January 11, 2018

SCA Alumni Stories: Drew McClellan

Turning his passion for helping children into a career in academia, Drew McClellan '11 now serves as Senior Program Specialist and Department Chair of Cinematic and Visual Arts at the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts where he encourages the next generation of filmmakers to create their own work at a professional level. McClellan recently reflected on his time at USC, while also giving advice to students who are just starting their careers in the industry.

What has your career journey been like since graduating from USC? The great thing about SC is that when you graduate you have a network of professionals that you can call on. And that’s what I found happened. If a friend of mine got hired to do a gig, he or she would need a DP or a production manager or an AD. It was for several years after graduating from SC, where a lot of friends were bringing each other on to projects, including myself. It has been an awesome journey and helped tremendously by being a USC-SCA alum.

Shortly after graduating, and while I was still freelancing, I was offered a position teaching with the Department of Children & Family Services for their Independent Living program, in association with Rambo House Media. The mission of the program is to teach foster teens, who are about to age out of the foster care system, the basic fundamental skills of media production in order for them to secure entry-level jobs in the entertainment industry. I taught the program in Hawthorne, CA to foster teens between 15-18 years old.

I had dinner with a close friend and told her about the program, and she said, “if you ever want to teach, my mom is the theatre chair at a high school on Cal State LA’s campus,” and that was LACHSA (Los Angeles County High School for the Arts). I taught five courses here last year and they seemed to like the work I was doing, so this year they promoted me to the chair position of the department. I’m currently the Senior Program Specialist and the Department Chair of Cinematic and Visual Arts.  I oversee the faculty as well as the students in both departments. Being a Graduate Student Assistant at SCA thoroughly prepared me for my career in the classroom and academia, specifically, being the 506 SA for Bruce Block for several semesters.

How did your studies in USC’s Film and Television Production Program prepare you for your current role and/or life in the industry? I owe a great deal to SCA, in terms of where I’m at and in regard to my confidence in my craft and position. The motto “Reality Ends Here” -- that resonates and that is something that not only applies to film, but it applies to almost every industry. What the core of that saying is: don’t have any restrictions in terms of what you are thinking about or how you approach a problem or situation, or how you find a solution. Don’t be constrained to just what is, or what has come before.  That’s how I approach this department, the opportunities I am creating, and my own work.  How can we do this better? Just because it’s been done a certain way to this point, doesn’t mean we have to adhere to that. How can we innovate essentially in all areas? How can we innovate the process with the students to provide the faculty with opportunities for them to learn and continue to grow and become better teachers for the students?

Working in academia, what do you see the upcoming generation bringing to media and entertainment? What I’ve learned working closely with the next generation of students is that they are fearless. They’re unapologetic, and they have an insatiable appetite for knowledge. One of my challenges is to feed them as much experience and knowledge and expose them to as many opportunities as possible because they can’t get enough. Here in the department, we have RED cameras, Sony 87s, and Black Magics. Everything is professional grade. You put that equipment in the hands of students who have a raw energy for storytelling and the kind of work that comes out of the department is unlike anything that exists. That’s because you have the actual individuals who watch the content making the content. The middleman is eliminated. The audience now has the ability to make its own content for its own audience and it’s at a high-quality level that is on parallel with anything that you would watch on Netflix or Hulu or pay money to go see in a movie theater.

What are some of your biggest challenges in your current role? Right now -- and I think education in general is facing this challenge -- it’s funding. Especially, if you’re a school, you want to stay on the cutting edge, and you want to expose students to what’s happening next with emerging techniques and technologies. But getting the funding for that kind of investment takes a lot of networking and relationships. I would like to develop a fund that could cover the costs for the development of LACHSA student films and festival submission fees. They’re high school kids, they are all broke. They are all just going off of their allowance. They can worry about funding later in their careers. For now, they’re in the stage where I want them focusing on their skills and the important fundamental elements of the craft creatively.

What is your ideal career trajectory? I love LACHSA. I love teaching and what I’m doing. I love the people I work with. I love the students and I love the growth and opportunities that I can see here at the school, and the role I play and the impact I can have, in terms of helping it get to the next level. That next level is developing the type reputation for excellence that USC-SCA has. I know I would like my career trajectory to be doing something at or with SCA. If there is a certain position [that would help] SCA identify stellar students and the next generation of Trojan filmmakers, I could see myself playing that role very well. I also see myself continuing to develop media content that reflects my creative interests and SCA training.

What is the greatest advice you have received thus far? One that stands out to me, that my dad says to me all of the time: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” Certain things have to line up at the same time. But they can line up and [if] you’re not prepared to take advantage of those things, then those opportunities are wasted. We all should be in a constant state of preparing for the next level or the next opportunity, as well as figuring out how you can better yourself. Don’t get ready, stay ready.

What advice would you give your younger self just starting out in the business? I would tell my younger self what I have to tell myself right now to this day, which is that the setbacks don’t actually mean you’re moving away from your goal. Often times the setbacks move you forward. They bring you closer. They make it so that when you encounter a similar situation you can solve the problem faster. It’s rare that the first film you make or the first script you write gets you signed at that agency that you’ve been wanting. It takes multiple shots to hone and refine your skills.

What is your most memorable experience as a student in the USC Cinematic Arts? I made a point of taking the time to go talk to my professors. I feel like that’s where you really learn. That’s a whole other level of learning that’s not broadly talked about. The faculty at SCA is so experienced, so accomplished, and they have so much to say that you can’t just get in the classroom, you know? Some students view college as just going to class, doing homework, getting a grade, and then moving on. The education is in between classes and assignments, and working on films. And that’s what really stuck with me. I have such a fond memory of USC and SCA because the faculty is just so accessible and cool.

Are you currently working on any projects, or do you have any upcoming projects you would like to share? I am working on producing and developing several projects with alumni from the department at LACHSA who graduated last year, and we’re taking them to streaming services like Netflix, Apple and Amazon. My students are the actual creative engine behind it, but I’m utilizing all of my contacts and relationships that I have with different studios in the industry to help them make those connections.  I am also working on a couple of projects, both with my sister who was a long-time producer at The Oprah Winfrey Show and with the new George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art that’s coming to Exposition Park.  My sister, Keisha, is now in law school and we have a forthcoming article coming out in March in the American Bar Association Journal on cyber-theft in the media and entertainment industry.

How can SCA students or alumni volunteer or become involved in LACHSA’s film program? We have 5 different film festivals, which are the tent poles of the curriculum. One of which is the USC Senior Thesis Screening. Dr. Akira Lippit has been instrumental in creating that partnership. The senior students at LACHSA work on their thesis films all year and we screen them at USC’s Norris Cinema Theatre in May. We invite industry professionals, agents, managers, casting directors, family, friends, and alumni, both SCA and LACHSA, to come and participate. This is the first time these high school students have been given a chance to be on a platform where they have to talk about their work intelligently. We’ve had a number LACHSA alumni attend USC after they graduate from LACHSA so it’s the perfect opportunity for students to learn more about SCA in addition to developing professionally. All of the festivals we produce are a great way for SCA students and alumni to participate. We also regularly invite and welcome industry professionals and executives to speak at the school and mentor students. Anyone from SCA can reach out directly at mcclellan_drew@lacoe.edu and we can get you involved.