April 13, 2017

USC Comedy Hosts Young Alumni Mixer

By Matt Meier

One of the many perks that come with being a USC School of Cinematic Arts student are the frequent visits from alumni who are among the biggest names in entertainment. Luminaries like Ryan Coogler, Shonda Rhimes, Paul Feig, or even George Lucas—to name just a few—are always sure to excite a crowd of students. But such rare examples of success, many of whom graduated twenty or thirty years ago, sometimes fail to paint an accurate picture of the industry students will enter today. For that, the best advice will likely come from alumni who just five years ago were in the same position as students today, and who know what it takes to succeed in today’s industry because they’re actively doing just that. This is what USC Comedy Co-Founder and SCA Professor Barnet Kellman had in mind when organizing USC Comedy’s Young Alumni Mixer, Vol. 2. The event, held last Monday, April 3, welcomed back to campus six SCA alumni— Michael Lewen ’12, Kerry Furrh ’14, Angela Beevers ’12, Madison Ainley ’11, Thembi Banks ’14, Allison Tate-Cortese ’15, Jack Henry Robbins ’11—to speak to a group of about thirty students about how they made it from SCA student to working professionals.

From left: Banks, Ainley, Lewen, Tate, Kellman, Furrh, Beevers, Robbins

“Many of my students keep in touch with me—and I with them—after graduation,” says Kellman. “After about five years out, I couldn’t help noticing that some were gaining real traction in their career pursuits.  Also I noticed that many of their goals were changing or evolving. At the same time many current students were coming to me—usually in a state of anxiety—just before graduation asking for career advice.  While I am happy to share it, I felt that the people they’d most benefit hearing from where not of my generation—and not even the luminary alums in their forties who often come to campus. I thought they should address their questions and concerns to ‘family members’ who were on the front lines right now.”

Family—Trojan family, that is—has unsurprisingly played an important role in the careers of all six of the night’s guests. After finishing her spec script, Thembi Banks heard about Women in Film from a classmate working there, who encouraged her to submit her pilot. She was ultimately named a finalist, landing her on multiple “Writers to Watch” lists and opening the doors that led to a staff writing gig on VH1’s Daytime Divas. A fellow alum helped Madison Ainley land an internship at Appian Way, which led to him working as Ben Affleck’s personal assistant for the past four years—and now as a producer on Affleck's most recent directorial film, Live By Night. Kerry Furrh developed a show with a friend at SCA and, after shopping it around for a bit, decided to shoot it as a short film. The short, Girl Band, premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, and they are now adapting it into an hour-long network series.

Furrh says, “Finding someone I could work with and writing with them and shooting stuff” is perhaps the most helpful thing she did during her time at SCA. “Best thing [you can do] is find friends at SCA and collaborate early.”

—and often. Having a close network of friends and creative collaborators means only so much if you’re not utilizing each other’s talents as often as possible. Jack Robbins, for instance, continues to work with the same crew of SCA graduates with whom he’s been collaborating since their first student film together. Robbins has directed projects for Funny or Die, Comedy Central, and YouTube, in addition to two features and a documentary. His most recent short, Hot Winter, nominated for the 2017 Sundance Grand Jury Prize, he describes as a “1980s porno about climate change shot on VHS.”

“I made it for myself with my friends, and no one in a million years would have expected it to get into Sundance,” Robbins tells the room of students. “The greatest ideas are the ones that make people double take, things they haven’t seen before. Be weird, do weird [stuff], follow the weirdest part of yourself, especially in comedy.”

That advice often applies to more than just the films you make. As Angela Beevers points out, when interviewing for internships or jobs—particularly as a personal assistant—“be prepared to interview yourself,” she says, and have a story ready that helps you stand out. Hers is that she grew up on a bee farm. “People always want to know more about that.”

And upon landing that coveted internship or assistantship, be the best at it, even and especially when it comes to the most mundane tasks. “Most of what I did was pretty boring,” says Michael Lewen, who began as Judd Apatow’s assistant and now directs and produces episodes of Love on Netflix. Especially in the beginning, Michael says, it’s about saying, “I’ll be the person to take the [most unpleasant] thing that no one wants to deal with and I’ll polish it into a gem.”

And above all, through the worst jobs you’ll encounter, watch and learn and know when the time is right to ask your question. “A lot of this stuff you learn from being a hawk, and knowing when the time is right to ask the question,” says Beevers. And for the most part, those questions shouldn’t be work related. Sometimes, it’s as simple as, “How was your day?”

“Ask questions about the person’s life, because it creates a rapport and an ease between the two of you,” says Beevers. “Try to empathize with your boss. Make them a person, not someone you fear or are intimidated by.”

“Like a toddler chasing a cat to pet it,” says Ainley. “You have to stop and let them come to you. That was true for Ben. From early on, I made sure I did everything to the best of my ability, and I didn’t hold that over his head like he wasn’t letting me into the meeting yet.”

But Ainley warns not to lose site of your own most basic needs in the process. “It’s so easy to loose your personal life when you’re so concerned with someone else’s life and wellbeing,” says Ainley. “Like, I’d find myself thinking ‘I’m hungry. I wonder if Ben’s hungry…’”

And while benchmarks are important, particularly when it comes to remember how long it has been since your last meal, don’t limit yourself with your goals, particularly early on in your career. Allison Tate advises students to take time for themselves to find out how they want to spend their time and finding the place that makes you comfortable—you don’t need to go headlong onto a career track. “Be open to thinking outside the film industry,” says Tate, who is a Video Producer at Here Media, the world’s largest LGBT media company. “I’m technically not working at a film company, but I’m making videos every day and loving it. If it’s a website you love and read religiously, even if they don’t have a lot of video content, you can offer a new revenue stream because you can run adds to those videos and bring new money to the company.”

The “what do I want to do with my life?” can often be a difficult and complicated question to answer. By changing the question to the present tense—“What do I enjoy doing with my life?”—the path forward can be a little clearer. And even though the traditional path into the industry is as arduous as ever, for today’s young filmmakers, with the ubiquity of various digital media platforms (from Here Media to YouTube to Buzzfeed) and the accessibility of equipment (4k resolution iPhone cameras, to start), it’s never been a better time to try forging an entirely new one.