As seismic cultural and technological shifts sweep the industry, The Hollywood Reporter spent a year shadowing five promising USC Cinematic Arts seniors who are poised to reshape showbiz on their own terms: "We're the replacements."
Earlier this year, in a classroom at USC's renowned School of Cinematic Arts, students screened the nearly two-decade-old big-break short film of alumnus Luke Greenfield, who went on to direct studio comedies like Role Models and Let's Be Cops. The short — a satire of singles-bar mating rituals that first brought the filmmaker to the attention of Adam Sandler — follows its hero's journey from hapless reject to self-assured lothario after he bizarrely determines that success with his love interest, an unamused lesbian, requires punching her in the face. What was meant as shock-farce in 2000 landed with a thud in 2018.
"Female violence and homophobia aren't things that we joke about now," says Karla Luna Cantu, 23, a then-senior baffled that the adjunct professor showed it as an example of a grad's calling card. Discussion ensued. "He started talking about how overly sensitive and liberal we were — 'I'm going to continue to show it.' He felt attacked as a white straight male."
Luna Cantu, an aspiring director from a traditional town in Mexico ("I always learned to be 'nice,' not to be too loud") who is also the co-founder of a student group advocating for Latinx filmmaking, soon led an effort to elevate the issue, bringing it before the program's 2-year-old Diversity Council. The professor won't be teaching the course again. "I wouldn't have thought to do such a thing a few years ago," she says.
Welcome to the world's most famous film school in the age of #MeToo and Time's Up. The seismic cultural and technological shifts washing over the entertainment industry are perhaps even more vividly on display at its most elite breeding ground, which welcomes a new class Aug. 20.
The Hollywood Reporter spent the past school year shadowing five graduating seniors, including Luna Cantu, at the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA). Founded at the urging of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in the midst of the first great Hollywood upheaval — the advent of the talkies — SCA is now experiencing evolution on several fronts. Prestige-ascendant TV is blithely elbowing film on campus for relevancy, while some of SCA's brightest students increasingly look beyond both mediums to the possibilities of virtual reality and video games. But the biggest change is undoubtedly cultural.
"When I went to USC in the early '70s, it was a much smaller experience," says Imagine Entertainment head Brian Grazer, who teaches a class about digital development. "Now it's in stereophonic sound."
But one thing has not changed at the alma mater of both George Lucas and Ryan Coogler: It's as competitive as ever, boasting a cutthroat admission rate of 6.6 percent. It can also be all- consuming, like medical school, affording little time for a social life beyond the tight crew you inevitably develop at SCA.
Recalls producer Stacey Sher, who attended in the mid-'80s: "It had a Paper Chase quality to it — 'Look to your left, look to your right; many of you are not going to be here in a few years.'"
Aubtin Heydari, 22, a screenwriting major whose outspoken politics are to the left of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, checks in on a TV drama he's co-scripted for a new and popular TV course called Straight to Series, about the depravities of the U.S. military-industrial complex, presently shooting on a humming state-of-the-art soundstage at the school. It's early March and Heydari hobbles to the monitor, still walking with a limp, the result of injuries incurred when he was among the counterprotestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, struck by a car driven by white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. the previous summer.
The avowed "radical progressive" — a garrulous, Tarkovsky- worshipping son of Persian immigrants who arrived in their Appalachian farm town after the fall of the Shah — is a recipient of a need-based scholarship endowed by a $5 million donation from billionaire investor Steven A. Cohen (infamous for his tussles with the SEC over insider trading) that was announced when his twin daughters enrolled as Heydari's classmates in the program.
About half of SCA's roughly 1,200 undergraduates qualify for need-based aid to offset the $220,000 four-year cost, not including room and board. Even with grants, Heydari will leave with about $100,000 in debt.
"I really want to be a feature writer and director," says Heydari, unmoved by the current prestige TV euphoria on campus. He spent the year writing a feature biopic about an African-American militant on the run. "I have no interest in being a TV writer, but I will take what I can get. I need to pay off the student loans."
