Hollywood 101: Where Nina Jacobson, 'The Big Bang Theory's' Bill Prady and Other Execs Play Professor

Bill Prady and Nina Jacobson
Bill Prady and Nina Jacobson
 David Sparshott

This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Winter break is a distant memory. All over town, colleges are teeming yet again with some of the biggest names in the business — Peter Guber! Harry Sloan! The Big Bang Theory’s Bill Prady! — teaching weekly classes on everything from marketing and TV writing to dealmaking and distribution.

Welcome to the world of Hollywood’s top profs. At such schools as USC and UCLA, industry players are in high demand as part-time instructors because they provide cachet. By bringing them on board — in contrast to full-timers who once held key real-world posts but draw on experience that no longer might be so relevant — colleges also are able to demonstrate their connections to the industry and help justify their expensive tuitions. “To be as current as possible with the trends in the industry, you have to have people who are really there: on the soundstages, in the offices,” says UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television dean Teri Schwartz. “That way our students have the richest possible experience.”

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These A-list teachers aren’t doing it for the money. “It’s next to nothing — it’s that low,” laughs Larry Auerbach, associate dean of student industry relations at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts (and 47-year veteran of William Morris). “Do we have to get into the amount? I don’t want to embarrass them. They do it for other reasons.” (At least one of these Hollywood teachers says he gives his teaching salary to his teaching assistant.)

Those other reasons include the benevolence of sharing hard-earned wisdom. These folks are stockpiling — or working to balance out? — karma by sharing their experiences. Showtime senior vp programming Randy Runkle has taught a class devoted to the making of Homeland, while CAA’s Alan Berger has brought in clients Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell to guest lecture at USC. (Many stay in touch with their students and in some cases have offered internships.) There also is the ego boost. Their students have paid big bucks to hang on to the power players’ every word. And the pupils aren’t too shabby: They’ve included FX Productions executive vp Eric Schrier, who once took Berger’s class as an undergrad and now teaches a TV course at the school.

Whatever the impulse, they all get a kick out of it — even if they sometimes wonder why they didn’t just beg off this semester. “Before I teach, I dread coming up with a syllabus, and I dread the time commitment,” says The Fighter producer David Hoberman, who teaches at UCLA. “Then I get in the classroom, and I love it.”

ALAN BERGER

Agent, CAA

School USC School of Cinematic Arts

Course Business of Representation (about 30 students)

Midterm assignment Berger connects students with other reps in the business and sends them "out to meet them at their offices, and then they have to make a presentation to the class about their experience," says Berger.

Don't even ask … "How to get an agent. This is a class about what an agent does," notes Berger. "If you've got a screenplay or a sitcom or your brother is in a band, I don't care. We're not here to sign anyone."

What he wishes he learned in school "Exactly what 10 percent is," he jokes.

What you can't learn in school "I don't think that any class could teach the pace or the pressure that comes from being in one of these jobs. You don't appreciate either until you're in it."

Onscreen teacher hero Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase.

Major Political science at Lawrence University

BILL PRADY

Executive producer, The Big Bang Theory

School USC School of Cinematic Arts

Course Writing the Original Situation Comedy. “Each of my five students over the course of the semester is writing a pilot,” says Prady. “During the first two classes, I advance my particular ideas about what I think makes a strong pilot.”

Career advice to students “The mistake that all of them made when they set out to write their sitcom was that they came in with stories that were so far from their life experience. I said, ‘How on earth are you going to write about this?’ They need to ask, ‘What are things I already know about?’ ” 

Most useful thing he learned in school “I learned in high school how miserable I am at dealing with girls,” says the now-married father of two. “It has been fuel for The Big Bang Theory.”

What you can’t learn in school “The pain of watching your writing fail in a room of 400 people. Stuff that you’re convinced is wonderful, and then you hear actors say it, and it dies.”

Onscreen teacher hero Mr. Kotter of Welcome Back, Kotter.

Major Undeclared at Wayne State (dropped out)

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NINA JACOBSON

CEO of Color Force, The Hunger Games producer

School USC School of Cinematic Arts

Course Script Development in the Studio System (about 25 students). "We've covered the adaptation of Wimpy Kid and The Hunger Games and how IP affects different films. We also talk about the style and brand of certain producers relative to one another."

