They Lost It at the Movies

Classroom films have come a long way from those cheesy old duck-and-cover flicks. Or have they?

You and Your Family, perhaps the first social guidance film, was originally shown to New York City teenagers in February of 1946. Teenage daughter Mary has been invited to a dance, but Mom and Dad think she's too young to go. Mary throws a tantrum at first, but in the end comes up with an alternative plan. "Why couldn't I have the gang over here tomorrow night? We could all play the radio and dance and make sandwiches!"

"Hey! That'd be swell!" cries brother Bill.

The concept of educating kids through film picked up steam. In some respects, the rise of social guidance films through the '50s was an effort to combat flicks such as Rebel Without A Cause and The Wild Ones, which offered a more ambiguous take on teen rebellion.

At 19, Harper Barnes gave the world (and "Betty") syphilis; he is still remembered for the part
At 19, Harper Barnes gave the world (and "Betty") syphilis; he is still remembered for the part
Bill Faris, president and co-founder of Avatar Studios, has built a piece of hoosier Hollywood
Jennifer Silverberg
Bill Faris, president and co-founder of Avatar Studios, has built a piece of hoosier Hollywood

The industry, such as it was, was centered in the Chicago area, where most of the big textbook companies, like Coronet and Encyclopedia Britannica, were based. The biz is still based in the Midwest, partly because Hollywood stars don't want anything to do with these low-paying films. (Actually, the producers of social guidance films don't want recognizable actors anyway, because kids don't consider them peers. The biggest "star" to ever appear regularly in guidance films was Dick York, who later played Darrin Stephens on Bewitched.)

St. Louis is a major industry hub, and the biggest player in town, by far, is Phoenix Learning Group, Inc., which relocated from New York City a decade ago, swallowed up Coronet and now controls more than 6,000 educational titles. Phoenix vice president and controller William Copeland will not get too specific about the company's annual revenues, placing them in the "low millions." Phoenix titles go for about a hundred dollars a pop, which includes public performance rights for schools. One thousand copies sold of a title is a big hit, but because an individual copy may be viewed by tens of thousands of children, the influence of Phoenix films can't be measured in profits. The company sends films to schools all over the world, from the Bible Belt to the Middle East; though its best-selling films may never outsell Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, their influence has surely been greater.

Phoenix does produce a small portion of its own films, but the movies are made off-site. Its headquarters -- a nondescript, brown brick building off Page in Maryland Heights -- looks more like a business office than a film studio. Avatar Studios in St. Louis, on the other hand, is a little piece of hoosier Hollywood. A full-service film and video studio, among other things it does production work on social guidance films and makes in-house training videos for Anheuser-Busch employees -- think salesmen and truck drivers. Avatar's office, just off Jefferson and Highway 40, is like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory for sound and video engineers. The walls are wild pinks and greens, and the facilities include a music library with thousands of licensed music CDs, seven video-editing suites, two audio-editing suites, and a full-size soundstage capable of multicamera live television feeds, recently used by Dick Gephardt for an appearance on Fox News.

Still, Avatar president and co-founder Bill Faris talks a lot more like an engineer than a Hollywood mogul. The John Ritter lookalike favors collared shirts, blue jeans and black loafers and is full of starchy quotes ("Our portion of the process is, really, the technical side"). But he has clearly found a way to accessorize Avatar with some Tinseltown decadence. The lobby boasts pinball and popcorn machines and three satellite-fed TVs. It doesn't hurt that his company is pulling in $4 million per year since its inception in 1999.

Avatar doesn't make many educational films from start to finish. Instead, they touch up old ones for new generations. An older film about American natural wonders, for instance, featured New Hampshire's "Old Man of the Mountain" rock formation. Last year, though, the Old Man collapsed. So Avatar removed the old audio track, recorded a new track bearing the bad news, and stuck it back in there.

Ken Smith watched hundreds and hundreds of social guidance films in the '90s. Working for the Comedy Channel, he was assigned the dubious task of spinning the dross of social guidance films into comic gold. But then a funny thing happened: He started to see their deeper meaning.

Smith, who's now 45, already had a long-standing fascination with these films. He saw them in elementary school, but by the time he entered high school a new wave of hippy-dippy guidance films had come into vogue. One, Feather, was particularly arresting.

"It was just shots of a feather floating along on the wind, with light music playing in the background. You were supposed to just watch the film and think about something. I was like, 'What does that mean?'" Smith says. He preferred the earnestness of social guidance films. His gig at the Comedy Channel allowed him to renew his fascination with the genre.

"It didn't take long before I realized there was a lot more going on than bad haircuts and really bad acting," Smith recalls enthusiastically, from his home in New Jersey. "It was obvious that they were well-intentioned, they weren't made to make us laugh. The people who made them obviously weren't stupid, so that intrigued me, got me interested in the whole field."

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