Loyola Marymount University’s film program has rapidly ascended to one of the nation’s best
By Michael Aushenker
What a difference a decade makes.
At the turn of the 21st century, if industry types thought about Loyola Marymount University at all, it was as a prestigious Jesuit college that happened to offer some film and television classes but was basically off the grid.
Then, in 2001, LMU officially established its School of Film and Television, making it the new kid on the block in Harvey Levin’s 30-mile zone.
Cut to this year and the cinema program has CG-morphed into a full-service film school, complete with animation and recording arts majors, landing in August as No. 8 on The Hollywood Reporter’s annual shortlist of the Top 25 Film Schools in the United States.
LMU Film and Television students are not only entering the impregnable entertainment field as interns — more than a third of the school’s 700 undergraduate or graduate students regularly intern at 400 companies, including the major studios, the Sundance Institute, a graduate-mentoring partnership with Film Independent’s Screenwriting Lab and Ken Burns’ production company — but also as paid professionals, some even before graduating.
Some of the industry’s biggest names — David O. Russell, Judd Apatow, William Friedkin and Alfonso Cuaron among them— sat down for exclusive conversations with students earlier this year as part of the school’s inaugural Hollywood Masters Series (jointly conducted with The Hollywood Reporter), which started a second season last month with Michael Mann and continues with James L. Brooks, Billy Bob Thornton, the Farrelly Brothers, and Academy Award-winners Hans Zimmer and Hilary Swank.
Also this year, applications to the LMU School of Film and Television increased 20% over 2013, while the number of applicants to its increasingly prominent animation program, capped at 70 students, tripled over the past four years.
So how did LMU find a place on the Hollywood map so quickly?
The answer appears to lie in strategic planning, faculty talent, prioritizing hands-on training and turning its initial disadvantage — its comparatively small size among cinema school giants USC, NYU and UCLA — into an asset.
The LMU School of Film and Television classes average a 12-to-1 student/faculty ratio, giving pupils more time and attention to hone their craft than at many larger institutions.
“We’re like a small indie studio. I know all the kids by name, and they all know me. The kids get to know each other. Size is a quality all its own,” says Head of Production Administration John Syrjamaki, who held a similar position at USC and worked as a second assistant director on “The Blues Brothers” and production manager on “Assault on Precinct 13.”
“We’re different from other film schools. It’s about collaboration, not competition. You won’t find that at USC or NYU,” adds Associate Professor of Screenwriting Jeffrey Davis, who has a slew of teleplay credits dating back to “The Love Boat.”
A coming-of-age story
Inside his office plastered with movie posters, LMU School of Film and Television Dean Stephen Ujlaki is asking an assistant to make copies of one of his recent favorites, the 2013 documentary “Natan,” about a Franco-Romanian Jew in pre-Holocaust Europe who bought Pathé and became the unsung father of French cinema.
Documentaries are not only Ujlaki’s passion, he has been making them since 1969, including as a producer for HBO Films.
“What Steve understands, having been a producer, is how the industry works. It works in collaboration instead of silos. He’s trying to break the silos down. That, and modernizing the program. It’s not an easy job,” says Davis of Ujlaki, previously chair of the cinema department at San Francisco State.
When Ujlaki came to LMU in 2010, the program “needed a lot of work — a lot of visibility, someone touting what he had,” he says.
That’s where the Hollywood Masters series comes in. But, pedagogically speaking, hands-on training is the vital part of Ujlaki’s master plan.
Ujlaki reformed the curriculum to include a Film Boot Camp for first-year and transfer students, which requires students to rotate roles producing, directing and editing their own movies right from the start.
“The films are not going to be good, but at least they’ll get their feet wet. By the spring of their sophomore year, we want them to decide on a track,” Ujlaki said of the experiential crash course.
He isn’t the school’s only game-changer, however.
Since taking over the animation track in 2006, associate professor Tom Klein has molded LMU into an industry incubator. Bolstered by a $1-million gift by the Walter Lantz Foundation (named after the animation pioneer who created Woody Woodpecker), Klein’s department produced two student films this year that became BAFTA finalists and 2013 alumna Hayley Foster won a Student Academy Award this year for an animated short that was her culminating project.
“LMU Animation’s small class sizes and personalized attention from the professors was a crucial part of paving the way for the success of its students,” says Foster, now storyboarding for Warner Bros. Animation.
