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The Storytelling School

By Stacey Abarbanel

Published Sep 14, 2018 8:00 AM

In the past decade, UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television has transformed itself into a true 21st-century entertainment school: The Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment. Emerging digital platforms. Commitment to humanistic storytelling. And more.


Dean Teri Schwartz in the Darren Star Screening Room. The 50-seat screening room was made possible through a generous donation provided by television series creator, executive producer and writer Darren Star ’83. Photo by Emily Shur.

Here's the elavator pitch: A young talent from the Bronx heads west and pursues an M.F.A. in screenwriting at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT). He writes a one-hour drama pilot for his TFT 284B class (Writing Television Drama Scripts) about Damon, an aspiring dancer — homeless in New York after being ousted from home for being gay — who finds refuge with Blanca, a transgender woman involved in the 1980s drag ballroom scene. The script lands on the desk of an acclaimed television producer, who buys the pilot, gets a full series order from a major network, and hires the student to write and executive produce the show, now being heralded as history making.

It may sound like a too-good-to-be-true Hollywood fable, but that’s what happened to Steven Canals M.F.A. ’15. Pose, his series that debuted this past summer on FX, features the largest transgender cast ever to appear in a television drama and is helmed by TV legend Ryan Murphy. The New York Times calls it a “boisterous, resplendent drama” that “demands to be seen” — a testimony to how TFT is nurturing today’s top talent.

“The school is known for the creative entrepreneurs that come out of it,” says producer and entrepreneur Peter Guber, a member of the TFT executive board, a visiting professor, UC regent and chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group. But TFT isn’t an overnight sensation.

The story began in 1947 with the birth of the Theater Arts Department, chaired by William Melnitz, a German émigré theater director. Over decades of departmental expansions with requisite name changes, three other esteemed professionals in turn chaired the school: drama critic and film producer Kenneth Macgowan; film, television and Broadway director Gilbert Cates; and professor and film historian Robert Rosen.

Cue producer and educator Teri Schwartz ’71, who in 2009 became the first female dean in the school’s history. Her mission was to build upon the institution’s venerable reputation and reimagine the school for the 21st century, a time when both education and entertainment have been in great flux. The goal was to transform TFT into “The Storytelling School.”

“She constantly reimagines both the process and the product,” notes Guber, “and that is particularly invaluable when schools are going through such transformative changes as a result of things like capital restraint, the digital revolution and the nature of the industry itself changing. Some of those [forces] are headwinds until you turn them into tailwinds, and that’s what she’s been able to do.”

SCRIPT CHANGE

The producer of such award-winning films as Beaches and Sister Act, Schwartz is passionate and laser-focused on the school’s updated mission and vision of “humanistic storytelling.” She calls it “an outgrowth of my life philosophy and belief in the power of humanistic storytelling, global diversity, social impact, and where technology and innovation cut across these strategic pillars. My goal is to help nurture and develop this next generation of outstanding, diverse, humanistic storytellers, industry leaders and scholars, who will not only delight and entertain but enlighten, engage and inspire change for a better world.”

TFT’s uniquely broad mandate — it is the only premier entertainment school in the country that houses theater, film, TV and emerging platforms like virtual reality and augmented reality under one roof — made and continues to make the school a dynamic laboratory. It gave the school’s leadership a tremendous advantage in their ambitious strategy for transformation, and an opportunity, as Schwartz notes, “to tear down the silos across all of the disciplines, silos that have walled off from one another faculty, students, staff, artists and those in the industry.”

In the past decade, TFT has launched high-impact interdisciplinary programs and cultivated industry relationships, such as an experimental workshop in live cinema with five-time Academy Award–winner Francis Ford Coppola M.F.A. ’67. The workshop — a hybrid of theater, film and TV performed and viewed in real time — attracted more than 100 students in various production and acting roles, who brought to life a portion of Coppola’s screenplay, Distant Vision.

