By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
magine you sent your son or daughter—an aspiring screenwriter or producer or director—to film school this time last year, when Clint Eastwood’s military drama “American Sniper” became the hot topic movie and surpassed Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” to become the number-one movie released in 2014. Then, in the midst of the hubbub, your teenager received first-hand career advice from the legendary 84-year-old filmmaker himself. Ditto with Sean Penn, mere days after the actor and “Into the Wild” filmmaker made Oscar-night headlines with a controversial joke; or with Palisadians (present and former) J.J. Abrams and Judd Apatow.
No need to imagine.
At Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television (SFTV), such moments happened and continue to happen thanks to a prestigious, SFTV-only conversation series called “The Hollywood Masters.” Credit for bringing such fresh programming and relevancy to this small film school on the campus of a Jesuit college goes to SFTV’s dean since 2010, Stephen Ujlaki, a Castellammare resident.
THE REEL DEAL
Ujlaki came to the position with much experience…and not just in academia.
A graduate of Harvard University and Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques in Paris, Ujlaki has served as head of European Feature and Television Production for Stone Group France (Michael Douglas’ production company) and vice president of development and production for HBO Pictures.
As a producer, Ujlaki’s feature credits include “Ripley Underground” (written by Palisadian William Blake Herron, who, when interviewed for a Nov. 5, 2015 Palisadian-Post profile, deemed the project a personal favorite). His documentary, “Cachao: Uno Mas,” aired on PBS’ “American Masters.”
Prior to LMU, Ujlaki chaired the Cinema Department at San Francisco State University. During his nine-year tenure, he spearheaded the creation of the DOC Film Institute, sponsoring/honoring documentary filmmakers. With Ujlaki, LMU’s SFTV has gone from a sleepy school in a hillside pocket of Westchester somewhere between Marina del Rey and LAX to a hidden-gem filmmaking academy to one of the most prestigious film schools in the country, last year ranking number five on USA Today’s list of America’s top film schools and number eight on The Hollywood Reporter’s.
Indeed, LMU’s film studies transitioned from department to full-fledged school (offering degrees in areas including animation and film scoring) a decade prior to Ujlaki’s arrival. However, thanks to his industry experience and friendships, the Pacific Palisades resident has furthered SFTV’s reach and clout, forging alliances with the school’s illustrious alumni (ie. “Mystic River” writer Brian Helgeland, “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” director Francis Lawrence), such personal friends as documentarian Ken Burns (to whose New Hampshire offices LMU has sent interns) and organizations like Film Independent.
The accomplishments are all the more impressive considering Ujlaki arrived at a time of great transition and upheaval in entertainment—when digital supplanted celluloid, which meant an expensive overhaul of student equipment in addition to the re-education; television supplanted film as the writer’s medium of choice; and streaming outlets reshaped television watchers’ viewing habits.
In 2013 Ujlaki successfully launched “Hollywood Masters,” taped before an audience of 125 SFTV students at LMU’s Mayer Theatre. LMU welcomed Alfonso Cuaron and David O. Russell as their respective films—“Gravity” and “American Hustle”—were white hot from Oscar buzz.
They also landed Abrams, Apatow, directors William Friedkin and Gary Ross, as well as former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing.
Currently in its fifth season, these talks just welcomed “Mad Max” director George Miller, “Steve Jobs” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, “Creed” producer Irwin Winkler and “Straight Outta Compton” producer Ice Cube. (The Post covered actress/former Palisadian Geena Davis’ visit in its Feb. 18 issue.)
Two of the most compelling dirt poor-to-riches backstories came from former Palisadians Billy Bob Thornton and Hilary Swank.
“It’s been very, very successful for us,” he said, crediting moderator Stephen Galloway of The Hollywood Reporter.
“Masters” “demystifies” these accomplished people, showing LMU’s aspiring filmmakers that these talents are “one of us,” Ujlaki said. “Young people today, they don’t understand how much work is involved. They’re going to start at the very bottom, and it’s going to take many years of not getting anywhere until they get somewhere.”
