March 10, 2009 – This isn’t the script the directors of a San Diego film school had in mind when they opened their doors in January 2008 to train wounded troops in what was hailed as a nationally innovative program.
The husband and wife team of Kevin Lombard and Judith Paixao, founders of the Wounded Marine Careers Foundation Inc., said their goal was to transform lives.
Lombard said he and his team wanted to teach service members “how to tell their own stories, and in the process helping them learn new skills as they prepare to get out of the military.”
But now Lombard and Paixao are the targets of a lawsuit and accusations of financial and employment deception by members of their first graduating class.
Some of the graduates said they would have passed on the 10-week film class had they known the directors would tap nearly $89,000 of each student’s veterans benefits for vocational training – instead of the $10,000 listed in the school’s initial promotional brochure and what they were allegedly told by Lombard and Paixao.
“They just didn’t live up to their promises,” said graduate Joshua Frey, a former Camp Pendleton-based lance corporal who lost most use of his right shoulder because of a combat injury in Fallujah, Iraq. “I feel betrayed by people who used our wartime sacrifices to make a pretty buck. They gave us false hope.”
The film school, which operates out of the Stu Segall Productions lot in Kearny Mesa, was initially billed as a free program funded by donations.
It did turn out to be free for the 11 students who refused to sign off on giving their vocational benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Their tuition was covered by private philanthropy.
But eight students agreed to the VA reimbursement, and some said they did so because they thought the tuition was $10,000.
The VA ended up paying $88,550 directly to the school for each of the eight students. It’s unclear whether those graduates have exhausted their VA money for employment training because such benefits vary from case to case.
Lombard and Paixao said they had sunk $250,000 of their own money into the foundation when VA officials approached them with the idea of using students’ vocational rehabilitation funds. They expect to receive a combined salary of $130,000 this year after not taking any previous pay.
The couple said all expenses were explained to the students before they volunteered to have their VA funds used.
But Frey, three other members of the first graduating class and a teacher said the film school’s directors misled students about the cost of the program, the equipment they would get to keep and the type of jobs they could land.
Frey said Lombard and Paixao touted their school as offering world-class, hands-on training not available at any university. He and other graduates said they were assured they be able to land well-paying jobs in their chosen film specialties.
The only job offer Frey received was an entry-level position as a film loader, he said.
Frey has moved with his wife to Reno, Nev., and is waiting to start work as a stand-in actor for the movie “No Better Place to Die,” which one of the program’s teachers told him about.
“I thought 10 weeks of training would be a lot of experience, but I’ve since realized that it’s not much for someone new to the film industry,” he said.
Former Lance Cpl. Brent Callender, who fractured his pelvis and broke four vertebrae in a September 2006 roadside bomb attack, jumped at the chance to gain career skills for free.
Shortly after enrolling in the film course, he said, Lombard and Paixao told him that his cost would be $10,000 drawn from his veterans’ vocational benefits.
“On graduation day, I learned the VA had paid $88,550 for my tuition. I couldn’t believe the school’s deception,” Callender said.
Levie Isaacks of Los Angeles, who taught cinematography during the 10-week class, said he was so disheartened by the experience that he wrote a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Isaacks said he knew Lombard and Paixao were getting VA funds, but didn’t know the per-student amount until the end of the course.
“Nothing that I’ve been involved with, ever, cost this much money for what the students learned and the inadequate equipment at the facility. I had to bring my own lighting gear,” he said. “I don’t know what they did with all the money they collected. It’s sinful.”
The troubles started early on, former Cpl. Philip Levine alleges.
Levine joined the foundation’s board as a co-founder. After several months, he began questioning why an organization funded with donations was planning to tap VA vocational money. He said he was voted off the board and barred from joining the film class.
In his lawsuit, Levine is seeking nearly $3,000 in unreimbursed expenses and about $80,000 in damages. The Superior Court case is scheduled to be heard in late April, said Levine’s attorney, Dick Lynn of San Diego.
Levine provided a copy of the foundation’s 2007 brochure for the film school, which listed the tuition as $10,000 per student. A revised brochure currently posted on the foundation’s Web site still has the same figure.
Several film schools in Southern California said $88,550 is excessive for a semester of training.
“It’s outrageous. That’s a lot of money,” said Joe Slowensky, head of the film division for Chapman University’s school of film and media arts.
Chapman charges about $34,000 for one year of film school and roughly $90,000 for its three-year, graduate program in fine arts.
The Los Angeles Film School charges almost $42,000 for its associate’s degree in film science, while the University of Southern California said its annual tuition for the School of Cinematic Arts is approximately $37,000.
“I haven’t heard of any rates like the foundation’s. I can’t think of anyone who would dare to charge that much,” said Jean Sherlock, director of the New York Film Academy’s branch at Universal Studios Hollywood.
His school charges $5,800 for an eight-work course in film and digital media.
Sherlock said beyond the tuition issue, it would be immoral to promise or even imply that graduates can secure good jobs after a few months of classes.
“The film industry is a very difficult vocation. It’s intensely competitive,” he said. “You usually start out as interns so you can pick up experience before landing a paid job.”
Paixao tears up when she hears her former students’ accusations.
She uses the word “pure” to describe the couple’s motivation in helping wounded troops and the word “family” when mentioning the Marines and sailors she and Lombard have taught.
She said the VA has twice combed through the foundation’s records and each time agreed that the tuition was reasonable.
Lombard acknowledges the tuition is quite a sum. But he said the training delivered by the foundation and the staff of filmmakers, photo directors, writers, editors, camera and sound experts, graphic designers and other industry-leading technicians is worth it.
He also mentioned the benefit of receiving a union card from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees upon graduation. The membership can otherwise take years to attain, he said.
Lombard disputes claims about graduates having difficulty finding jobs. He said 11 members did find work, and some quit for reasons of their own.
The couple said their second class, which began in January, will be much more successful because of the lessons learned. The VA is paying $64,426 for each of eight students in the 14-week course.
“Every single person in the class embodies the spirit of adapt and overcome,” Paixao said. “I invite you to some back when they graduate in April to see how successful we’ve been.”