Alumni pay their dues in entertainment industry
By Boaz Dvir
Frank Sutera, PR 1997, makes damage control look easy.
He recently produced MTV’s new reality show “Damage Control,” in which parents leave their unsuspecting children home alone for a whirlwind weekend of pranks and Candid Camera-like setups. Overseeing the first episode, Sutera ordered the roof repaired after a technician fell through it. He also made sure no one bit into the miniature-camera-containing grapes and reminded the film crew to refill the holes and trenches in and around the subjects’ house before departing.
Most important, he saw to it that the subjects – the parents and their teenage son, who never caught on – suffered no mental or emotional damage. “They were happy,” he said. “They invited me to go skydiving with them.”
Alumni working behind the scenes in the entertainment industry say you can’t learn this stuff in school – even at a professional training ground such as the College of Journalism and Communications. Yet they note they picked up valuable lessons during their University of Florida days.
“I learned how to deal with people,” said Sutera, who also recently produced FOX’s “The Next Great Champ” and is now developing a new show for Comedy Central. “I learned to plan activities [at his fraternity]. In Reporting, I learned to interview. The projects I did and the knowledge I gained, about graphics for instance, opened a lot of doors.”
Self-made opportunity: Telecommunication Associate Prof. James Babanikos wrote, directed, produced, and co-financed the movie "A Second Chance." (Photo by David Zentz)
When Jack Kaplan, JM 1959, headed to Hollywood in 1969 – after writing for The Atlanta Constitution, Jimmy Carter’s gubernatorial campaign and a nightclub comedy troupe – he knew he could count on the skills he honed at the College, he said.
“My education there shaped my whole life,” said Kaplan, who quickly landed a job writing for the then-No. 1 show, “Laugh-In.” “I gained confidence. And I learned to organize material, meet deadline and communicate. I don’t care what you do, you need to know how to communicate.”
Although Paramount Pictures Vice President Andrew Haas, TEL 1988, offers fewer details, he views his time in Gainesville with similar regard.
“Nothing prepares you to be a [movie] producer, but I learned a lot at the College,” said Haas, who recently produced “Without A Paddle,” starring Seth Green and Burt Reynolds.
The first in his family to enter the entertainment industry, Haas made it in this über-competitive business thanks to the same characteristics that helped him succeed at UF – hard work, talent, intelligence and confidence.
“I had a steadfast belief,” he said. “I knew I could do this.”
As first assistant to the co-chair of The Firm, a Hollywood management company with A-list clients such as Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Jenny Novak, TEL 2002, uses few of the skills she developed at the College. Yet she credits the school with helping to set her on the right track. Associate Prof. James Babanikos and Documentary Institute Co-Director Churchill Roberts inspired her, she said. “They helped shape who I am. They helped push me to fulfill this dream.”
As a kid, Paul Lewis, TEL 1991, live-action programming executive at Nickelodeon in Burbank, Calif., knew what he wanted to do when he grew up: be the president of a television network. So when he enrolled in the College’s telecommunication program, he focused on becoming technically proficient, not news savvy.
“[WUFT-TV-]Channel 5 made the difference for me,” Lewis said. “I knew I could get hands-on experience there. It doesn’t prepare you for the entertainment business, but it gives you confidence and tools.”
‘Realistic view’: Paul Lewis, TEL 1991, visits the set of one of the live-action Nickelodeon shows he oversees, which include “Romeo!” and “Just For Kicks.”
Alumni working in entertainment sometimes return to Weimer Hall to give students a glimpse into their industry. Lewis – who oversees the production of such shows as “Romeo!” and “Just For Kicks ” – entertained nine classes three years ago with stories and tips about the business.
“I tried to give a realistic view of Hollywood,” said Lewis, who develops shows and serves as a liaison between Nickelodeon and program producers. “It’s a tough business. I tried to get that across without crashing their dreams.”
Kaplan, joined by his daughter Deborah Pearlman, who directs Warner Bros. Television’s Writers Workshop in Los Angeles, delivered a similar message last month to Advanced Writing for the Electronic Media and other telecommunication classes.
“We told them that there are more football players in the NFL than writers in television,” Pearlman said. “But at the same time, if they have the passion, they have to follow it.”
Leigh Seaman, TEL 1989, who produced the first season of TLC’s “Trading Spaces,” helps students turn passion into practice by teaching a production workshop at the College twice a year. She conducts it the same week she attends the semiannual Department of Telecommunication Advisory Council meeting.
“We develop a show idea,” said Seaman, who traveled to Gainesville last month from her home in Knoxville, Tenn. “We have a lot of fun.”
Par for the course
Richard Preuss, TEL 1996, sees serving as associate director on award shows such as the Oscars and Emmys as somewhat of a continuation of his work as a student at the College . He learned to multitask working at Channel 5, overseeing technical direction for Gator Growl, and producing short films, all while carrying a full course load. Today, he handles as many as three productions at once with the ease of a Cirque Du Soleil juggler. However, he would have liked even more opportunities to grow and develop.
Lewis and Sutera agree. They suggest the College offer courses that would prepare students to compete in the enticing, elusive entertainment industry, such as a workshop on producing 60-minute films.
