Award-winning screenwriter, director, actor and producer Ray Mamrak wants to bring the lights, camera and action to his alma mater, and he is focused on doing it through the Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ) Cooperative Education program.
Mamrak, a graduate of Gloucester County College (now RCSJ), always wanted to be a filmmaker. With 33 years invested in the film industry, he has returned to the South Jersey to share his behind-the-camera knowledge and movie-making experiences with student interns eager to follow in his footsteps.
“I always wanted to be a filmmaker. There was never a day in my life when I didn’t want to be,” said Mamrak, who owned his first camera at age 10. “When I was a student at Rancocas Valley High School, I got a small part in the movie Eddie and the Cruisers. I was lying with Tom Berenger on the grass under a tree talking about an upcoming scene. He said, ‘It all starts with the script, buddy’ and that’s when I decided that I wanted to focus on screen writing.”
A union-affiliated film and television script doctor and director, Mamrak has written, directed and edited many feature movies and shows, working for big studios and networks, as well as independent films. Having also worked on Broadway as an actor and a consultant, his fondness for the stage led him to recently purchase the historic Landis Theater in Vineland, a 650-seat Art Deco-style movie theater built in 1937. It is at the theater where Mamrak holds class and provides hands-on instruction to the four interns participating in RCSJ’s Co-Op program.
“I think the hands-on Co-Op is something that needs to come into education so that the kids graduating now don’t have to wait 10 years to work on a set. They can get there faster because they actually touch and understand what it is like to make a film instead of only learning from books and being taught on a board,” explained Mamrak, who after graduating from Gloucester County College, attended Georgia Tech and NYU, in addition to serving in the military as a U.S. Army Ranger. “This is an industry with a ladder. You start at the bottom and work your way up. I want to put the students on a set, have them actually work on something in film so that they really learn. I want to give them something different than I had years ago as a Co-Op getting coffee and buying batteries, not just being a gofer.”
As president of the Landis Studios, Holly City Studios and the South Jersey Film Alliance, Mamrak, along with his partner and fellow creative writer Kaycee Zelkovsky, seeks to bring jobs and economic growth to the area by using personal experiences and Hollywood connections to take advantage of New Jersey’s revived $75 million per year film tax credit—along with other incentives available to filmmakers shooting in South Jersey locations.
A key component to making New Jersey attractive to television and movie producers is having trained and qualified local employees to fill crew job positions. Mamrak and Zelkovsky plan to have RCSJ’s Co-Op students who are interested in breaking into the film and television business ready for action.
“The film industry looks for local hires. You need hands on for this type of education,” said Mamrak. “Co-Op offers the chance to stand behind the camera and know what you are in for.”
Anthony Hairston, Blessing Ike, Timarco Brown and George Guy, the first group of RCSJ’s Co-Op students to be mentored by Mamrak, found out what they were in for this summer—and loved it. On Fridays, classes were held upstairs in the Landis Theater. Understanding film editing, color, scripting and visual effects took on a new meaning as the students watched movies Mamrak had worked on, seeing the process from rough cuts to the final film.
The rest of the week they hit the ground running, mocking up TV commercials, learning stage lighting and working on industrial sets with multiple-angled camera shots. The favorite assignment by far, though, was being a preliminary location scout for a multi-million-dollar film slated to come to the South Jersey area. Schooled on what they needed to do and how to do it, the students explored Cumberland County, taking photos of potential filming locations.
“When they see the movie come out and see the building or property they found, think of the difference it makes. It creates something in them to want to be better at what they do, and to move up the industry ladder,” said Mamrak.
“This internship is teaching me what I need to know for my future and that there is more to film production than I thought,” agreed Hairston, an aspiring film director from Camden with plans to transfer to NYU. “I have learned the ins and outs of what to do behind the camera and everything that is needed in a production team. This experience will lead to more opportunities in my field and is getting me prepared. I’ve shot a commercial, done film comparisons, learned terminology, been on legit production sets and got the hands-on experience and feel for it.”
Ike, who will be transferring to Pace University in New York City, prefers to be in front of the camera, but appreciates the knowledge she has learned about set lighting and working behind the lens.
“This is really fun. I have learned the difference between a good film and a bad film. The scouting was one of my favorite projects,” said Ike who, like her Co-Op peers Hairston and Brown, is also an active member in the College’s Minority Initiative on Leadership and Excellence (MILE) program. “I never thought about how things are put together on film, but seeing how you take a picture and then what the end product is, was interesting to me. I would have missed a great experience by only sitting in a classroom.”
After only a few weeks of participating in the Co-Op internship with Mamrak, Brown decided to change his major from computer graphic arts to radio, television and film. Always interested in television but not the kind of person to be in front of a camera, the Logan Township resident now aspires to become a professional video editor and film director.
“Having Mr. Ray tell us about the different job positions available behind the camera and how successful you can be opened my eyes and made me become interested in joining this industry,” explained Brown. “I’m learning so much. Going to a two-year school, people sometimes look down on you. With the Co-Op program, it gets you into the career field you want and gives you the necessary training. It helps with networking and meeting other people who will help me to grow. Honestly, it puts you a step ahead of the four-year students.”
Guy, a Radio, Television and Film major at RCSJ, has an eye for the camera, and also for value. With plans to become a cinematographer and head for the bright lights of Hollywood, he is taking advantage of the College’s unique 3+1 program. Guy will complete three years of coursework at RCSJ, then transfer to Rowan University for his senior year—earning a bachelor’s degree for less than $30,000. The cooperative education internship and working hands-on with Mamrak, is an added bonus.
“The 3+1 program is a big money saver and this internship has been one of the coolest experiences that I have ever had,” admitted Guy. “I just love that we get to be up close and personal with someone who knows the game. It’s really an eye-opener how much you learn when you’re with someone who has the experience versus reading from a textbook or off of a PowerPoint. It’s a really crazy experience getting to learn all of the stuff that goes into making movies and how there are so many jobs on a film set. I would definitely recommend this internship to people, inside and outside of the major.”
“We were extremely fortunate to have connected with one of RCSJ’s most famous alumni, Ray Mamrak, who sponsored four of our cooperative education students last summer,” said Dr. Candice Racite, assistant dean of the Cooperative Education Program. “Mr. Mamrak, an accomplished actor, director and producer who has received multiple Emmy Awards, shared his knowledge with our students to provide an unparalleled, real-world experience.”
“Co-Op is amazing. It gives students a chance to stand in that position, see if it is what they want, work it a little bit. The film business is not all about making movies. There are music videos, commercials, TV shows, feature and industrial films,” explained Mamrak. “How great is it going to be when students graduate and know what they are doing, outside of reading a book.”
Andrea Stanton, M.A. is director of Communications & Marketing at Rowan College of South Jersey. For more on College of South Jersey’s Cooperative Education program, visit RCSJ.edu/CoOp. To view a video of Co-Op students with Ray Mamrak at Landis Theater, visit rcsj.edu/CoopVideo.