When the William Randolph Hearst Foundation expressed a desire to support the school, TFT developed a playwriting lab. After all, Schwartz says, “Story started with theater.”

The new Hearst Theater Lab Initiative is a multifaceted program that supports playwriting and live storytelling. One of this fall’s highlights is a program with Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Paula Vogel as the Distinguished Visiting Playwright-in-Residence. She will develop and showcase new works and offer master classes. The Hearst Foundation’s gift also supports the annual undergraduate and graduate student playwriting season and provides grants for theater faculty to develop and showcase new plays and works in progress.

STORYTELLERS AS DIVERSE AS THE WORLD

TFT’s commitment to ensuring diversity in the next generation is reflected in numerous initiatives, including full-ride graduate scholarships that give voice to the unique perspectives of Arab, Indian, Latina and African-American women.


Farah Shaer on set.


Hanadi Elyan, at right, with student Daniela Herrera.

Diversity is an imperative, according to writer, director and producer Reginald Hudlin, whose tenure on the TFT executive board has been marked by a focus on multiculturalism and global diversity. Hudlin says, “If we are leaders — not just educational leaders, but leaders in the industry — then we have to create the next generation of storytellers who will tell all these stories, and not simply speak to a very narrow audience.”

Cut to graduate student Amani Alsaied in the midst of finishing her thesis film. It’s a short drama about a Syrian nursing student living in L.A. whose dream of starting a family is interrupted by President Trump’s travel ban. “The woman in the film is trying to plan when to conceive a baby, but she’s not in the same country as her husband,” explains Alsaied, who is Syrian and was born and raised in Qatar. “And he can’t come here, and she can’t go there.”

Alsaied is one of the first recipients of the Hani Farsi Endowed Graduate Scholarship Fund, which provides four-year, full-ride graduate scholarships for the M.F.A. in directing. The fund was created in 2015 by independent producer Farsi and Schwartz to give voice to the unique perspective of Arab women.

After Alsaied graduates in December, she will embark on her next film, a culture-shock comedy she wrote while in Westwood about Syrian refugees in Germany trying to find a place for a new sofa, while, she explains, “trying to understand their new surroundings and how they can actually merge and settle in their new environment.”


Farah Shaer, Amani Alsaied, Hanadi Elyan and donor Hani Farsi.

AN INDUSTRY PIPELINE

Since 2009, TFT has invested heavily in industry outreach, crafting groundbreaking partnerships that include coveted first-look opportunities for student writers. “Even as a professional screenwriter, it’s so rare to have a ‘first look’ deal with anybody!” the dean says.

An incubator/workshop sponsored by Sony Pictures TV offers eight TV-track M.F.A. screenwriters a chance to develop one-hour drama series with a Sony Crackle first look. The course has generated three student-written projects that were optioned/bought by Sony Crackle and Sony TV, including Absentia, written by Gaia Violo M.F.A. ’15 while she was a graduate student. The thriller, now in its second season, has been acquired by Amazon.

Another eye-popping collaboration is the new Storytelling Institute on the Côte d’Azur, France, which takes place during the Cannes Film Festival. The all-expenses-paid, six-week program includes screenwriting instruction, master classes with distinguished filmmakers and screenwriters, and screenings and other professional activities at the festival. Vivendi/Canal+ provides key sponsorship and a first look for participating students.

CHANGING HEARTS AND MINDS

Oscar-winning screenwriter, director and producer Dustin Lance Black ’96 who has made a name for himself as both a storyteller and an activist says, “(Schwartz) seems to have a natural understanding that stories of diversity, told in a personal way, with an authentic voice, have the power to change hearts. And that’s how you actually move the needle culturally. Story is more powerful than any research study, any statistics, any set of laws — no matter how accurate those are and how true those are.”

With a goal to nurture more visionaries who make works that entertain while inspiring change for a better world, Schwartz and her colleagues are ever on the lookout for innovative ways to bring such projects to fruition. Enter the documentary Waterschool, which debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.