Heydari has a brief blocking powwow with the episode's director, then holds forth at the craft services table on everything that at that very moment provokes him: the potential for a Dunkirk best picture victory ("the safe, old white guy's pick"), the prevalence of skateboarders on campus wearing open-toe sandals ("It's ridiculous") and, most importantly, the persistence of a permanent exhibit on the second floor of the school dedicated to USC alum John Wayne, who told Playboy in May 1971, "I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility."
Notes Heydari, "Everyone brings up the sexual assault stuff, and for good reason." At this point, the school had declared it had rejected a $5 million pledge from Harvey Weinstein, dropped Bryan Singer's name from its media studies program and erased donor Bill Cosby's moniker from a wall; on Aug. 1, in light of allegations levied against Leslie Moonves, it announced the CBS Corp. CEO had been suspended from its governing board of councilors. (USC itself has since May been the subject of its own headline-grabbing scandal involving assaultive examinations at its student health center, which prompted the resignation of the university president.) "But John Wayne thought black people were subhuman," Heydari continues, "and it still goes completely under the radar."
In January, Luna Cantu spent the day in a classroom at SCA's imposing 5-year-old, $175-million mini-campus. Lucas, the leading financial benefactor, conceived this new addition in a Spanish style to call to mind a 1920s-era film studio.
Along with her all-female producing team, Luna Cantu — heartfelt, anxious, gunning even harder than most of her classmates for breakout success because she believes her ability to secure an O-1 visa acceptance to stay in the U.S. after school depends on developing "an amazing résumé" — holds an open, racially blind casting for her senior thesis short film. It's a tender slice-of-life tale about three young siblings.
To get here today, Luna Cantu had to walk past a parade of framed posters in the hallways featuring Hollywood legends — and alleged abusers — like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mel Gibson. Now, as she watches girls auditioning for her film, Luna Cantu exults in the Time's Up takeover at the Golden Globes a few days earlier. "It seems like things are finally starting to head in the right direction," she says.
In the fall, Luna Cantu shared producing duties on a classmate's senior thesis project, a dystopian sci-fi drama concerning wealth inequality and climate change, with Jason Phillips, 22, who was also Heydari's freshman-year roommate. (Most students live on campus freshman year, then nearby afterward.) Her earnest, high-energy counterpart spent his spring semester at work on a directorial senior thesis of his own: an irreverent gay Western love story. (Think Brokeback Mountain, minus the heartbreak.)
All three films were made through SCA's capstone 480 class, a course inaugurated half a century ago in which ambitious students pitch microbudgeted, school-funded projects to a faculty-led greenlighting committee, then crew up with their peers as professor Brenda Goodman acts as de facto head of production. The movies, shot over hectic consecutive weekends, periodically devolve into recrimination and fiasco; a 1975 documentary, The 480 Experience, witnessed then-pupil Robert Elswit, now an Oscar-nominated cinematographer (There Will Be Blood), as he ended up in a fistfight with a classmate.
The point is to build character through knockabout collaboration while narrowing interests. Just about everyone enters SCA with the notion of becoming a director, only to realize he or she doesn't excel at, say, unceasing decision-making — or else, as Phillips explains, "they just don't like working with actors. Like, they really hate talking to them." Suddenly other niche, lower-profile roles like production designer or cinematographer materialize as destiny. (For their part, none of THR's quintet wavered much during his or her time here.)
Phillips looked forward to the imminent premiere of his Western at SCA's Norris Cinema Theatre. He expected it would itself serve as a quasi-coming out to some members of his extended family who'd be in attendance. "It's kind of fun because I get to let my work speak for myself."
To a lesser extent, 480 is also about weeding out students with a low tolerance for (or interest in) on-set frustration. It's around this time many students decide they'd prefer to pursue a career as an executive, doing the green-lighting and giving — rather than receiving — the notes.
480, and similarly structured classes dedicated to producing TV and video games, showcases SCA's practical impulse: trade school meets finishing school. Most students focus on acquiring a mix of up-to-date technical and sociological knowledge about the industry. While many competitor programs tout big-name guest lecturers but are mainly staffed by faculty who, at best, made their mark years ago, a notable number of SCA's 400-plus professors are still at the top of their game. (Recently, instructors have taken time off to work on productions like the live-action remake of The Lion King and Matt Weiner's The Romanoffs.)
