Ben Silverman, A92, is probably one of Tufts’ more famous alums. He’s certainly one of its busiest. His television producing credits include Jane the Virgin, the new Netflix show Flake, and The Office, for which he won an Emmy in 2006 at the age of thirty-six. You can also thank Silverman for helping to launch the reality TV genre in this country, bringing over from England a few of the shows that helped create an American frenzy, including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and The Biggest Loser. Oh, and Mob Wives. That’s his doing, too. For all of this, Silverman has been called “the most successful television producer of his generation” (Esquire, 2009), a “whiz-kid wunderkind” (Adweek, 2007), one of America’s most eligible bachelors (People, 2007), and, most recently, “the Mark Zuckerberg of Tufts!” (Ben Silverman, 2015).
On the phone from the Los Angeles offices of Electus, the TV and digital production company he founded in 2009 after important roles at NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, Silverman said that, growing up, he always had a sense he’d end up working in entertainment. A favorite story in Silverman family lore recounts the day he came home from school and informed his mom that he’d like to run NBC. And, you know, he came pretty darn close in 2007, when he was named co-chair of one of the network’s divisions, NBC Entertainment. His more recent projects include such historical dramas as The Tudors, Henry IV, Marco Polo, and, this past August, the Amazon Prime original movie Casanova. And, of course, there are plenty more in the works.
The list of Tufts alumni who have made it in Hollywood—actors, producers, agents, and on and on—reads like
the ensemble cast and crew of a guaranteed blockbuster.
Silverman is hardly the only Tufts grad to have made it in Hollywood. In fact, the list of notable, and notably credentialed, alumni reads like the ensemble cast and crew of a guaranteed blockbuster: Albert Berger, A79, a producer whose films include Nebraska, Cold Mountain, and Election; Meredith Vieira, J75, the former host of Today; Pierre Omidyar, A88, H11, the executive producer of Spotlight, which just won the 2016 Oscar for Best Picture; Jeff Greenstein, A84, producer of Will & Grace; Peter Roth, A72, president and chief content officer of Warner Bros.; Kim Benabib, A92, a renowned writer and producer; Robert O’Hara, A92, the Obie Award–winning playwright; and Jon Levin, A75, the longtime Creative Artists Agency agent. And that’s before we even get to the actors Hank Azaria, A88 (who is this year’s Commencement speaker, by the way), Oliver Platt, A83, Peter Gallagher, A77, and William Hurt, A72, or to the hundreds and hundreds of other agents, scouts, publicists, composers, playwrights, and so on who represent Tufts in Hollywood.
And if Amir Mosallaie, A14, has anything to say about it, he’ll be the next one wearing sunglasses on the red carpet. Mosallaie has spent the past few years making experimental films in L.A. with a handful of fellow Jumbos who are all trying to make it in Hollywood. As an undergrad, he did three Winternships—intensive internships with film and media professionals that take place over five days every January. His first one was with Sarah Ullman, A10, at the L.A. film production company di Bonaventura Pictures. He spent the week during his sophomore year with Albert Berger, A79, at Bonafide Productions. Senior year, it was with Alison Barash, A09, in the digital media department at United Talent Agency (UTA). That company ended up offering Mosallaie a job after graduation, working alongside Barash in the digital media department. But he had something else in mind. “I’ve known I wanted to make movies since I was eight years old,” he said. So he turned down the UTA offer to pursue his filmmaking, while also producing commercial work for corporations like Nestle and RushCard.
Mosallaie is far from alone when it comes to finding support within Tufts’ deep Hollywood alumni network. “When the students look for an internship or job—or maybe they say, ‘I want to be a great actor, I want to make a million dollars’—we have lots of names for them to seek out,” said Robyn Gittleman, director of the Experimental College (1975–2015) and associate dean of undergraduate education emerita. And that expansive alumni web, sometimes referred to as the Tufts Hollywood Networking Mafia, has been instrumental in putting Jumbo names in lights. That’s the result of both formal programs orchestrated and sponsored by alumni—including the Winternship and the L.A. alumni group Tufts Entertainment, Arts, and Media (TEAM)—and old-fashioned networking, with graduates of the informal film and television program that grew out of the Experimental College helping each other out. And then there’s Steve Tisch, A71, the legendary producer of Risky Business and Forrest Gump (and now the owner, with his brother Jonathan, A76, of the New York Giants), a sort of one-person network whose production company has given many Tufts undergrads and grads their start in Hollywood as interns and staffers.