Speakers Producer Gavin Polone, Black List founder Franklin Leonard, producer Sunil Perkash

How she gets her speakers to open up "It's a cone-of-silence class, so guests feel free to share."

Most useful thing she learned in school "Knowledge should generate more questions than answers."

What you can't learn in school "Intuition. It becomes a main part of your decision-making process, and you must have confidence in it."

What she learns from her students "The kids will ask you the questions that you have long stopped asking yourself. They are a reminder that there's still a burning spark of exuberance and enthusiasm to do what we do for a living -- there are people out there who are dying to do it."

Major Semiotics at Brown

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ERIC SCHRIER

Executive vp at FX Productions

School USC School of Cinematic Arts

Course The World of TV: How Does It Work? (about 40 students)

Speakers The Shield creator Shawn Ryan, WME's Ari Greenburg, ICM Partners' Greg Lipstone, FX Networks president John Landgraf

Sample class "I try to take a TV show from inception through its life cycle with guest speakers," says Schrier. "One will be the pitch and developing, another on the art of the deal."

Hot topic Piracy. "At least 50 percent to 60 percent of my students admit that they pirate shows, but they don't see that piracy could be the downfall of the industry. What they don't ask is, how do you maintain the business when people take the content for granted?"

Don't even ask … "How do I sell my project? Or will you read my project? That's not why I'm teaching the class."

What you can't learn in school "In Alan Berger's class, which I took, I remember he had Bernie Brillstein come in and speak, and he said to us, 'The most valuable thing you can do to learn about this business is work as an assistant and listen in on phone calls.' The idea that you can just come in and do these development jobs is totally false."

Onscreen teacher hero Joe Louis Clark in Lean on Me.

Major Critical Studies at USC's School of Cinematic Arts

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KEN ZIFFREN

Partner, Ziffren Brittenham

School UCLA's School of Law

Course Motion Picture Distribution (about 10 students)

Speakers Warner Bros. domestic television distribution president Ken Werner, former Sony Home Entertainment president Ben Feingold, former Universal executive vp Tom Wertheimer

Hot topic Box-office participation. "Students often come in with a completely distorted view of the way things work, especially from reading the trade press, which writes things like, 'The actor has participation in the box office,' " says Ziffren. "Bullshit. Stop it. No, they don't. The way it works is that the talent doesn't share in the retail, they share in the wholesale. So I spend a lot of time talking about what's really going on."

What you can't learn in school "What I tell the students is: 'At the end of this course, if you've understood it, you will have the knowledge of a lawyer who has been practicing for 40 years. However, you won't have a Rolodex. You have to get out there and build relationships.' "

Major Philosophy and political science at Northwestern University

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HARRY SLOAN

Chairman/CEO, Global Eagle Acquisition Corp.

School UCLA's Anderson School of Management

Course Entertainment Business Models (about 60 students)

Speakers Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer, Falcon Cable founder Marc Nathanson, Global Eagle co-founder Jeff Sagansky

Most useful thing he learned in school "Having had to negotiate mergers and deals over the years, the understanding of how the other side might approach an issue is probably the most valuable lesson," says Sloan.

What you can't learn in school "You can learn a lot of facts, but it's almost impossible to learn leadership."

Career advice "I think American college students, because of their backgrounds, tend to focus primarily on the domestic marketplace. I'm constantly guiding them to focus more on international opportunities and understanding international consequences."

Major Political science at UCLA

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JULIE RIEGER

Executive vp marketing, 20th Century Fox

School USC School of Cinematic Arts

Course Entertainment Marketing in Today's Digital Environment (about 35 students)

Speakers Fox chief marketing officer Oren Aviv; Adam Stewart, head of media ads at Google; Nielsen Co. exec vp Cheryl Idell

What she's learned from her students "Being in marketing, nothing's too surprising to me," says Rieger. "Unless you see something like someone really young who's watching CBS -- something way off the reservation."

What you can't learn in school "That the conference room is very different than a classroom. It's the difference between practicing in front of a mirror and being onstage. You really have to sell people on why you love an idea. It's unforgiving."

Major Advertising at Southern Methodist University

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RANDY RUNKLE

Senior vp programming, Showtime

School USC School of Cinematic Arts' Peter Stark Producing Program

Course Advanced Television (about 25 students)

Speakers Fox 21 president Bert Salke, CAA's Joe CohenCalifornication creator Tom Kapinos. For one class, says Runkle, "Homeland showrunner Alex Gansa came in, and we went through how Homeland was developed, cast, given notes and ultimately shot."