“I see no reason why the College wouldn’t offer such courses,” said Preuss, who also worked on VH1 Divas and the Billboard Music Awards. “It has the resources, the studios. Not everything has to be a talk show or a news show.”
“We told them that there are more football players in the NFL than writers in television”
The College, however, needs all of its resources to accomplish its overriding goal of educating students in advertising, journalism, public relations and telecommunication, Dean Terry Hynes said. “We have to keep focused on our main mission.”
Students sometimes get a chance to gain real-world experience in the entertainment industry. For instance, 14 telecommunication students recently participated in filming Babanikos’ “A Second Chance” in Gainesville.
When the 75-minute movie premiered earlier this spring in Weimer Hall’s Gannett Auditorium, Babanikos, who wrote, directed, produced and co-financed it with matching funds from the College, thanked the students for helping him keep it within its Hollywood-pocket-change $15,000 budget. They, in turn, appeared to be just as grateful for this chance.
“Everything I know about movies I learned on ‘A Second Chance,’ ” said Chris Singleton, a telecommunication student at the time who mixed the sound in postproduction. “I learned a lot just by watching. Now, if I ever work on a Hollywood set, I won’t bumble around like an idiot.”
Different routes, similar destinations
Denise Lang, JM 1971, a producer on FOX’s daytime reality show “Ambush Makeover,” considers what she learned at the College to be as valuable today as it was when she worked as a reporter for The Miami Herald and bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel.
“My training in school really helped me get a grip on ethics,” she said. “That’s very important to me.”
One journalism professor in particular taught her lessons that have served her well in all three of her careers (newspaper reporting/editing, TV production, and book writing), she said. “The [late] cranky, critical, infamous Buddy Davis [JM 1948, MAMC 1952] really held my feet to the fire and showed me the importance of accuracy and of asking the right questions.”
Lang became an author when she moved with her husband from Florida to New Jersey 27 years ago. After she divorced him 17 years later, she ventured into television. She maintains her ties to journalism by continuing to churn out non-fiction books such as “Coping with Lyme Disease” (her eighth) and employing former news writers on “Ambush Makeover.”
Seaman, who is working on DIY Network’s garden show “Grounds for Improvement,” also seeks writers and producers with news experience.
“I look for people who have a heavy liberal arts background,” said Seaman, who covered medical issues at the White House for Channel One during the first Clinton administration.
Other alumni emphasize the professional side of their UF education. For instance, although it may be outdated, the technological aspect of his learning has stayed with Matt Herren, TEL 1993, vice president of marketing for Boca Raton-based Information Television (ITV) and Red Reef Entertainment.
“People in my position usually pay no attention to that, but UF gave me a good foundation,” said Herren, who raises money for health, lifestyle and animation programs. “I’m much more into it than I would be if I didn’t go to school there.”
Herren would like to see the College team up with UF’s Warrington College of Business Administration.
“Why doesn’t the College lead the way by working with the business school?” he said. “In this industry being creative is not enough, you have to marry it to the business side.”
Herren picked up this lesson in reverse. During his seven years in corporate sales, he hardly ever felt fulfilled – he missed the creative side, which he nurtured as a DJ for four years at the College’s WRUF-FM ROCK-104.
“I realized that without that, I’m not satisfying all parts of my personality,” he said. “Money is not enough, you have to stay true to yourself.”
The in(ternship) crowd
Just as they do in journalism and communication fields, internships often give students an entry point into the entertainment industry.
After her junior year, Erin Fruchtman, TEL 2003, interned at the Los Angeles office of Barry Levinson's Baltimore Spring Creek Pictures. She mostly read scripts.
"I always wanted to be in TV or film," she said.
Although she reads no scripts in her current job as a team member of Britt Allcroft Productions in Los Angeles, Fruchtman views her Spring Creek internship as a fountainhead of insight.
Nickelodeon’s Lewis parlayed his Academy of Television Arts & Sciences internship at FOX into a four-year stint with the network, where he served as an executive on such popular prime-time programs as “Party of Five,” “Family Guy” and “That ‘70s Show.”
In this industry, internships are vital – and more readily available than most students realize, Sutera said. “They’re out there. They’re easy to get.”
His Paramount internship, however, came as a surprise. Visiting his brother Paul, who at the time played Peter Brady in the “Brady Bunch” movies, he landed an interview with Cheryl Boone Isaacs, then the studio’s executive vice president of worldwide publicity. “She took two and a half hours to talk to me,” he recalled. “I was blown away.”
At the end of the summer, Paramount offered him a permanent position.
He returned to Gainesville for his last semester, and, as soon as he received his degree, packed whatever he could fit into his car and drove back to Los Angeles to publicize Paramount pictures.
That unexpected internship ended up leading to an unexpected career when, two and a half years later, he left Paramount PR to plunge into producing, teaming up with Hollywood insiders such as Ben Stiller.
“He got tired of promoting other people’s work,” said his wife, Andrea Carden, TEL 1998, assistant to the president and to the chief operating officer of FOX Sports.
His “Damage Control” joined the popular “Punk’d” on MTV’s “Sunday Stew” last month. Yes, Sutera, who also worked on Comedy Central’s “The Man Show,” has been having more fun as a professional than he ever imagined while roaming Weimer’s halls.
“It’s not about the glamour,” he said. “It’s about being creative, making something, seeing it on TV.”