How USC Film School Got Millions From Steven Spielberg (and He Didn't Even Go There)

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Elizabeth Daley

Nobody has had better results getting alumni to open their wallets than Elizabeth Daley, dean of the university's School of Cinematic Arts for nearly three decades: "The place had a wonderful history," she tells The Hollywood Reporter, "but nobody had told its story."

When Elizabeth Daley joined USC in 1991 as the dean of its School of Cinematic Arts, the program was running a $6 million deficit and the books, she says, were "gobbledygook." Today, 28 years later, thanks to giant checks from alumni like George Lucas (who rebuilt the campus with donations adding up to more than $185 million) and Robert Zemeckis as well as non-alumni like Steven Spielberg (who has donated millions even though he got rejected from the school three times and instead went to Cal State Long Beach), USC has cutting-edge equipment, a spanking new complex on campus and scholarships for increasingly diverse students.

When you arrived here, what was your biggest challenge?

The place had been ignored. It had a wonderful history, but no one had told the story, so it had no financial resources. The first year, we spent a great deal of time going to people and saying, "We'd like to welcome you into the fold." It was a year of apologizing.

Tell me about your first meeting with George Lucas.

The first time I met both him and Steven Spielberg, they were having an event to show this film they'd made about these buildings going up. (That construction is now part of USC's music school.) After that I would go up to the Skywalker Ranch and say, "What should I be thinking about?"

Have you and Lucas discussed what kind of education the film school should provide?

George is very clear about that, but all the alums are. They want us to give the kind of education they received, which was broad. Everybody here learned to do everything — you did critical studies, you pulled a cable and you directed a film. It has to be a balance. Bob Zemeckis and John Singleton will tell you the most valuable courses they took were cinema studies because they saw film constantly and thought about film and looked at the various ways of doing it. And then you combine that with hands-on. If you talk to Singleton, he always mentions the sound course along with cinema studies.

The industry has changed a lot over the years. How has USC kept up with those changes?

Everything changes and nothing changes at all. We still have exactly the same problem: We have to tell stories that audiences want. But it's changed in terms of all the different ways you can make media, and we've got to keep up with that.

Speaking of keeping up, you have a 50 percent female student body.

In 2006, when George made the pledge that built the new buildings, part of that was an endowment, and a large portion is for fellowships. And it's specified: 50 percent women, 50 percent men. When George told me he was going to make that pledge, it was one of the best moments I've had here.

You've had some unhappy ones. Two donors, Bill Cosby and Bryan Singer, got caught up in scandal, and Harvey Weinstein was going to donate, but that was killed.

The #MeToo movement is really important, and we are very anxious to support it. That's part of our diversity push — to make sure the behavior in this industry changes.

Have you experienced harassment yourself?

I have never met a woman who has not been harassed. In the generation I grew up in, you sucked it up and moved on. And if you could get sweet revenge, you got it. And there were ways to get it. I hope that the generation we're raising now won't have to put up with some of the things we put up with. But I want them to be prepared. One of our alums, Damon Lee, said: "Look, it will happen. Whether it's racism, sexism, it will happen. Figure out how you're going to handle it so that you can handle it rather than letting it handle you."

Is there one student over the years who's surprised you? You once told me about a student who was living in a car …

That was [Black Panther director] Ryan Coogler. He had a home, but it was in Oakland. And we had this wonderful student from Afghanistan; while she was here they actually had a fatwa declared against her. She was struggling to find a story to tell. And David [Weitzner, a USC professor] finally said to her, "Why don't you tell your own story?" The night she showed her film, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.