New AFI Dean on Bringing "Stability" to a Turbulent Institution

Susan? Ruskin_ - Publicity - H 2019
Jeremy Cowart/UNCSA

Susan Ruskin takes over the storied conservatory — its third leader since Jan Schuette's exit in 2016 — after years of experience in academia (as dean of the North Carolina School of the Arts film school) and in the industry (as a producer of movies including 'Anaconda').

This fall, Susan Ruskin takes over as dean of AFI, the conservatory’s third in two years. Fortunately for her, she has a lot of experience — in both academia (she was dean of UNC School of the Arts’ film school) and in the industry (she’s produced such movies as Anaconda and Haunted Honeymoon and worked for Gene Wilder and Lucasfilm) — which should help her deal with turbulent times up in the hills of Griffith Park.

Do you know why your predecessor, Richard Gladstein, left after only 18 months?

I do not. I do not know. I do not have the history. What I do know is there has been a lot of change, and I hope I can bring stability.

How will you create that stability?

You just have to have a basic knowledge and understanding of why academia is different from the industry itself. I bring a kind of experience that is not that common among deans, and I know some of the faculty from the business.

Is academia and the business of making movies wildly different culturally?

They are different. A school has to be much more structured, and there are a lot more rules and regulations. Sitting down and putting a curriculum together — none of that happens in the industry. Another aspect that’s different is when you accept somebody into a program, they have an equal right to the same education as another person accepted into the program. In the business, there’s a hierarchy. Among students, there cannot be. And that’s harder for some faculty to get over.

You didn’t go to film school, and you obviously managed to have a thriving career in the industry. So why would someone need to?

The reason for film school is you truncate the process of learning and you create a safe space for people to find their voices. That doesn’t happen in the industry. It shortens the period of learning who you are as filmmakers.

One of the major shifts that happened after you moved into academia was the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up …

Schools are not immune to this. I have come to recognize that, even though I personally had a relatively fine experience in the industry, the subtle #MeToo stuff, keeping a woman out of certain rooms, was always there. For this next generation, how are we training them to be conscious of it? We can’t make every micro-aggression a major problem. I’ll give you an example. A senior was asking a first-year student to work on a movie for the weekend. But the senior asked them on a dating app. And I had to explain that that is absolutely inappropriate. That is not the way you offer somebody a job.

How much of your job is fundraising?

I don’t like to think about it. Then I realized I’ve been fundraising my whole life. I’ve been getting movies made and having to convince somebody to put money up — a lot of money. So, in some senses, it’s a lot easier when you’re asking for the students.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.