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May 19, 2009

Pomp and Circumstance

SCA Students Receive Hard-Earned Degrees

By By Jimmy Kelly

The energy couldn't have been much higher at the Shrine Auditorium on May 15, as the School of Cinematic Arts [SCA], with the help of industry greats Frank Price, Shonda Rhimes and Laura Ziskin, lauded its most recent graduating class and celebrated the next generation of entertainment artists and professionals.

"USC cinema alums have always taken care of each other, been there to support one another and have moved into the world together," Daley told the 394 undergrads, grads and Ph.D. candidates, who, along with hundreds of friends and family members, packed the majestic landmark auditorium.

"Many of you were able to come here because of those who went before," Daley continued. "Now it's your turn to maintain that tradition, to write the great books, make the great films, lead the great companies and create the next interactive experiences and always stay a part of the SCA family. We, your faculty and staff, eagerly anticipate your successes.

Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Michael Renov introduced the first major honor of the day, the Staff Recognition Award, which went to Facilities and Operations Director Douglas Wellman, followed by the presentation of the Mary Pickford Alumni Award by endowed chair holder Doe Mayer to Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice creator Rhimes, who is a 1994 alumna of the Graduate Screenwriting Program.

"Shonda's incredible success shares parallels with Mary Pickford's career," said Mayer. "Both were inveterate storytellers who began in the theater. Both took chances by choosing to follow their passions over immediate financial stability. And both made a career out of creating strong, realistic, flawed and utterly engaging female characters."

Shonda Rhimes, creator and executive director of Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, accepts the Mary Pickford Foundation Award during commencement exercises at the Shrine Auditorium on May 15, 2009.
"I don't have any wisdom," said Rhimes with humorous deadpan delivery. It didn't stop the Golden Globe winner from looking back from her own commencement onward to give out advice the graduates would remember.

"Do your own thing. Whatever it is, be original," said Rhimes. "Enjoy it, your career, the highs and the lows. Enjoy every single moment, because this is it. It is happening, right now. This is why you went to film school all this time."

The third honor preceding the commencement address was a surprise. Price, chairman and CEO of Price Entertainment, as well as a USC trustee and chairman of the SCA Board of Councilors, came to the Shrine to give an introductory speech for the keynote, Ziskin. But the famed executive behind Oscar winners like Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie and Gandhi was nearly moved to tears when he learned he would also receive only the second-ever SCA Honorary Alumnus award in recognition of his contributions to both the school and the film/television industry. Price joins only Clint Eastwood in having received this rare and prestigious award.

"I'm speechless," said Price. "I came here prepared to do one thing and I've been hit by this delightful event, this surprise. I'm not sure if I ever told [Dean Daley] that when I was in high school in Flint, Michigan, that I did want to go to USC. I didn't do it. I couldn't afford to do it. Frankly, I most wanted to help make sure that kids who couldn't afford it would be able to do it."

Price joked about his emotional response to the award before moving on to introduce Ziskin '73. Ziskin, producer of hits like As Good As It Gets, Pretty Woman and the Spiderman franchise, began her address by acknowledging the challenges ahead for the 2009 graduates, only to remind them that the challenge is worthwhile and that the industry isn't going anywhere.

"They've said sound will kill the movies. Television will kill the movies. Video will kill the movies. DVDs will kill the movies. Video on demand will kill the movies. Visual effects movies will kill the movies. The Internet and video games will kill the movies. Delivery methods may change and grow," said Ziskin, "but the power of the medium will remain unassailable, because you all will make it so."

Laura Ziskin, producer of As Good As It Gets, Pretty Woman and the Spiderman franchise.
Ziskin recognized the opportunity that comes with telling stories on the screen, citing the value and impact a motion picture can have for so many people. 

"There are seven billion people in the world," said Ziskin. "How many of them get up every day and say they are going to use whatever resources they have to make the world a better place? You can and must do so with the power you will wield, coming from the enormous opportunities you've been given here. And there is no more powerful resource ever created than the power of a great story well told."

With that, came the presentation of the degrees. Writing M.F.A. grad Zahir McGhee looked at his commencement and time at SCA as the right start for the road ahead.

"I think it gave me the foundation, the building blocks, the ability to move forward," said McGhee, a USC Annenberg Fellow and graduate with distinction.

Another aspiring filmmaker moving forward was critical studies B.A. grad, Cameron Siemer. However, Siemer doesn't see himself having to travel very far to take the next big step in his career.

"My plans are to apply to the production graduate school and use what I know from critical studies," said Siemer. "All the foundations I've learned, how to dissect a film, will help me to create films in the future."

Siemer also noted the value of networking he learned in his four years and how he's met not only people who can help him with his career, but "meeting people I'm probably going to be friends with for the rest of my life."

The books are closed on the class of 2009 and now only time will tell what the future holds for these graduates, what wisdom they may someday share as special commencement guests years from now or what stories they may someday tell online, on televisions or on the silver screen. 

"I'm writing Spiderman 5," joked McGhee. "Starting tomorrow."