Now the Tufts–film industry connection is about to get even stronger. This year, the university introduced a new film and media studies (FMS) major, a twelve-course interdisciplinary degree that’s an expansion of the popular communications and media studies minor. “We’re not a film school and we’re never going to be a film school,” said FMS department co-director Julie Dobrow. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t produce students who will go on to have fabulously successful careers in film.” Especially since they already have.
Tufts has had an eye on Hollywood for decades. Since its 1964 launch, the Ex College has regularly offered courses that explored various areas of film. Some were taught by visiting lecturers, including one-off classes like The Business of Disney, while others were led by faculty. The former provost Sol Gittleman, for instance, designed a German Cinema class, and was also responsible for helping the Tufts library create its first film collection back in the 60s. The most popular Ex College courses usually wound up as permanent or semi-permanent offerings in different departments throughout the college—Screenwriting, for example, found a home in the drama department.
In this way, courses centered on film often wound up influencing students who’d come to Tufts with other interests in mind. The actor Nick Jandl, A07, for instance, arrived at Tufts intending to become a doctor. Instead, he ended up playing one on TV—having recently ended a nineteen-episode run as Dr. Caleb Rand in the critically acclaimed ABC network drama Nashville. His love of acting began, he said, the spring of his freshman year, when he enrolled in Acting 1, and was cemented with Lee Edelman’s course Post-Modernism in Film. “That class dug more deeply into filmmaking and storytelling than I thought was possible,” he said. By junior year, he’d switched his environmental science–biology double major to drama, and picked up a communications and media studies (CMS) minor. His free time was spent making “incredibly ambitious short films” with fellow alums Ben Samuels, A09, now a budding screenwriter, and Madeline (Schussel) Blue, A08, an actress who has since appeared in Wet Hot American Summer.
Then there’s Kimber Smith, J99, who entered Tufts with plans to become a diplomat. But after an internship at the Steve Tisch Company in the summer of 1998, she chose Hollywood instead. She now makes a living as a project manager for films and documentaries that have included PBS’s Ken Burns Presents the Story of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. And what of her dreams of becoming a diplomat? “I like to think of what I do as bringing people together through storytelling,” she said. “I would say I take a diplomatic approach to my work.”
While at Tisch, Smith got to know Michael Shlain, A99, who after his internship at the company returned for his senior year at Tufts. That’s when he met Steven Calcote, A95, who’d come back to campus to teach an Ex College course in film. The two bonded over their shared involvement in Tufts University Television, which Calcote had helped revive thanks to funding from a handful of alumni that included Steve Tisch. In the early 00s, Shlain and Calcote began collaborating on various film projects, and in 2010 they founded the L.A.-based Butcher Bird Studios, a digital production company that creates commercial, outdoor-adventure, and feature films for clients that include Adidas, the BBC, Nickelodeon, and Sega.
Of course, it’s not only film courses that inspire Tufts students to pursue film careers. For instance, when Andrea Nelson Meigs, J90, began taking classes, she expected to become a lawyer. Then she sat in a creative writing class taught by Elizabeth Ammons. “One day, she asked me: What is it you’re looking to do?” Meigs recalled. “I wondered if I was doing poorly. Instead, she told me that I was so imaginative and so expressive, and that she saw me doing something creative. I had never thought of myself as a creative type.” Meigs did end up going to law school, at Duke, but quickly realized she didn’t want to practice. Instead, thinking back to Ammons’ words, she applied for a job at a talent agency, got a job in the mailroom, and worked her way up. Today she’s a talent agent at International Creative Management, with such clients as Beyoncé, the Annie star Quvenzhané Wallis, and Carmen Ejogo (Selma).