Meanwhile, the school playacts as studio and corporate overseer. "Although we do hope we're more benign," jokes longtime dean Elizabeth Daley, a folksy presence whose advisers include many of the town's most powerful players, from Barry Diller and David Geffen to Jim Gianopulos and Kathleen Kennedy.
"It's [conveyed that it] isn't just about the artistry, a sense of needing to prepare us properly to be out in the industry working," says Coco director Lee Unkrich, who graduated in 1990. "The thing that I discovered there is that all of this is a large team activity," observes TV titan John Wells, a 1982 alumnus of the Peter Stark graduate producing program who last year endowed SCA's division of writing in his name. "This notion of an auteur is false. A lot of kids come in thinking they'll be this singular artist. What you learn is that you need to gather up as many talented people as you can find — and even then, you can and will fail."
As Daley is fond of observing, students' SCA classmates will likely become their most vital means of success. Bad Moms producer Suzanne Todd, for instance, notes that when she was working at New Line a decade after graduation, she showed boss Bob Shaye her classmate Jay Roach's 480 short, Asleep at the Wheel, which she'd produced, while lobbying for him to direct his eventual big break, 1997's Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.
The all-in-the-family tradition continues apace: In July, Phillips got himself hired on a million-dollar-budgeted indie comedy about a bar mitzvah party as a second AD. He'd previously impressed the first AD, a former classmate who'd graduated a year prior, when they worked together on yet another 480 short. Once onboard, Phillips learned the production was looking for a PA and tapped Luna Cantu.
Students at times appear to warp and wilt under the great-expectations-inducing pressure of SCA's alumni. Some of these same students, though, take succor in the fact that most of their celebrated idols weren't always producing boundary-pushing masterworks. They know this because they can, and do, review the available evidence.
Take Coogler's (Black Panther) senior thesis. "It was better than the curve," Heydari shrugs. "You could see his vision, that he had a style he was trying to get at. But it still had flaws and problems." Phillips also watched an undergraduate effort by Star Wars' Rian Johnson. He deadpans, "I didn't feel so stressed about my life."
Although virtual reality still exists on the periphery of everyday Hollywood, VR major Valerie Lin will be perhaps the first 2018 graduate to be actively chased by A-list industry when, a few months from now, a director known for his surreal work will express interest in funding the completion of her senior thesis.
Titled Kaisuo, or "to unlock" in Mandarin, the project is an otherworldly puzzle story reminiscent of the computer game franchise Myst. (She's since decided she'll release it online for free.)
THR visited Lin in late 2017 in the windowless subterranean computer workshop she utilizes alongside several other in-progress undertakings. The program, the Interactive Media & Games Division, is gender-balanced, with women beginning to outnumber men among freshmen. (SCA-at-large is similarly equalized.) Compare this to the boys club that producer Susan Downey found as a film undergrad in the early 1990s. "Of the 50 students let in, four were women," she says.
Donning goggles, professor Jesse Vigil tests out an early beta that Lin's team has been iterating, rapidly identifying problem areas. One of them pertains to frustratingly clumsy virtual hands, when super-fine motor control is required to manipulate virtual knobs and keys. "You've got a pair of Tyrannosaur grabbers here," he warns. Another is that too many of the best ideas appear late in the demo. "Take television's wisdom: If you've got something awesome, put it in the pilot — that's often all you get."
During the demo, Lin tracks Vigil's eyes through her monitor and watches him explore her creation: the slight tilt of the head, the slow extension of a finger. "It's a feeling of almost fingerprints on their brain," she says. "You can read their body language and understand what they're thinking. It's incredibly satisfying to witness people processing your art through their consciousness."
Upstairs in the same building several months later, Ihila Lesnikova is workshopping her own pair of virtual reality projects. Along with a computer-science-majoring partner and free rein over a $100,000 state-of- the-art Jaunt camera, she's been exploring the still nearly uncharted potential for comedy through the medium. One is a farcical murder mystery, in which you observe the proceedings at close range as the spirit of the deceased, with the task of determining who killed you. The other is a droll exercise in being a cafe patron eavesdropping on conversations at adjacent tables.
