When Teri Schwartz became dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television nearly three years ago, she arrived with a passel of lofty goals and the heady ambition of re-imagining the venerable institution for the 21st century.
Spend time with the enthusiastic, 62-year-old dean and former film producer and you’ll see she’s quick to point out that her aspirations aren’t out of line with the school’s under-one-roof setup, which, Schwartz says, lends itself to preparing would-be filmmakers for today’s interconnected landscape.
“We’re the one premiere school that has theater, film, television, animation and digital media all under one roof,” Schwartz says during a lengthy chat in her office on the Westwood campus. “When I arrived, I felt what we really needed to do was tear down the silos across the disciplines and become completely interdisciplinary. That’s the way for us to differentiate ourselves.”
Although UCLA was one of the schools that helped define the model on film schools for the 20th century, as the industry evolves, Schwartz believes such institutions must reevaluate their priorities and ask, “What kind of world are we preparing out students for?”
So, while crosstown rival, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, recently opened a state-of-the-art 200,000-sq.-ft. film complex, Schwartz has been working with her faculty and staff to revamp UCLA’s curriculum, initiatives and programs to emphasize the school’s unique position.
The new offerings play to the school’s strengths: its vast network of prestigious alumni (with this year’s wins by Alexander Payne and Gore Verbinski, UCLA grads have now amassed 107 Oscars), its proximity to the film industry and its diverse community.
To that end, the MFA acting program has been redesigned to cut across the different media to provide training in stage, television and various types of film, including motion-capture and greenscreen work. The school also has launched a partnership with Cirque du Soleil, providing students opportunities to work in the group’s various disciplines, including performance, design, costuming and directing.
Curriculum additions include classes by film producer Paula Wagner and screenwriter Bobby Moresco that bring together students in different disciplines, as well as a course in which theater and film students deconstruct and then restage “Gone With the Wind” as a repurposed multimedia performance piece.
“We want to combine traditional methods and experimental methods as often as possible to get to this interdisciplinary approach,” Schwartz says. “We should be on the leading edge of the conversation about where the intersection of technology and new narrative structures are taking us in the future.”
Wherever those stories might lead, UCLA/TFT will be counting on its alums to help fashion them. “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening recently donated $500,000 for an endowment intended for working professionals to teach at the school’s animation program. Groening also gives $50,000 each year to fund student production of animated shorts revolving around themes of social responsibility.
UCLA alum Schwartz (’71, English literature) is keen on further deepening alumni commitment while developing partnerships within the industry, including production companies (Participant Media is onboard with fellowships) and such film festivals as Telluride and Sundance. It’s here that she draws upon her 32-year career as a nuts-and-bolts film producer to ensure that professional preparation be central to the school’s mission.
“Teri doesn’t separate the art and the industry,” says Deborah Landis, director of UCLA’s Copley Center for Costume Design. “She brings the paradigm of the film business to academia. She’s very goal-oriented and gets things done. The school is lucky to have her.”
Schwartz feels blessed to have landed back at her alma mater, too. After receiving an M.A. in Film from the U. of London, she returned to Los Angeles and began her career, like so many in Hollywood, at Roger Corman’s B-movie factory New World Pictures.
“It was another film school in its own crazy way,” Schwartz recalls.
A stint with Robert Abel’s pioneering production company followed, which included making musicvideos in the fledgling medium. There she became friends with Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand. When Schwartz closed up shop with Abel, Streisand asked her to help produce her 1987 drama “Nuts.” Midler rang next with “Beaches,” and soon Schwartz had her own production company and a deal with Touchstone, where she produced “Sister Act.”
She left the film business in 2003 when Loyola Marymount approached her to become the first dean of its School of Film and Television.
“It was like a light bulb went on over my head,” Schwartz says. “I thought it was an extraordinary opportunity to give back.”
Just shy of three years into the job at UCLA, she believes the school is well on its way to better preparing students for the rapidly changing industry.
“Students don’t see boundaries across disciplines,” Schwartz says. “They’ll tell me, ‘I made a short film last week and I’m in a play this week and I’m doing a little animated piece over here.’ It’s an exciting time.”