Aside from volleying dialectics about Werner Herzog and auditing classes on aesthetic theory for fun, film studies major Nicholas Collura ’07 has an additional senior year pursuit: directing a film. “The Soul of Genius” will explore the existential parameters of life in 06520 — the ontological weight of “Yale, Yalies, and the meaning of life,” as the tagline reads.
“It is a feature-length documentary,” Collura said, “whose cast of students and professors reflects on the relevance of lessons learned here at Yale to broader philosophical questions concerning giftedness, ambition and human purpose.”
Meanwhile, Ben Stiller’s “Night at the Museum” — its tagline: “Everything comes to life!” — has accumulated a domestic box-office gross of $206 million.
While “Museum” trades Foucault for family fun, it does so for a net gain. Even with a December release date and tepid reviews, it became the fifth highest grossing film of 2006 thanks to the theater-going public — most of whom have not read the required texts of FILM 320a, “Close Analysis of Film.”
Despite the premium that alums such as Bruce Cohen ’83 — Academy Award-winning producer of “American Beauty” — place on their liberal-arts cred, the upper echelons of Hollywood are comprised of the lucky, the well-connected and the mixer savvy. And the contingent of Yalies intent on “Museum”-like success — nourished on theory in classrooms with fireplaces — are arguably unprepared for such an endeavor immediately after graduation.
But recent Blue Book offerings like Suzanne O’Malley’s “Writing Hour-long Television Drama” and the advent of the Yale-in-Hollywood internship program — which offers participants coveted industry connections on a silver platter — are creating a uniquely Yale infrastructure for climbing the entertainment-industry ladder. And with the ability to wield both “Godard” and “gaffer” in their lexicon, latter-day Yalies are already profiting.
No longer ‘going to school in Connecticut’
Long before saying, “I would like to thank the Academy,” Cohen was just another Yale undergraduate who could wax poetic about film. Cohen juggled a bevy of film-related activities — captaining an undergraduate film society and filmmaking with dinosaur-like equipment — and majored in film studies, then a “Special Divisional Major,” before moving to Hollywood to work as a clerk at Warner Brothers.
“There was much less of a [Yale] network here when I came,” he said. “The Yale-in-Hollywood program helps a lot … I love to have as many Yalies as possible! … In Hollywood it’s all about the connections.”
Michael Taylor ’81, a high-level writer for shows like “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Dead Zone,” argues that the Yale brand is ultimately irrelevant in a dog-eat-dog city of Chihuahuas in designer purses.
While working as a freelance writer, a musician and an office temp in New York, Taylor, a former English major, began weaving science-fiction screenplays. His scripts went through friend-of-a-friend circuitry before landing on the desk of a writer for a “Star Trek” spin-off. Four script sales later, Taylor was hired for “Star Trek Voyager,” and proceeded to move to L.A.
Taylor credits the existence of a palpable Yale network in Los Angeles; however, he “never used it or experienced it.”
“What got me a job were my friends and scripts,” he said. “There’s certainly an element of luck … but it’s not a matter of luck, it’s a matter of talent and determination — it’s not a factor of an Ivy League pedigree. Yale just gave me a good education, and made me a better writer. That’s what helped, but not contacts.”
Alex Costantini ’08, however, disputes these sentiments when describing his own Hollywood internship experience at Anonymous Content, a production and management company. While he didn’t tote a Yale hoodie and college-affiliated Nalgene to the office, he recognized that being a Yale student can give interns an angle.
“In terms of being able to drop the ‘Y bomb,’ for better or worse it’s an automatic stamp of approval,” he said. “Outside of other internships, where you play the game of ‘I go to school in Connecticut,’ playing the Yale card in Hollywood is instant branding.
“Although,” he continued, “a line producer frequently referred to me as ‘YAlex.’”
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The Yale-in-Hollywood program was founded five years ago to give undergrads ample opportunity to “drop the Y bomb” and, at the same time, give them crucial vocational experience. The program is coordinated by Kevin Winston ’91 and includes over 800 Yale alumni, networking events and even a film festival.
“The Yale-in-Hollywood summer internship program benefits students by giving them L.A.-based entertainment industry experience on their resumes, which is very important in Hollywood,” Winston said, responding via 2 a.m. e-mail, fresh from a star-laden after-party. “It also helps them network with alumni in the industry for mentoring, or jobs.”
At his internship with a production and management company this past summer, Dariush Nothaft ’08 sifted through the usual loot of embarrassing screenplays, culling the best for the high-level producers. He called the work environment “extremely demanding, but also very laid back”; though they worked hard, Nothaft and his colleagues could show up to work in jeans, indicative of the odd intersection of the social and the professional that the internship represented.
Alex Newman-Wise ’08, however, took a less conventional route in his Hollywood summer. His production company internship — coordinated through the Yale-in-Hollywood program — didn’t come to fruition, and therefore he utilized more guerrilla-like tactics.
“I decided to stop pursuing [the internship] and spend my time actually in the industry, regardless of how low I would be,” he said. “I ended up working on a few student films at USC and doing extra work on a TV show and a couple of movies.”
Through these endeavors, Newman-Wise garnered enough Screen Actors Guild credits to qualify him for organization membership. He also, of his own volition, cultivated relationships with producers like Josh Schwartz (of “The O.C.”) and gaggles of twenty-something publicists with highlights — enough to earn spots on the guest lists of tony Hollywood affairs like Club LAX. Yet active involvement in the industry is precluded by Yale’s hermetic isolation, Newman-Wise said.