Why he teaches "I had a great experience at USC when I was there, but there were some instructors that weren't totally in touch with what was going on. They offered a theoretical or historical perspective on things, but I wanted something more tangible. When I graduated, I said to my friends, 'Someday I'm going to come back here and I'm going to teach a class, and they'll get current information.' "

Career advice "Forget about which network you should be selling your idea to and come up with a head-turning idea."

Onscreen teacher hero Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase.

Major Film Studies at Cal State Sacramento

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PETER GUBER

CEO of Mandalay Entertainment

School UCLA's Anderson School of Management

Course Critical Milestones in Preparing for a Life in Leadership (about 80 students)

Speakers Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Gilt Groupe chair Susan Lyne, former Endemol head Ynon Kreiz. "They are not giving lectures," says Guber. "They are coming for engagements. Whether it's Deepak Chopra or Pat Riley, Bob Iger or Arn Tellem, it's about demystifying them with very purposeful questions that reveal core issues. I ask how they handle risk and failure, how they set their standards and how they continue to learn themselves."

Biggest challenge with big-time speakers "Allowing them to go off into war stories. You've got to keep them on track."

Major English at Syracuse University

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DANNY SUSSMAN

Artist manager, Brillstein Entertainment Partners

School USC School of Cinematic Arts

Courses The Movie Business From Script to Screen (undergraduate, about 40 students); The Business of Representation (graduate, about 35 students). Notes Sussman: "I do a class before the final where I say, 'Ask me anything.' I use a lot of salty language. There's no f---ing editing with me. The students always ask me what my greatest success is or the thing I'm most proud of, and depending on the day, I'll say things like taking Steve Buscemi to the Cannes Film Festival for Fargo or putting John Larroquette in a play in which he won a Tony after his manager of many years, Bernie Brillstein, passed away. What I wish they would ask me is about the biggest mistakes I've ever made and how would I do it differently if I had a chance."

Midterm assignment "Each student has to pitch an original idea for a television show or a film in front of the class without visual aids, notes or a computer. They have six to eight minutes."

Speakers Warner Bros. Television Group president Bruce Rosenblum, TNT/TBS head of programming Michael Wright, UTA's Jay Sures, ICM Partners' Chris Silbermann.

Field trip "We go to either the Century City mall or L.A. Live, which have these big, beautiful movie theaters that have been built in the last five to 10 years. I like to bring in a big publicist to discuss movie posters and marketing. After that, I take everyone to Lawry's [The Prime Rib], and we do a class while we eat."

Why he teaches "I love it. I f---ing go down to their campus. I get to know them. I do office hours. And I stay in touch with them if they want to stay in touch with me. The Danny Sussman alumni is vast, and I'm proud of it."

Major History at Ithaca College

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DAVID HOBERMAN

Mandeville Films and Television Founder, The Muppets producer

School UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Course Advanced Producing: Role of Successful Producer (about 20 students). "We'll do one or two case studies of projects that I've been involved with, like The Fighter," says Hoberman. "We went over the presentation, read a couple of drafts by different writers, and then we saw the final film."

Don't even ask … "Can I email you?"

Most useful thing he learned in school "I was a philosophy major, so I'd say learning to analyze something from every direction."

What he wishes he learned in school "I wish I had learned about dealmaking -- from buying and optioning scripts to making writer, director and actors deals."

What you can't learn in school "There's just the practicality of being on a set again and again. All of it takes practice and repetition in a practical setting."

Onscreen teacher hero John Keating of Dead Poets Society.

Major Philosophy at San Diego State, UC Santa Barbara and UCLA

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Where Else Hollywood Is Teaching

USA Network co-president Jeff Wachtel, Advanced Pro Workshop: Running the Show at American Film Institute
 
Attorney Bert Fields, Entertainment Law at Stanford Law School
 
Attorney Michael Donaldson, The Law of Producing in the School of Theater at CalArts
 
Attorney Larry Stein, Entertainment Law at USC Law School
 
Attorney Judith Karfiol, Entrepreneurial Studies in the Animation Program at CalArts
 
ICM Partners agent Todd Hoffman, Independent Producing at USC
 
Director Martha Coolidge, Directing Fundamentals, Advanced Directing and Thesis in Film Production at Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts
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