LMU grad turned lecturer Jay Oliva recently storyboarded Zack Snyder’s anticipated 2016 release, “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
In addition to animation for film and TV, students learn the craft as applied to gaming, marketing and other non-traditional areas.
“You’re really seeing so many different avenues for animators if they’re tech savvy,” says Klein, who has three recent grads doing motion graphics for ad campaigns at Sony and another digitally rendering airplanes at Boeing.
Joshua Morgan, an editor on “Despicable Me” and the Tim Burton-produced “9,” teaches Interactive Animation and Game Design. Klein also recruited “9” director Shane Acker, a Westchester resident, to teach at LMU, as well as LMU alum and “Johnny Bravo” creator Van Partible.
The ‘indie’ model
Returning to his analogy of film school as indie studio, no-nonsense industry vet Syrjamaki likens student films to independent movies.
“If you could make a student film, you can make almost anything,” he says.
Like Syrjamaki, Associate Professor of Production Charles Swanson arrived at LMU from USC in 2003.
“When I came here, they had strong traditional cinematography. I’ve continued that,” says Swanson.
But in 2011, Swanson attended a film summit in which he raised a critical question for LMU’s film program: “I asked, ‘Who is shooting film?’ No one had raised their hand,” he says.
Today, students shoot with digital cameras.
“I, to some extent, mourn the passing of film, but we’re practical,” Syrjamaki says, recalling a discussion about revamping school equipment. “It wasn’t an argument; it was really a conversation about what do we think the future will hold and what our course of action should be.”
Industry trends have also shaped the writing program, says Davis, who in addition to his sitcom work has penned documentaries for A&E, Discovery and National Geographic.
Since arriving at LMU in 2001, Davis has witnessed an enormous sea change for the Hollywood writer, who has gone from pitching speculative film screenplays and network sitcom scripts to chasing the more expansive cable and new media landscapes.
“To be a competitive film school, you can’t only prepare people to write screenplays. That doesn’t reflect the future,” he says of his program’s emphasis on new media that includes everything from Netflix to Funny or Die. “We’ve conducted a workshop with young entrepreneurs who have started entertainment websites. We’ve already made contact with YouTube and top game companies, even TMZ.”
Recording Arts program alum Matthew Linesch, who graduated in 2009, is currently finishing work on a forthcoming album for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, his fourth with the band. He also recorded and mixed last year’s Robert Redford drama “All is Lost.”
Linesch worked at the recording arts office while at LMU, a job he says taught him how to think on his feet using state-of-the-art equipment. He found work as an independent producer and engineer in Ojai “on the basis that I could build a whole studio up there,” he says. “That was a skill you can’t learn in the classroom. You can only learn by doing it.”
LMU alum Kevin Hageman went on to co-write “The Lego Movie,” this year’s top-grossing original animated feature, with his brother Dan.
“My years at LMU were invaluable,” he says. “I chose their film department over other film schools because you truly got a hands-on education on all aspects of film production, culminating in writing, directing, producing and editing my own final thesis film.”
Other success stories haven’t yet left the fold.
As a junior, Film & TV Production major Matt Thompson co-founded Medal Lion Entertainment, a successful advertising production company, with senior Matt Law.
Carrie Gutenberg, who graduated with a screenwriting emphasis this year, started out in the writer’s room for “Mystery Girls,” an ABC Family series starring “Beverly Hills 90210” alums Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth. She’s now writing and producing segments on the CBS magazine show “Game Changer.”
A sequel for success
The School of Film and Television’s rapidly accumulated credibility has emboldened LMU to launch a building campaign to expand the film school — already replete with production studios, editing suites and several digital laboratories — with even more facilities, including a new 75-seat theater.
Other plans include more crossing over of disciplines, with Ujlaki planning to establish a graduate-level documentary production program.
“Because of the Internet, documentary is a now a viable career,” he says, listing Burns, Errol Morris and Alex Gibney as advisors. “There’s still a lot of peddling ahead, but now the bike’s moving.”
“Everything is coming into fruition,” offers Syrjamaki. “It’s been a slow evolutionary process, not so much revolutionary.”
“We’re a butterfly coming out of a cocoon,” adds Swanson. “We’re still young; we’re still burgeoning.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to state that Ujlaki came to LMU in 2010 and correctly identify Klein’s background.