The first 14 students at the University of Hawaii-Maui College’s Academy for Creative Media will graduate in May, as the program seeks to expand the pool of homegrown creatives on Maui.
“Our island creatives — they are so talented, they’re so great, and they need a place, and now they don’t have to leave the island if they can’t afford it or if they don’t want to,” said Program Coordinator Brian Kohne, a local writer, director and producer of the movies “Kuleana (Maui)” and “Get a Job.”
In order to build a thriving and sustainable film industry on Maui, Kohne said last week that there must be an emphasis on infrastructure, workforce development and education — components that are coming to fruition through the Academy for Creative Media. As the program coordinator, Kohne wants to help “reinforce that a career in the arts is possible and it can happen here,” he said during a virtual Maui TechOhana meeting, presented by Maui Economic Development Board, on Wednesday night.
When the entertainment industry was sidelined during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, Kohne had just accepted a gig to teach at UH-Maui College and to help build the academy, which opened opportunities for associate degrees in creative media, filmmaking, graphic design, and soon, animation.
It also serves as a pipeline to UH-West Oahu, which opened its new multimillion-dollar creative arts facility last year, where students can transfer and continue their education to complete a four-year, Bachelor of Arts degree.
“Throughout the pandemic, I got to nurture and work on and for this school, so I was continuing to live with purpose,” said Kohne, also an award-winning music producer of Barefoot Natives with Willie K.
During the virtual Maui TechOhana meeting, Kohne also shared insight on what would make such an industry thrive on the island, the place where he grew up, and at a very early age, was exposed to the expanding theater and performance realm.
“For whatever reason in my life, the things that I’m interested in sort of arrived in an unusual and timely way on an island in the middle of the Pacific,” he said.
In 1969, Kohne’s family moved to Maui, where he attended Wailuku Elementary and later Baldwin High School, describing himself as “not an excellent student.”
He first stepped on movie set at the age of 5. At the time, his mother was a bookkeeper at the old Wailuku Hotel, now Maui Memorial, where he and his brother Bill Kohne played with comedian Charlie Chaplin’s kids while they stayed at the hotel.
The brothers grew up around King Theater and Iao Theater, and had connections to families who were owners and operators of movie theaters on Maui.
In the 1970s, they were involved in Maui Youth Theater’s first production.
Brian and Bill Kohne later joined the Baldwin Drama Guild as teens, but Brian stayed on the tech side observing how things were produced while brother Bill was an actor. Brian made his first film while in high school.
Still, Brian Kohne considered himself an athlete, playing in Little League baseball and football, and then soccer when it became an organized sport on the island in 1977 — the sport got him into college where he studied graphic design and film at San Jose State University.
By his senior year in California, computer and desktop publishing were born.
By the 1980s, the young writer/comedian/filmmaker produced a variety show called “Glad You Could Make It,” learning to recruit and motivate a cast of about 400, fundraise, organize and produce about seven episodes.
As the world of networking and television was expanding, Kohne saw doors opening in Hollywood or New York.
In the summer of 1989, however, Kohne left behind a vibrant life of growing career opportunities and soccer competition — with no regrets, he said — and moved back to Maui to care for his father who was diagnosed with melanoma and later died that year.
The then-25-year-old supported himself painting houses on the island after falling out of the quick-moving film industry until a soccer program resigned him. He also traveled the country as a sales and marketing agent for a private soccer uniform manufacturer and spent time teaching art and English as a second language in San Jose.
By his mid-30s, the arts and entertainment scene was calling again, so he attended the University of Santa Cruz to learn about the rising digital tools, later finding himself pitching designing ideas to big-name manufacturers like Apple, Sony and Mitsubishi.
An art and radio/tele-vision/film grad, Kohne returned to Maui in 2005 from Silicon Valley having excelled as a national director of sales and marketing, in corporate video production, sports broadcasting and as senior user interface architect for an interactive television corporation.
This time, though, he stayed to “plant a flag in the ground and be a part of the beginning of these industries,” he said.
“It’s never going to exist if people like me who care about the culture, the community, who have deep-seated roots here and acquire these skills, don’t come back and put them to service,” he added.
He produced “Kuleana” (later renamed “Maui”) and “Get a Job,” hiring mostly Hawaii residents. Only a few had ever been on a movie set before, so Kohne taught them.
“Today, of the original crew from ‘Get a Job,’ about 10 of them work exclusively in these industries, so it can happen,” he said. “That’s an example of workforce development — a low-budget project that doesn’t pay, but creates experience and abundance and life-changing experiences. It’s a lot different than being on a Hollywood gig and pulling a cable.”
Financing independent, Hawaii-made films or having them reach national audiences was always the biggest challenge, though, he noted.
Still, state tax incentives, community support and private donors were essential to producing the films.
“At the end of the day, the private investors in both projects that ended up stepping up did so for the right reasons. … This idea of creating an industry one movie at a time,” he said. “So did the movies make money? Of course not — they’re low-budget independent movies. Did we have a great time? Sure. Did it change things? Yeah. Did people learn? Yes, and everyone involved with these movies continue to want to be involved and continue to want to work in these industries.”
Moving forward, he believes that residents and workers need to continue to invest in resources to support and grow an industry from within, such as providing educational opportunities, building infrastructure to create work and jobs or focusing on elements of filmmaking that are achievable on Maui, such as post-production or virtual productions.
“The idea that we should wait back and wait for Hollywood to come and plant movies here is crazy,” he said. “We need to start looking at how we can create this type of infrastructure.”
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at [email protected]