Scene from the documentary Waterschool, now streaming on Netflix.

The film chronicles female students who live along six major rivers — the Amazon, Mississippi, Danube, Nile, Ganges and Yangtze — and examines the work of Swarovski Waterschool, a community investment program run by the Austrian crystal company that educates about water, hygiene, sanitation and sustainability.

Funded by Swarovski and produced by Schwartz, Waterschool was made by a team of seven UCLA TFT graduate filmmaking students mentored by British film director Lucy Walker, a two-time Oscar nominee. Together, they traveled across five continents to capture the moving stories of these girls, demonstrating how environmental education has empowered and transformed their lives, their families and their communities.

THE NEXT CHAPTER

With all of the accomplishments TFT has notched in the past decade, “I feel like we haven’t quite finished the movie yet,” Schwartz says. She is in the midst of TFT’s first-ever major endowment and capital campaigns to strengthen numerous strategic assets, including new facilities, endowed faculty chairs, student scholarships and technology.

Two specific projects are central to her goals for the school. One is a degree program in social impact entertainment under the umbrella of the Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment, launched in 2014 with a $10-million gift from Jeff Skoll, founder of Participant Media.

“That will be a true groundbreaker,” says Schwartz, "because if we’re going to realize to the fullest extent the vision and mission, then we need to drill down into the heart of the educational enterprise itself. It will be a true 21st-century degree.”


TFT Future Storytelling Summer Institute, held at NantStudio in Culver City.

The second project is the Center for Storytelling, Technology and Innovation, a first-of-its-kind, premier global center dedicated to research excellence at the intersection of story, performance and technology.

Together, the two programs are the climax of TFT’s metamorphosis into The Storytelling School, says Schwartz, “the last frontier to cross in bringing the entire vision and mission to life and putting it into motion for the long term — a lasting legacy for the benefit of all.”

That’s a wrap.


NAMES & NUMBERS

In the 2017-2018 academic year, worldwide box office grosses for TFT alumni in writer, director and/or producer categories exceeded $3.76 billion from films including Black Panther; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Avengers: Infinity War; The Shape of Water; A Wrinkle in Time; Downsizing; The Big Sick; The Mummy; Megan Leavey; Marshall; LBJ; Roman J. Israel, Esq.; The Post; Call Me By Your Name; and many others.

TFT’s prestigious screenwriting program counts these writers/directors among its alumni:

DUSTIN LANCE BLACK ’96, Milk and J. Edgar

PAMELA GRAY M.F.A. ’93, Megan Leavey (co-writer)

DAVID KOEPP ’90, Jurassic Park; The Lost World: Jurassic Park; Spider-Man; and The Mummy (2017) (co-writer)

ALEXANDER PAYNE M.F.A. ’90, Sideways (co-writer), Jurassic Park III (co-writer) and The Descendants (cowriter)

ERIC ROTH, Forrest Gump; Ali (co-writer); The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; and the upcoming A Star Is Born (co-writer)

PAUL SCHRADER M.A. ’70, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull

MARIANNE WIBBERLEY ’89, M.F.A. ’91, National Treasure

Numerous alumni actors appear on top-rated television shows, including:

NANCY CARTWRIGHT ’81, The Simpsons

MERRIN DUNGEY ’93, Big Little Lies, The Fix

MARISKA HARGITAY, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

MARK HARMON ’74, NCIS

KEVIN WEISMAN ’93, Runaways

KIT WILLIAMSON, EastSiders

Alumni and faculty received 49 awards and nominations in 2017-2018, including from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscar), Art Directors Guild (ADG), International Animated Film Society (Annie Award), British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), Television Academy (Emmy), Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globe), Film Independent (Independent Spirit), PGA and WGA. Throughout the years, faculty and alumni have received a total of 1,880 awards and nominations for all major awards.