Abroad In Hollywood: How the One-of-a-Kind UTLA Program Prepares Students for Show Business

It’s 6:30 p.m. and the students are late. The hot October California sun is slowly disappearing behind purple mountains, serving as the backdrop to an unassuming brick building that sits on a quiet street in Burbank. Inside, the smell of freshly popped popcorn fills a classroom, its walls adorned with movie posters for The Rookie, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Training Day. Six students, the early worms, gab in their seats while the instructor, Drew Ferrante, a 30-year veteran of the music industry who is here to give lessons on the business, blasts Post Malone’s “Rockstar.” He looks up at the clock, wondering where the rest of his students are.

“What should be their punishment?” he jokingly asks.

He’s met with a resounding, “Nothing!” Most everyone who isn’t there yet is stuck on I-5, rushing from interning at major networks like CBS, or production companies like Atlas Entertainment. A rowdy three hours every Monday focusing on topics like the Top 40 and how The Rolling Stones stay popular, Ferrante’s class is the third of the day at the Wofford Denius UTLA Center for Entertainment & Media Studies, a sort of study-abroad program for UT Austin students looking to catch a break in the far-off land of Hollywood.

“There are certain things you just can’t learn when you’re not here,” one of Ferrante’s students, Allen Miller says. He’s a graduating radio-television-film senior from Waco who is interning in the acquisitions department at Focus Features. “Or there are things that don’t make sense because there’s not an equivalent in Texas.”

Since 2005, students from all across the Forty Acres have been moving to Los Angeles for a semester to learn what it takes to make it in the entertainment industry. With the mission to expose students to the working world of Hollywood, and to the people who make things happen here, UTLA was created to give Longhorns a leg up where they once had none. “It allows them to work in studios and sets, and build their professional network,” says Moody College of Communications Dean Jay Bernhardt. “They learn the tips and tricks that are important to help launch your career in a very competitive marketplace.”

In the past 12 years, UTLA has helped jumpstart the careers of alumni who are now key players in the entertainment industry, from talent agents who work at the international Creative Artists Agency to actors like Glen Powell, ’08, who starred as John Glenn in the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures. UTLA has worked its way toward being on par with other major film programs—like those at Southern Cal, UCLA, and the New York Film Academy—through its combination of courses taught by working professionals like Ferrante, guest lectures by leading industry experts like DreamWorks Animation’s head of feature film development Jennifer Howell, BS ’96, and internships at prominent companies.

The idea for the program began in the early 2000s, when former associate dean of the communications school Nikhil Sinha and former communications career services director Matt Berndt approached then-dean Roderick P. Hart. After getting his support, they searched for someone with industry knowledge to help lead the charge, which led them to current UTLA executive director Phil Nemy, a former executive at The Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group. The first class, made up of just seven students, took place in a 3,500-square-foot space in a building the program shared with the New York Film Academy for the next 12 years.

Now, UTLA has grown to an average class size of 45 students and runs out of a new, 8,700-square-foot space in a building it shares with a few other businesses—a huge improvement, Nemy says. “We like to think we’re creating our own little Longhorn mafia out here in LA,” he jokes. It’s only been six weeks since they moved in, so the place is barren, save for the numerous posters of major films. The posters aren’t random: All of the films showcased have been made with the involvement of UT alumni.

With the new facility, UTLA will be able to accommodate around 90 students. The space is equipped with four offices for the 12 lecturers on staff; a lounge for students to work and watch movies; a kitchen; a computer lab that’s open to all UT Austin alumni; and two classrooms.

The move was made possible by a large investment from The Cain Foundation, a nonprofit chaired by the center’s new namesake Wofford Denius, BBA ’74, Life Member, who moved to Los Angeles 28 years ago in pursuit of his dream to become a music attorney. (Although Denius requested that the donation amount be kept classified, the starting amount for naming institutions at UT is $3 million.) “I hope this program will enable students to discover and pursue their dreams by exposing them to the numerous opportunities available in the ever-growing world of entertainment,” he says.

Not all the students who walk these halls are radio-television-film majors, though they do make up the majority. Among those majoring in film, there are a number of students who come from other communications departments, the College of Natural Sciences, the McCombs School of Business, and more. They are a  combination of juniors and seniors, and have been out here since early August. Like every group of students who came before them, they are required to live in a nearby apartment complex called The Oakwoods, well-known for once housing Hollywood’s stars like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Love Hewitt, who first inhabited the place as a child actor.

As part of the deal for participating in UTLA, each student is required to hold an internship along with their full-time student course load. Most everyone has a car to get around the city as they run from class to job to home and back. Though all their schedules are different, everyone works multiple days throughout the week, and often long hours—sometimes up to 10 or 12 per shift.

