Allen Sabinson certainly had a good run in Hollywood. He oversaw movies and miniseries for ABC, programming for A&E, even served a stint (not very happily) at Miramax. But the wheels spin and leave one-time insiders on the outside. What to do then?
Like many others — particularly those weaned in the once-thriving, now-moribund TV movie biz — Sabinson found refuge in academia. He presides as dean of Drexel U.’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, which like a number of universities, has taken steps to establish a Southern California toehold.
This summer the Philadelphia-based school (home to Comcast and the Liberty Bell) began emulating other colleges outside the glamour markets by launching an L.A.-based summer program for 25 students. Drexel also orchestrates a co-op initiative requiring juniors to spend at least six months working professionally — experience not only offering practical experience but which can separate those truly committed to media careers from dabblers.
There’s some irony, inevitably, in the evolving relationship between Hollywood and academia. While veteran execs and talent struggle to gain steady employment themselves — particularly those disenfranchised by declining genres, like telepics and daytime soaps — opportunities have sprouted to train those young, eager, and hungry to break in and supplant the old guard.
While hopefuls always outnumber jobs, as the New York Times reported, despite shakier-than-usual prospects thanks to media cutbacks there’s significant growth in film-school enrollment beyond USC, UCLA and NYU, as colleges such as Drexel and Syracuse U. (which also has an ambitious L.A. program) aggressively pursue media as a curriculum.
Sabinson — who didn’t see greenlighting reality shows as a terribly appetizing alternative when he “opened myself up the universe” and segued to education — is certainly mindful of the inherent dichotomy in this. And while he has assembled a department populated by seasoned entertainment pros who can convey practical know-how, he’s equally aware the transition from exec to professor isn’t for everybody.
“It was the biggest learning curve I’ve ever faced in my life,” he said, admitting he initially harbored “some concern about moving into education.”
At Drexel, Sabinson shepherds 2,000 students in 16 undergraduate and five graduate spheres. Although it’s unlikely they include the next Spielberg or Lucas, he cited a wide range of employment options, from advertising to industrial films, where students can benefit from these disciplines.
“A lot of these skills will translate to media-related jobs beyond entertainment,” he said.
Although outwardly appealing — hey, who wouldn’t want to go back to college? — the transition isn’t always easy. Those accustomed to the Hollywood treatment must adapt to a different salary scale and lifestyle, without the support systems they once enjoyed.
“It’s under-resourced. You certainly don’t do it for the money,” said Andrew Susskind, a former head of TV at Imagine Entertainment and Weintraub Entertainment, whom Sabinson tapped as director of Drexel’s newly created television major.
Like Sabinson, who said he stumbled into academia, Susskind has found the switch an adjustment. Nevertheless, he says it’s invigorating to spend every day interacting with the younger demographic that networks and programmers so desperately yearn to reach.
“It’s been a wonderful recharging of creative juices,” Susskind said. “It’s like I’m in the lab every day around the people they’re most trying to figure out.”
Those who have made the jump say many in Hollywood harbor misconceptions about such a move, given the various constituencies requiring attention and the university system’s own arcane politics.
Admittedly, the chasm separating Drexel students from Hollywood might appear cavernous, but when it comes to media, hope springs eternal. In addition, the current college-age generation comes pre-armed with a “mind-boggling” grasp of media technology, Sabinson noted, if in some instances a magical view of the likelihood of fulfilling their showbiz dreams.
For that reason, Susskind said Drexel’s co-op element is enormously valuable, providing students “an early dose of how hard it is to find work in this business.”
In that, actually, the kids might have something in common with Hollywood elders contemplating a second act behind a lectern. Because while the challenges might be different, Sabinson said, “It’s as hard to break into the academy as it is to break into television.”