University, Hollywood Relationship Not Always a 'Love Story'

In a recent episode of the ABC sitcom "Dharma and Greg," the character Greg--a Harvard graduate--appears on-screen wearing a Harvard sweatshirt. It's a small detail, notable only to costume designers and die-hard fans, but the incident is just one example of the numerous references to Harvard University in today's films and TV shows.

However, since any use of Harvard's logos or campus in a commercial film--from Greg's sweatshirt to the Dunster House backdrop in "Good Will Hunting"--requires University permission, inserting these references is never simple.

Just a simple pan-shot of a dorm room that includes the Harvard logo can only be included after letters are exchanged between film company paralegals and Harvard representatives, scripts are hastily faxed, and lengthy deliberations have been made in Cambridge.

Still, according to those in the entertainment industry, Hollywood's fascination with Harvard makes the red tape worthwhile.

"There are a lot of great colleges out there, but none of them have the kind of name recognition that Harvard does. It's kind of like the Coca-Cola of colleges," Peter S. Mehlman, the producer and creator of the new ABC sitcom It's Like, You Know.

Wind Dancer Films story editor, Josh M. Bingham, says that in film, it is crucial to utilize the audience's knowledge and stereotypes. Harvard, he says, fits perfectly.

"It's the prototype. The first thing that pops into your mind," Bingham says.

While you do have a small portion of the audience that knows about other Ivy League schools," he adds, "you want to choose the ultimate prototype...and that is Harvard."

The Bureacracy

TV shows or movies don't have to clear every mention of Harvard with University officials, but most of the time, studios will ask permission for lengthy spoken references to Harvard.

However, visual uses of the Harvard name--captured in carefully-crafted shots of Crimson sweatshirts, class pennants and other Harvard paraphernalia--are closely regulated.

All requests to use Harvard's name on film come through the Harvard New Office. Public Information Manager Susan Green, who handles most of the requests, says that she gets around ten requests per week from studios that plan a visual use of the Harvard name.

"In almost every show or movie now, some character either wants to go to Harvard or graduated from Harvard," Green says.

Unlike Yale, which began charging a fee in 1998 for use of their logo in commercial films, Harvard doesn't charge studios for the use of its name.

Green says she generally tries to grant studios' requests. However, she says the University is wary of appearing to endorse commercial shows or movies.

"In every company, you want to have a classic or stable institution subtly giving you their endorsement," says Joseph G. Wrinn, the director of the Harvard News Office. Thus the review process--otherwise the University might unwittingly appear to endorse a particular product or show.

And so even when the University okays a shot of a Harvard sweatshirt, film companies are discouraged from using this shot in previews or promotions.

Truth in advertising

A different problem comes when the University's image appears to be affected by the use. Officials say it is inaccuracy, though, rather than malice that the University works hardest to curb.

"You can't say to one group, 'Oh, you're going to say great things about Harvard? You can use it.' And then refuse another group that doesn't portray Harvard as well," Green says.

Instead, the News Office works against those that they feel deride the University unfairly. Green mentions a request she received from the team that produces the TV sitcom, "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" to use the Harvard name in a college recruiting scene they planned to run.

"They would have had a Harvard recruiter standing on the street shouting out, 'Are you a leader? Do you want to go to Harvard?'" Green says.

"That's not the way it works. They were using the name in a completely inaccurate way, so we told them they couldn't use it."

Most of the time, if studios go ahead with their use of the Harvard name--despite the University's rejection of their request--Harvard does little. The only measure available is a lawsuit, which often creates a bigger hassle for the University and useful publicity for their antagonists.

"We don't generally go after people for just using the Harvard name," Green says.

With all the complications, why don't companies cut the crimson tape and use a stand-in for Harvard? The failed sitcom "Boston Common" was set at a fictional university much like Harvard. On another show, crimson shorts stood in for an official Harvard pair.

However Bingham of Wind Dancer films believes it's worth it to use the genuine article .

"There are clearly ways to cheat it," Bingham says. "But there's always gonna be somebody in the audience who will recognize the difference and say 'Aww, come on!' As much as you can, you want to avoid having anyone who can call foul."

Movies on Campus

Harvard's policy is even stricter on allowing commercial film crews on campus. Still, contrary to popular student opinion there is no clear-cut rule specifying that film crews are never allowed in Harvard Yard.

Instead, the policy put out by the provost's office specifies that, while "Harvard generally does not permit filming or taping of movies or television programs intended for use primarily as entertainment rather than education...Harvard is willing to consider claims that the use of a Harvard setting is artistically critical to a project."

This policy, says Wrinn, basically means that each request is considered on a case-by-case basis. In the past 20 years, only a few movies have been filmed on the Harvard campus.

According to Wrinn, it was the partly the confusion surrounding the 1969 filming of the well-known Love Story that caused Harvard's strictness regarding campus movies.

"They really made a mess. They injured and killed trees putting down fake snow," Wrinn says.

Then Wrinn explains that in the mid 1970s, A Small Circle of Friends was filmed and the film crews again made a mess of the campus.

"That was when Harvard started getting very tough on film crews," Wrinn says, and he adds that in the 70s and 80s, Harvard usually said no to requests to film on campus.

Harvard's attitude toward film companies meant that these companies often turned to other campuses that looked like Harvard in an attempt to recreate the atmosphere.

Wrinn mentions Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. as one that was often used. But through these years a scattered few movies were actually filmed on campus. Connections with Harvard officials, it seems, made the difference in these cases.

The last movie to be filmed on campus, "With Honors" (1994), was directed by Alek Keshishian '86. Wrinn says that as a former student, Keshishian knew what paths to follow and was able to convince Harvard that hs project--a story about a Harvard student whose life is changed by a bum that he finds living in the basement of Widener library--was worthwhile.

"Alek had done some very well known creative work while at Harvard. He was very connected and knew how to do it right," Wrinn says.

Everyone agreed, Wrinn says, that the filming was completed with a minimum of trouble.

"Finally after a lot of meetings, we decided just to [film the movie], and we did...and it was a blast!" Wrinn says.

The success of the project has left Harvard slightly more open to to future filming projects. Wrinn describes himself as sympathetic in general to the causes of film companies.

Wrinn said his wife, who started the Massachussetts Film Bureau, has given him a glimpse into the film company's perspective, but besides that, Wrinn says that he just enjoys the excitement of filming around Harvard.

"In the end, it's a lot of fun," Wrinn says.