One night at BJ’s Brewhouse—the students’ regular Tuesday dinner spot because of the half-off pizookies, they explain—Miller, RTF senior and music intern at Amazon Studios Shannel Whigg, history senior and Color Force studios intern Robert Blum, RTF senior and CBS and Piller Segan intern Victoria Vargas, advertising junior and Conan intern Lexi Lassiter, and political science senior and Atlas Entertainment intern Mark Malstrom explain their transition to LA. Each of them says it has felt pretty seamless (though they do miss queso and H-E-B). “Honestly, I felt comfortable really quickly, which was weird,” Lassiter says. “I thought I’d be so stressed out but the program has made me so much more of an adult already.”

They start rehashing their days, poking fun at something one of the instructors said the day before. Most of their classes take place on Mondays and each one is tailored to a specific topic related to the entertainment industry. UTLA courses cover subjects like the business side of the film and television industry, public relations, screenwriting, and pitching projects. Nemy also regularly teaches a course that covers how to manage finances, apply for jobs, and conduct yourself in interviews. He says the program’s curriculum is ever-changing in order to keep up with shifts in the way people consume media, like the rise of binge-watching on Netflix. In recent years, the program added Ferrante’s music course in order to widen UTLA’s scope and offer something to students who aren’t interested in solely movies and television.

“This is not just a film program,” Nemy says. “It’s about the entertainment industry as a whole. It’s film, it’s television, it’s streaming, it’s new media, it’s music. I tell my students: Use this semester to figure out what it is that drives your passion.”

To make it in Hollywood is to know someone who knows someone. “This is an industry built on relationships,” Nemy says. “You kind of live and die by the contacts you have.”

When students begin applying for their internships before starting the program, UTLA equips them with access to a massive database containing contacts for more than 800 studios, networks, production companies, record companies, and more. Each contact in the system is someone who has either hired students in the past, or has reached out to Nemy about wanting UT students.

“That’s a big testament to the education [the students] are getting back on campus,” Nemy says, specifically referring to students in the RTF program. UT began offering a degree in radio-television-film in 1965 and has since turned it into one of the top-ranking film schools in the country, producing talents like actor Matthew McConaughey, BS ’93, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus; filmmakers Mark Duplass, BA ’98, and his brother Jay, BA ’96; and director Lev L. Spiro, MA ’90. In addition to the UTLA program, the RTF department offers a full range of degrees, from bachelors’ to masters’ to PhDs, and is home to UT3D, the nation’s first-ever comprehensive 3-D production program.

“UTLA clearly shaped my career because I wouldn’t be here without it,” says Meg Marinis, BS, BA ’06, the co-executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy. She attended the program the last semester of her senior year, interned at Universal Pictures, and never left LA. After graduation, she immediately got a job working as a production assistant on Grey’s and worked her way up the ranks. “The program gave me a support system. I don’t know if I would’ve had the guts to move out here after college without it.”

In the last few years, the faculty behind UTLA have been working on expanding its reach. For the first time, in the spring semester of 2017, UTLA welcomed a group of 15 seniors from the department of theatre and dance. They took classes created specifically for them, while also taking acting classes with veteran acting coach Howard Fine. The end of the semester culminated in a major showcase in which they performed scenes from movies and their own personal monologues in front of industry professionals. Of the 15 students, 12 have been signed by agencies and are currently auditioning or working in LA.

“It was a lot of fun to go out last March and watch the students in a different environment,” says associate professor of acting Lucien Douglas, who was instrumental in forging the partnership between UTLA and the College of Fine Arts. He says another 15 students are set to return this spring. “The biggest thing that hit me was their maturity. I could see the personal growth as well as professional growth. I thought to myself, They’re not students, they’re young actors. They’re young professionals ready to compete in the real world.

The Moody College has also been working with the McCombs School of Business on bringing in students who want to work on the business side of the industry. By next summer, roughly 20 students working toward a master’s in public accounting will have the chance to take a May-mester at UTLA. And according to Bernhardt, the communications school, McCombs, the College of Fine Arts, and the provost’s office are in the process of developing a center in New York in the coming years.

The clock reads 6:38 p.m. and all of Ferrante’s class has finally shuffled in. He dances while letting The Revivalists’ “Wish I Knew You” fade out before opening a PowerPoint slide that reads “Inside the Music Industry: Touring and Tour Marketing,” and garnering the students’ attention.

Some of them will stay in the city immediately upon graduating in the fall, some will go back to Austin and finish school before returning, and some may never come back at all. Lassiter, who came to UTLA with little idea about what she wanted to do in the future, says she can see herself returning for a career in late-night television. Miller says he can’t see himself moving back to LA unless a job is a sure thing. “That being said,” he says, “I still think this has been incredibly worth it.”

From top: 

Illustration by Michael Byers.

Spring 2011 students Kayla McDaniel and Eric Antonowicz visit the set of  CSI: New York. Courtesy of UTLA. 

Fall 2017 students Rhiannon Sullivan, Shannel Whigg, and Mark Malstrom, along with their classmates, in class taught by film producer Stuart Pollok. Courtesy of UTLA. 

Spring 2010 student Jackie Nason looks through the camera on set of The Middle. Courtesy of UTLA. 

Spring 2011 students visit the special effects department of CSI: Miami. Courtesy of UTLA. 

 
 
 

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