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Students who attend classes taught by Craig Detweiler — Variety’s 2016 Mentor of the Year — are getting more than just an education in film.
Detweiler, professor of communication at Pepperdine U. and creative director of the school’s Institute for Entertainment, Media and Culture, provides a path through what he calls “the angst that is endemic to the (entertainment) industry” by encouraging his students to view the industry from an entrepreneurial standpoint.

“I’m trying to inspire long-term, sustainable creativity,” which can be achieved through an adherence to story, the ability to adapt to the “madness that we know as Hollywood,” and an understanding of all sides of the industry as a means of controlling one’s creative career.

That multi-disciplinary approach is at the heart of the institute, which prepares its students for the 21st-century media marketplace through an array of disciplines — arts and humanities, law, psychology, business — and collaboration among Pepperdine’s five schools to provide a unique understanding of the cultural and social landscape across degrees and programs. Detweiler follows a similar path: He provides traditional and hands-on education as well as an approximation of what he calls “the creative disruption” that is a key component to the industry.

“I try to disrupt people’s assumptions, and maybe force them to create out of their weakness, rather than their strengths,” he says. One of the most effective means of accomplishing this shift in focus is to require students to complete a creative project in a medium with which they have little to no experience. Though the first response is often “abject terror,” the experience encourages students to abandon perfectionist ideas and to adapt in order to express their goals.

“They learn what they’re doing, how to respond to what they’ve been given and what to do if it doesn’t go according to plan,” Detweiler says. “That’s every pitch session you’ll ever have. You have a good pitch, but unfortunately, that’s not the one they want, so now what do you do.”

“I try to disrupt people’s assumptions, and maybe force them to create out of their weakness, rather than their strengths.”
Craig Detweiler

This crash course in creativity on the fly has benefited countless graduates who now occupy top positions in the industry; among them are “Short Term 12” director Destin Daniel Cretton, whom Detweiler describes as a “tremendous risk-taking force,” and Apatow Productions executive Josh Church, who has served as co-producer on “Trainwreck” and “Talladega Nights,” among other films. “(Church) can deal with that chaos and not be overwhelmed by it,” Detweiler says.

Adaptation isn’t the only instinct Detweiler tries to hone in his classes. “I challenge my students to invest stories that matter,” he says. In production, “you have to live with stories for so long — it might be a year or two, it might be 10. So are you investing in something that you can sustain enough passion for over the long haul?”

And understanding how the industry works from the business and legal standpoint is crucial for 21st-century film and media majors. It’s a lesson Detweiler learned firsthand after graduating from USC with a master’s degree in cinema and television.

“I think we were given the false impression that you’re a genius and the phones will start ringing,” he says. “Neither of which turned out to be true.” The institute trains students to have a greater command over their careers by becoming “creative entrepreneurs” who understand how to read a balance sheet and a script.

Professor Detweiler interacts with aspiring filmmaker students on Pepperdine’s Malibu, Calif., campus.

Detweiler again cites a Pepperdine grad as a textbook example of the institute’s approach: “Keith Redmon, who was one of the producers for ‘Revenant,’ is a manager at Anonymous Content. He’s a dealmaker, but he’s a smart enough dealmaker to know that it was a story he wanted to invest in — even though it was a troubled, over-budget production. He believed in the power of the story of ‘Revenant.’ And he’s our first Golden Globe winner.”

Detweiler hopes to further broaden students’ understanding of the media industry through the school’s Australia Film Program, which will allow participants to produce an advanced film project in partnership with the Intl. Screen Academy in Sydney from July to August. Detweiler expects that “we’ll make excellent projects, but that it’ll also expand students’ minds to the global market of film and to understand that their ideas have to play not just in America, but also around the globe.”

That global element is perhaps the most significant aspect of Detweiler’s goal of teaching students the skills and understanding to unify audiences through the power of story. It’s best summed up by his former student Katie Taylor, who launched Film School Africa, a program that gives young people in South Africa’s townships training and equipment to tell their stories through media.

“If I have a legacy,” he says, “it might be Katie, who believes in these 21st-century storytellers, who may emerge from the most unlikely of places with the most powerful of stories.”