ATLANTA — Nervous energy passes among a group of Ball State students huddled at the front of a nondescript conference room, in an office building bordered by I-85.

While a young woman smooths the front of her skirt that isn’t wrinkled, a young man runs his hand across his hair a few times, swaying slightly in place. And there are bursts of strained laughter as the team of seven look toward the door, waiting.

Ball State professor Rich Edwards and his students who visited Turner Classic Movies in Atlanta post for a photo.

The Ball State crew at TCM (clockwise, from top left): Anna Weddle, Dustin Grissom, Henry Tegeler, Nicole Lehrman, Rich Edwards, Cassandra Grosh, Sarah Loyd and Madeline Grosh.

Because to get to the place that looks, on the inside, like hundreds of other conference rooms, the team had to pass by a security guard who mans the gate at the front of the massive Turner complex.

Yes, that Turner.

The corporate executives the Ball State team has been prepping for will decide whether the students’ intense immersive learning work answers a tricky question: Can their plan get young people more interested in classic slapstick films, and, by extension, the Turner Classic Movies network?

A partnership is born

The students’ journey to Georgia really began in spring 2015 with a partnership between Rich Edwards, executive director of research at the Integrated Learning Institute at Ball State, and Turner Classic Movies.

It was then that Edwards led an Internet-based class available for free around the world, a massive open online course (MOOC), that TCM wanted focused on the cinema genre from the 1940s and ’50s known as film noir.

Ball State professor Rich Edwards and several students discuss their project for Turner Classic Movies.

The TCM project being created by a Ball State team — Dustin Grissom (clockwise, from top left), Henry Tegeler, Nicole Lehrman, Anna Weddle and Rich Edwards, among the members — involves promoting classic slapstick films.

So with the help of Canvas Network, an online learning management system, a summertime offering, “TCM Presents Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir,” was created. The nine-week program had two prongs: TCM would show more than 100 noir classics, such as “The Maltese Falcon” and “Lady in the Lake,” and Edwards would lead online courses that explored the makings of noir, and why and how it matters.

Hopes were high going in that film buffs would flock to the unique blend of edutainment, but likely no one expected the robust numbers the program garnered. By the end of the course, more than 20,000 people from around the world had registered for the class, and more than 14 percent completed the program.

“Those noir statistics were big, and exciting, engagement numbers,” Edwards said. “And it set the stage for TCM to want to pursue another project with Ball State.”

Writing a sequel

So Edwards went to work.

He began by brainstorming with Shannon Clute, his longtime friend and former faculty colleague at Saint Mary’s College of California. It was there the two developed a noir-centric podcast, and it was Edwards and Clute, now director of marketing and editorial at Turner Classic Movies, who pitched the noir MOOC to network executives.

But for the 2016 season of programming, Edwards wanted to involve students. Clute and his colleagues, mindful of the 2015 program’s success, jumped at the idea.

“Last year’s MOOC was the biggest TCM social media driver to date,” Clute said. “We were excited to repeat that experience this year, but this time, to have talented students who could provide valuable insight into the under (age) 30 viewer.”

Very quickly, an immersive learning class was designed, approved and underway, with Edwards first asking any student who wanted to join up, “Do you love movies?”

Ball State students traveled to Turner Classic Movies’ Atlanta headquarters and presented ideas to Shannon Clute (left) and other TCM executives about how social media and online content could improve the network's engagement with younger viewers. Rich Edwards, executive director of research at Ball State’s Integrated Learning Institute and a former colleague of Clute’s, traveled with the students.

TCM executive Shannon Clute talks with Ball State students at the network’s Atlanta headquarters.

Students craft a strategy

Just days after Ball State’s May Commencement, Edwards’ class of seven students began meeting to develop ideas the network could ultimately adopt as part of the online content, and created marketing strategies for “TCM Presents Painfully Funny: Exploring Slapstick in the Movies.”

From social media drivers, to web content, to viewer engagement ideas, the team had to create plans, and back-up plans, for a mid-June presentation to top management, including Jennifer Dorian, general manager of Turner Classic Movies. It’s a challenge that would give even seasoned professionals pause.

“It’s a great opportunity but intense,” said Cassie Grosh, a senior English, classical cultures and classical languages major, from Muncie, Indiana. The students considered what they like and what inspires and interests them, and responded in kind, said Dustin Grissom, a junior telecommunications major from Greenwood, Indiana.

Short video clips, animated GIF computer images and interactive activities that provide social media hashtags were all part of the final presentation the students readied for the TCM management.

Student Henry Tegeler speaks during a presentation at Turner Classic Movies.

Henry Tegeler speaks during a presentation at TCM.

Pitching to the network

About a dozen top executives from the network listened in on the presentation, asking questions that challenged the students further, proving the group was being treated as professionals.

“We value their expertise, and we appreciate the careful collaboration,” Dorian said. “It’s planned, deliberate, not undisciplined at all.  This is one of the coolest things TCM does — collaborate with (Ball State).”

There’s no other university that teams up with the network. And much like Ball State at the Games — the initiative that sends student journalists to cover the Olympic Games for news outlets around the country — the TCM collaboration provides an opportunity that the students can tout in the job market.

“This is immersive, entrepreneurial and incredibly unusual,” Edwards said. “It’s the real-world experience of, within an existing business, recognizing a need and seeing how you can fit or how you can offer a solution. Our students are being exposed to 21st-century economic strategies.”

Learned skills, to applied skills. And on a national stage to boot.

Now that’s nothing to laugh at.

“TCM Presents Painfully Funny: Exploring Slapstick in the Movies” premieres Sept. 6.