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Top Film School Deans Use #MeToo Scandal as Teachable Moment

Students at the nation’s top film schools in recent months have been treated to a generous serving of horror stories to offset the fantasy of entering the entertainment business.

The industry’s dark side has been front and center in the news, including painful revelations about alleged sexual harassment and other abuses by leading industry figures from mini-mogul Harvey Weinstein to Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey.

Deans at the nation’s top entertainment training grounds say they are addressing the topic in classrooms, through special discussions and private meetings involving faculty, students and alumni.

“We have the next generation here,” says Elizabeth Daley, dean of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. “If we want a different kind of industry, we have to be able to envision it. You can’t create what you can’t imagine, so I think the important thing for us is not only to acknowledge the problems, but also to talk about what kind of industry we want. Where do we want it to go? How should we work to treat one another so that we can realize that industry?”

Teri Schwartz, dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, agrees. “We think it’s important that we have open dialogue about what’s going on in the industry,” she says. “We think it’s important for our students to understand the challenges they might face in the world.”

“It’s absolutely our job to educate our students on this subject,” says Allyson Green, dean of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. “We must model the brave space for difficult, but respectful conversations and prepare our students to feel sufficiently empowered to enter their professions with an understanding of boundaries, personal dignity and ethics. We are training the new generation of creative professionals, women and men, to change the field from within.”

Last month, USC sponsored a program focused on diversity and inclusion, Daley notes. Panels included cinema faculty, professionals and women telling their stories, she says. Cinema school alums also participated in a closed conversation, for students only, about diversity and inclusion.

USC’s cinema school recently turned down a $5 million pledge from Weinstein to fund an endowment for women filmmakers and accepted a request from director Bryan Singer (facing accusations of his own) to suspend the use of his name on the Division of Cinema and Media Studies until the allegations against him are resolved.

Discussions are taking place in multiple venues, including the classroom, Schwartz says.

“Along with our department chairs and leadership within our school, we have devised some upcoming workshops so that we can have more in-depth conversations around the topic,” she says. “I also have special lunches and other kinds of smaller group discussions with our female faculty and students so they have an opportunity and a really good environment in order to speak freely.”

“When news of the unacceptable behavior in the film and television industry began to surface in October, we needed to remind our community of the resources already available to them,” Green says. “We actively addressed this issue within the Tisch community.”

All three deans note the strong representation of women in their programs.

“When the film program began in the mid-1960s, it was almost exclusively male, and about 15 years ago, only a third of our film students were women,” NYU’s Green notes. “Today, we have an equal number of women and men in our film programs.”

Two NYU students, Emma Heald and Gina Abatemarco, and Susan Sandler, a member of the undergraduate film faculty, created the annual Fusion Film Festival to celebrate women in film, television and new media 16 years ago. Fusion now has year-round programming and attracts artists across the industry as mentors, Green points out.

USC’s Daley says the ratio of women and men at the school is 50-50 and that several scholarships support female students.

At USC, “George Lucas and Mellody Hobson have put a very large endowment in place for women and underrepresented voices, and it is always required that at least 50% of the recipients be women,” Daley says.

UCLA in recent years has offered scholarships for Arabic, Indian and women of color to tell their unique stories, Schwartz says. “I think that we encourage women to tell their stories,” Schwartz says. “The world is a deeper and richer place if women have the opportunity to tell their stories.”

As accomplished women in entertainment themselves, Daley, Green and Schwartz have faced their own challenges, all the while trying to make things better for the next generation.

Green says she had to ignore “painful situations” to keep her job in her younger years, facing a “culture where I was advised to keep quiet.” As she grew older, she says she began to challenge “locker room talk” and “dumb blonde” jokes. It’s difficult to speak up, Daley acknowledges.

“I think the thing for all women certainly of my generation and a little younger was that we didn’t think anyone would believe us anyway,” Daley says. “And they probably wouldn’t, or they would have just considered us troublemakers, and so it was a horrible silence that fell over everything.”

That’s the beauty of the #MeToo movement, and the demonstrations of support at recent award ceremonies such as the Golden Globes, she says.

“I do think when powerful women speak up it gives younger women who have less power the courage to do it and to start to realize, just because you don’t have specific power, you’re not powerless,” Daley says. “It has to be talked about. It has to be identified. It has to be named. It has to be called out. And the goal is to change behavior. I think it’s really important to keep that in mind always. The goal is to change behavior.”
One way to create change is to put more women in positions of power.

“What I did is I made a point, when I got into a position of hiring, of hiring as many women as I could, hiring as many people of color as I could,” Schwartz says. “You encourage women by hiring more women and by putting them in leadership and decision-making roles,” she says.

“You certainly need to get women in school ready to move into the industry and then you need to get women in decision-making jobs,” Daley adds. “Things get handled very differently when you have women, or African-Americans or LGBT people as part of the decision-making.”

Barbara Schock, chair of NYU’s graduate film program, advocates, along with the rest of the faculty, simply encouraging more women to make films, Green says.

“We know that there are unique challenges for women, and have been historically, but don’t get down about that, try to stay optimistic and positive, and your talent will come through,” Schwartz says.

And there is perhaps more reason for optimism than ever before.

As leaders in entertainment academia, they advise young women to seek out mentors, work hard at their craft and believe in their work.

“I believe that we are on the cusp of real change,” Green says.

“I just looking forward to having it really make substantial change in how we deal with one another,” adds Daley. “It will be up to all of us to keep it going.
“We’re interested in trying to breed leaders who will manage the kind of industry that we want to see.”

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