New film school dean Schwartz takes on USC's dominance

UCLA and USC often engage in spirited competition, although at times the scales have appeared almost as one-sided in the media and film realm as they have been on the football field.

Under Dean Elizabeth Daley, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts has amassed enviable clout and financial backing. Walk around the campus and you’ll see a number of gaudy buildings with the names of entertainment and media luminaries plastered across them, including a record-setting $175 million donation from George Lucas. Hell, Steven Spielberg has been active in supporting USC — and as he likes to joke, didn’t even get admitted there.

Similarly, the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism has become “the center of research on the issues we talk about,” as Illinois professor Robert McChesney praised it during a recent visit, saying he structured his book tour’s schedule to ensure Southern Cal (a nickname they hate, by the way) was among the stops.

There’s no pleasure in this observation, inasmuch as you’re hearing it from a UCLA grad who has spent far more time attending conferences and symposiums at USC over the last few years than my alma mater. Yet it’s part of the hurdles that Teri Schwartz faces as the new dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television.

A producer before moving into the academic world at Loyola Marymount University, Schwartz took the UCLA job nine months ago. And while she won’t discuss her predecessors, she stresses that tapping into an alumni base that’s “extraordinarily well-placed throughout the industry” — especially by reaching out to young alumni — is a “major part of our strategic plan” that she hopes to implement over the coming year. She calls it “critical to our success.”

Fairly or not, the perception exists that UCLA hasn’t been as aggressive as it could or should have been in mining its alumni. Schwartz noted that there have been outreach efforts in the past. “It’s just been extremely quiet. … Those days are over,” she said.

Part of the disparity vis-a-vis USC might have to do with that institution’s private-school underpinnings, which almost by definition hinge on separating well-heeled alumni from their money.

Although UCLA is a public university, it’s one operating in a cash-strapped, near-bankrupt state — which makes tapping into its professional network, increasingly, an imperative.

While applauding what USC’s Daley has accomplished, Schwartz noted that UCLA has no shortage of advantages. Most obviously, both schools have a geographic edge over virtually any film and communication schools outside Manhattan. “People want to be here,” Schwartz said.

Moreover, all film schools have benefited, in somewhat bittersweet fashion, from trends assailing the entertainment industry. Plenty of showbiz veterans have surplus time on their hands, making academia an attractive option.

Certainly, UCLA can drop names with the best of them, and not just going back to Francis Ford Coppola. More recent grads range from screenwriters Dustin Lance Black and David Koepp to “Pirates of the Caribbean” director Gore Verbinski.

Still, it’s hard to escape a sense that UCLA’s leadership in the media sphere has been at best erratic. Geoffrey Cowan, a one-time UCLA communications professor who went on to enjoy considerable success as dean of USC’s Annenberg School, was diplomatic, but did say, “The School of Cinematic Arts and the Annenberg School have been privileged to have an amazingly exciting decade of innovation and growth. It would be wonderful for UCLA to have the same kind of growth … and good for Los Angeles.”

Schwartz described UCLA’s mission as less about escaping USC’s shadow than charting its own course through “an overarching thematic approach” and vision.

What seems clear is that until now, UCLA hasn’t fully harnessed its resources. As evidence, consider UCLA Entertainment Night, an annual event held earlier this month, where students could interact with dozens of alums (full disclosure: I was among them) to discuss their employment prospects — luring entertainment pros, who seemed eager to participate, back to the campus.

Granted, the sports analogy only goes so far, but Schwartz does have something in common with UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel: When trying to rebuild a program, the best game plan begins with hitting the recruiting trail.

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