wonderful when you give 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds adult expectations with adult rewards—man, they just rip.”
At a time when funding for the arts is being cut in public schools throughout the country, MAPS provides a valuable service with little impact on tax dollars. The program is underwritten entirely by private donations under the umbrella of The Florence Preven Rosten Foundation, a nonprofit organization Peter Rosten created in his mother’s name. Raising funds for the program rests entirely on Rosten’s shoulders, and in addition to donating his own money, he’s found support through grants, his board of directors (which is stockpiled with friends from the entertainment industry), the Montana Arts Council, the Corvallis school district and dozens of local companies.
“If I don’t raise dough, this thing goes away,” says Rosten. “Every day I wake up and I have to decide, who am I going to bug for funding today?”
For instance, one day he decided that person would be Paul Barrere, lead singer and guitarist for Little Feat and a good friend dating back to junior high school. “We were all hippies together,” says Rosten, “so when they were in town a few years ago I asked him if they would consider doing a show for us.” Barrere was receptive and Rosten, as he’s wont to do, persistently followed up on the idea until it resulted in the upcoming benefit concert at the Wilma Theatre.
“They’re graciously doing it for expenses only and not making a dime themselves,” says Rosten. “It’s an innovative way for us to raise money for the kids. In one night we can probably underwrite a half-year of the course.”
The planning for the Little Feat concert is a window into how Rosten operates MAPS, both financially and educationally. In order to go ahead with the show, the board required that he raise the money for the band’s expenses separate from the program’s budget to eliminate any risk. To limit costs, Rosten’s relying on a host of volunteers to help promote and organize the show. Rosten himself is pulling double-duty—in addition to overseeing the concert, his band, Wang Dang Doodle, is opening the show. And the students who will be benefiting from the funds raised are also required to lend a hand—many will be working backstage and selling merchandise.
“There’s no free lunch, you know?” says Rosten. “It gets back to providing them real-life experiences, seeing what it takes to make a concert like this work. How often will they be able to see what it takes to put on a major event like this?”
Fundraising efforts such as the concert are just one part of Rosten’s plan for not only maintaining MAPS, but expanding it. He’s proposed growing the program statewide, starting with an expansion to five schools in 2007. He’s budgeted for $65,000 per year per school, totaling just under $2 million for three years as part of a public/private partnership. Rosten’s hope is that the success of his “pilot episode” the last two years will convince legislators on the state and federal levels to, sticking with the metaphor, act as a television network and sign on to help fund “a full series;” if they commit half the money needed, Rosten will raise the rest.
“I’d like to think the political arm that represents our state will see the viability and value of the program,” he says. Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Congressman Denny Rehberg have already written letters of general support to MAPS. “What makes it attractive, I think, is that we’re matching everything privately…Who knows how it will play out, but that’s our proposal. If there’s no dough, then we’ll deal with that down the road.”
In the meantime, Rosten will continue hustling and handshaking for MAPS, as he has for the last two years. He’ll continue approving, or “greenlighting,” each student project, checking its production needs against the program’s budget. In other words, he’ll keep doing the same things he’s done for more than 25 years.
“I didn’t have a famous career, but I worked for almost 30 years,” says Rosten, who’s most notable credits were producing True Believer in 1989, starring James Woods, and episodes of the mid-’80s television drama “Scarecrow and Mrs. King.” It’s that sort of realistic experience that he hopes to instill in his students.
“Our kids get it. They may not know yet how to make films or how to write scripts, but they have this internal response to what we’re doing because they’re on the net, they watch TV, they go to the movies,” Rosten says. “Not all of our kids will go on to work in the business, but at least they’re seeing that they can make it, on tons of different levels, by doing this sort of work.”
Little Feat performs a benefit concert for MAPS Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 7 PM. $30. Tickets are available at Rockin Rudy’s, Ear Candy Music and the UC Box Office. For more information, visit www.mediarts.org.