“I don’t have an agent, and I feel like it’s very difficult for current students to try to get one without being in New York or L.A.,” he said. “They are not interested in people who cannot be at a meeting in the afternoon when they arrange it for you that morning.”
The tenuousness of New Haven’s connections to the industry are evidenced by the differences between the roles of Yale-in-Washington and Yale-in-Hollywood, Winston said. The Dean’s Office, the Office of the President, Undergraduate Career Services and the Yale College Council all had a hand in reaching out to D.C.-based alums; Yale-in-Hollywood, by contrast, is effectively run out of the Yale Club of Southern California.
Newman-Wise also bemoaned the lack of a fully-realized alumni network, which he believes the Yale-in-Hollywood program is only beginning to develop. Though some industry gods make an effort to tint their staff with Yale blue, he said the potential network is still “many scattered dots that haven’t really been connected yet.”
Of pretense and pragmatism
During her infamous Chubb lecture last year, Sofia Coppola — all Marc Jacobs and nonchalance — fielded questions from Yale students regarding her film career. A quivering voice asked if she read any contemporary film journals or theorists, to which she slurred, “No…”
Yet these texts constitute the foundation of the Film Studies curriculum. While the department also hosts a wealth of production-related courses, most course listings for the major have titles that are frenetic permutations of a number of academic departments. Students digest a hyper-multidisciplinary curriculum that balances literary texts, screenings and historical studies; they are required to take seminars like “Issues in Contemporary Film Theory” as well as a smattering of art history and literature courses.
But Director of Undergraduate Studies Terri Francis explains that practice and theory are more intrinsically tied than each might suggest.
“There is that desire to be attentive to filmmaking as a career,” Francis said. “But we value more the process over the product. The history and theory classes are based on a still-by-still analysis like that of storyboard construction … they’re not as far apart as people think.”
Outside Francis’s office, a narrow corridor is lined with years of criticism journals packed like Incan masonry.
“Making films and writing about films are two crucial components to understanding cinema,” Francis said, her dimly-lit office revealing a Kara Walker poster. “We’re not a film school, and we’re supposed to adhere to a liberal-arts education curriculum — it’s not surprising that the majority of our courses are interdisciplinary and cross-listed with other majors.”
Still, some students forgo these more intellectual offerings in exchange for more practice-based pursuits. Costantini enrolled in Art 141 “The Language of Film Workshop” without having taken any prior film classes because he wanted to approach film from a more pragmatic vantage point.
This semester, such sensibilities are realized in course offerings like Suzanne O’Malley’s residential college seminar “Writing Hour-Long Television Drama.” Having penned several screenplays for “Law and Order,” as well as a plethora of features for glossy magazines like “People” and “Esquire,” she brings a wealth of commercial experience to a class in which each student is required to write a 60-page script.
“I am a die-hard promoter of a liberal arts education,” she said. “Personally, I think most students who go only to film schools learn how to make films and do spectacular special effects, but unfortunately they have nothing to say.”
Even for those who eschew Sudler-funded student journals and couture Cinema at the Whitney screenings, there are still opportunities to pursue film on campus. Bulldog Productions, which Collura co-founded, congeals Yale’s community of student screenwriters, actors, cinematographers and directors into an on-campus network, he said. However, he doesn’t see college as the ideal place to hone the entire skillset needed to catch a break.
“To everything there is a season,” Collura said. “The craft of filmmaking is best learned in film school, and the strange manners of the professional film industry are best learned on internships if one is brave enough to take them.”
‘The Industry’ revolution
Whisked from the cubicles of the Anonymous Content production company — other interns still eyeing the fluorescent swipe of the copy machine — Costantini occasionally left his Yale-in-Hollywood internship to attend the organization’s talks and mixers. One particular field trip involved ascending the Hollywood Hills for an at-home conversation with an alum.
That alum was Bruce Cohen, and that home was his sprawling modernist compound.
“We even got to hold his Oscar!” Constantini said, all smiles.
These opportunities for social networking, the bedrock of mobility in Hollywood, are institutionalized by the Yale-in-Hollywood program. (“It’s a ‘who you know’ industry,” Winston said.) Aside from speaker events that tout a laundry list of industry names, the program also coordinates a number of studio tours that give undergraduates direct access to professionals in the Hollywood stratosphere.
Costantini remembers a particular engagement with Fox president Peter Ligouri, who paraded Yalies around the Fox studio lot.
“[He] surprisingly even went over his allotted time for his talk when he could have blown it off as a 15-minute speech,” Constantini said. “Near the end, his assistant was chasing him doing say that he had six urgent phone calls, to which he replied, ‘Hold on, I have to tell these kids about this one commercial I did.’”
Costantini went on to describe, with Page Six allure, the various recent grads who met Ligouri through Yale-in-Hollywood mixers and later landed coveted lunch meetings at the best monosyllabic, sans-serif restaurants LA has to offer.
But while Yale does offer a predictable buffet of industry connections, Elis like Taylor and Collura argue for a more substantive accolade upon graduation — intelligence, which Collura believes is “rarely a handicap.”
That said, you probably won’t find “Night at the Museum” on his must-see list.
“For me, the bigger tragedy is that L.A. can be an intellectual desert, a spiritual wasteland, and many alumni flock there without knowing this or even caring about it,” Collura wrote in an e-mail.
“For these latter I might adapt the last line of ‘A Man for All Seasons’: ‘Don’t you know? It profits a man nothing to give his soul for all the world … but for HOLLYWOOD?’”