Lesnikova, 22, a wry surfer from Maine who's influenced by Charlie Chaplin and interned for Paul Feig this spring, sits across from a mentor, Jack Epps, an endowed professor of comedy and a veteran screenwriter (Top Gun). With Lesnikova, he hones in on the handicap of comedy in VR, which is that "you can't edit tempo, because once you establish it in a scene, it's tough to tighten."
But Lesnikova, like Lin, is nevertheless palpably exhilarated by the challenge presented by the nascent medium. "People who are experts in VR are still not that far ahead of me because we're all pretty new," she says. "That's really reassuring."
On the eve of commencement — at which SCA alum Amanda Silver, the Planet of the Apes producer, will give a stirring speech about the need to be able to live with constant failure in order to succeed — the five students gather at a downtown beer hall. The utter genius that is the Adult Swim animated series Rick and Morty is yet again upheld. Post- graduation apartment search strategies are swapped. And the cultural import of classmates' various student side hustles, including employment as a so-called "financial dominatrix," is discussed. "What's the easiest thing to do to make money and not work?" Lesnikova explains of the reasoning behind her decision to get paid to live-stream herself the previous summer on the service LiveMe. "I would just ignore the sexual messages and do makeup tutorials or homework to pass the time."
Also on the table: the ultra-careerism that's defined their time at SCA. Lucas once compared the current environment to his own time at the school, recalling that to attend then "was a silly thing to do because you would never get a job." Alumnus Stephen Chbosky, the director of coming-of-age film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is a frequent presence on-campus, counseling the fretful kids that it's all going to be all right. "He's a hero, like such a homey," says Heydari.
Lesnikova explains that "his whole thing is, Hollywood actually needs us more than we need Hollywood." The group nods, as if to convince themselves of the truth. "I mean, they're getting rid of all these creepy old guys now, right? They've got to be looking for young fresh talent … creative people without, you know, assault allegations! Who aren't racist!" She laughs, rallying. "We're the replacements."
Meet the Students
THE THOUGHTFUL AUTEUR
Karla Luna Cantu
HOMETOWN Monterrey, Mexico
SENIOR PROJECT Maggie Smith Is Gone
This quirky tale of sibling intimacy and separation taught Luna Cantu that successful directing isn't chiefly artistry, it's personnel management. "At first I handled it terribly — if people didn't put in their all, I'd put it on my shoulders," she says. "By the end I learned to set expectations. You've got to be willing to be in charge."
THE NEXT-GEN ROMANTIC
HOMETOWN San Diego
SENIOR PROJECT Black Knuckle and Deputy Maltese
Phillips' irreverent gay period Western about the tortured, hidden romance between a lawman and an outlaw is set in a small town of surprisingly enlightened understanding. "The townspeople don't want to bother them about their relationship," he says. "In fact, they're betting on them [getting together]. There's comedy in that juxtaposition."
THE VR COMEDIENNE
HOMETOWN Yarmouth, Maine
SENIOR PROJECT You're Dead. Continue?
An immersive narrative quest, this virtual-reality project helmed by Lesnikova is a murder mystery in which the user is the deceased, tasked with solving the crime. Lesnikova found that her own toughest assignment, though, was conjuring laughs in the emerging and restrictive medium. "Making things funny in VR, it's almost impossible right now," she says.
THE RADICAL SCRIBE
HOMETOWN Harrisonburg, Virginia
SENIOR PROJECT Coventry
As part of Straight to Series, a new TV course, Heydari co-wrote a drama about the contemporary U.S. military-industrial complex. "You learn how a writers room works, how to adapt to the needs of production," he says. "It's utilitarian." He's more vested in his feature about real-life black radical Assata Shakur, who was convicted of killing a cop in 1973, escaped prison and fled to Cuba.
THE GAMING SAVANT
HOMETOWN Taipei, Taiwan
SENIOR PROJECT Kaisuo
As Lin developed this Myst-like puzzle journey in virtual reality, her professors cautioned that, in the commercial market, the sheer difficulty level of her emerging vision could prove a hindrance. Her counter: "I would rather make a game that a few people love than one everyone likes."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.