STRAIGHT OUTTA OSCARS
Unintentionally, this weekend’s Academy Awards telecast has become the biggest nail-biter in years—not because of the films in competition but because of some Internet-fueled tension that has escalated since the #OscarsSoWhite campaign illuminated a lack of diversity among the categories.
Comedian Chris Rock has not bowed to pressure from certain circles to step down as returning Oscars host.
For Ujlaki, diversity in entertainment has been a part of LMU’s narrative since long before the Academy was recently thrust under the microscope. With the College Residency Program, LMU began partnering last year with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Ghetto Film School LA to offer a free summer program for 14 students from underserved high schools to create a TV show on campus.
The after-school program entails students writing a script and visiting a foreign country—Japan last summer, England this May.
SFTV has also teamed with The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment Mentorship Program to award seven full-ride, four-year LMU scholarships to worthy high school girls.
Like many, Ujlaki is skeptical about the Oscar-picking process: “If you look at the composition of the Academy members, you don’t know what they’ve seen or what they haven’t seen. How many of them have actually seen ‘Straight Outta Compton?’ Now those films are getting made, but the next step is recognition. Really, the stumbling block is the Academy.”
“There’s no diversity among most [studio] executives,” Ujlaki continued. “A lot of people don’t like to think of the fact that they don’t want to give that ultimate power up. They don’t. Let’s face it, these are very cushy jobs.”
The omission of “Straight Outta Compton” and the director and star of “Creed,” and controversial comments Palisadian Matt Damon made on “Project Greenlight” speak to that, the dean said, but things are changing.
“They’re aware of it for their own selfish reasons,” he said of movie execs. “They are really worried about staying relevant to their audience.”
If Ujlaki sounds cosmopolitan, that’s because he is. He’s lived and worked in Sweden and France, where he cut his teeth working alongside Nouvelle Vague leader Jean-Luc Godard.
Small wonder he’s a champion of pure cinema—cinema verité, documentaries, independent films—crafting LMU film series such as last year’s Cineteca di Bologna (restored Italian classics) and West African Film Festival.
He’s also pragmatic. Ujlaki noted the tagline of last year’s SFTV ad: “We’re not trying to sell you a dream, we want to prepare you for a reality.”
He knows graduates today are matriculating into “a splintered economy” post-Great Recession and into a year-round cycle of special effects epics and computer-animated features. More than ever, he said, those serious about making movies need to team up and hustle.
“It’s our job to let people know how difficult it is. We keep the focus on being entrepreneurial and going into business. Our best graduate program is Writing and Producing For Television [which encourages students to] produce rather than waiting to get your script read.”
Ujlaki has done much to convert SFTV’s perceived weaknesses into strengths. What in the past may have handicapped the scrappy little 794-student school as too small and underfunded, Ujlaki has recast as an intimate, “collaborative, more of a conservatory approach.”
The new mindset has worked. There are 1000 applicants waiting to fill 75 available slots in SFTV’s Production program.
FINDING SANCTUARY IN PACIFIC PALISADES
Ujlaki and his wife, children’s book author Jackie Clark Mancuso (“Paris Chien,” “Hudson Goes to Provence”), moved to Pacific Palisades in 2010 as Ujlaki assumed the position of dean at LMU.
“I had always lived in either Santa Monica or Venice,” Ujlaki said. “I was living in Venice the first year that I was dean.
His realtor (and now neighbor) sold him on Castellemare.
“You felt you were in the French or Italian Riviera,” he said of his home. “I don’t feel that I’m in LA. It’s very comfortable living here and it’s only a 35-minute commute to the school. It’s gorgeous every day to have this view. We play tennis and they have fantastic courts at the park. We hike on the trails.”
Merely three years ago, Ujlaki felt he was on an uphill hike trying to attract top-tier talents to visit his film school. But that whole paradigm has since shifted.
Having gone from dean of a school nobody had heard of to leading an internationally recognized film school has been very gratifying for Ujlaki.
Currently, a campaign is underway to build a $20-million, Gensler-designed building with state-of-the-art filmmaking facilities. Ujlaki also intends to install a documentary film program, a continuing education program and more high-caliber adjunct professors.
“There’s more we can do to justify [our] ranking,” he said.
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