What it all adds up to, Dobrow said, is that the FMS major was a long time coming. The CMS minor—which was born out of the Ex College—had become one of the university’s most popular interdisciplinary programs, graduating some eighty students each year, and Making Movies, a seminar in short film production, was one of the Ex College’s most popular courses. During open houses for prospective students, filmmaking was one of the most asked-about areas of study, Dobrow said, and interest in film and media both in and out of the classroom was exploding. “There is no doubt that students would have done FMS as a major earlier had it been available to them,” she said.
But what it really took to get the new major, Dobrow said, “was having people in the dean’s office who understood that film and media are very important ways that young people process the world today.” And given the rich body of theory and scholarship behind film and media studies, she said, the major is in harmony with the liberal arts ethos.
Robyn Gittleman, formerly a longtime director of the Experimental College, said that the film and media studies major is consistent with Tufts’ longstanding embrace of creativity and new ideas. Or as Andrea Schmitt, J90, a former actor, put it, “Tufts allows students to carve out an independent path toward their art. The Department of Drama and Dance always seemed to have the general attitude of, ‘Want to direct an opera? Sounds good. Want to stage a ballet with frogs and candles? Better defend in class, but sure, go ahead. Writing a midnight musical? Why not?’” And a student excited by that kind of artistic freedom, Gittleman said, is “just the type of person who goes into film or entertainment.”
The scene was first set for the FMS major in 2013, when Tufts alumni endowed a film and media studies faculty chair in honor of Sol Gittleman. Dean of Academic Affairs Nancy Bauer convened a group of faculty who were interested in teaching courses in film and media studies, and over a few months, the group worked to come up with a description for the ideal candidate for the chair position. Dobrow said that the search for an academic who could lead the film and media studies program through a broad, liberal arts eye took many months but ultimately pointed in one direction: Malcolm Turvey, an internationally renowned film scholar and the author of two books on film theory, who was formerly at Sarah Lawrence College. Once Turvey was hired, he and the group worked to design what eventually became the major, which was presented to the Curriculum Committee last spring and received a unanimous faculty vote of approval.
Because so many Tufts alumni working in entertainment say their liberal arts education has been extremely useful in helping to forge a career path, the FMS major was designed to follow that course, with foundations in history, theory, the business of film and media, and writing, along with opportunities for hands-on experience both on and off campus. Core courses include The Global History of Cinema and Media Literacy. Elective courses are offered through many other departments and programs, including Film as Music, Music as Film (music), The World of Japanese Animation (Japanese), and Jewish Experience on Film (Judaic studies). “The approach we take is very different from film schools,” Dobrow said. “It’s an integrated major. Students have to take courses in both film and media studies. It’s important for students to understand a number of different things and be grounded in them.”
Who knows what sorts of specific skills or talents people will need to get into the industry four or eight years from now? I think it’s far better to have a broader education, to give students the capacity to transition and to move with the times.
During a recent session of Global History of Cinema, a packed class held in the Tisch Library, Turvey lectured about the growth of documentary film during World War II, when art was combined with propaganda, and showed clips of films like 1942’s The Battle of Midway, directed and shot by John Ford. (“It’d be like Steven Spielberg going to Syria and filming the front line of the civil war,” Turvey told the class.) The movie, Turvey explained, was an example of how quickly technical innovations can shape and influence filmmaking.The Battle of Midway was one of the first pictures to feature 16mm camera technology, as well as voiceovers by famous actors like Henry Fonda and Verna Felton. The lesson, Turvey said, is that context and theory are more important than the practical aspects of filmmaking offered at film schools. “More than ever, platforms are changing so quickly that an education in using specific technologies is going to be completely useless by graduation,” he said. “Who knows what sorts of specific skills or talents people will need to get into the industry four or eight years from now? I think it’s far better to have a broader education, to give students the capacity to transition and to move with the times.”
With Turvey settled in, the FMS program also hopes to hire a visiting professor for the 2016–17 school year, though efforts to fund the position are ongoing. In the meantime, the FMS major will graduate its first six students this year. Two of them, Dobrow said, are interested in film, with one eyeing TV and another thinking of advertising. The other two haven’t decided what they’d like to do. Whatever their ultimate decision, Turvey said, they’ll be equipped for success. “A liberal arts education teaches students to think critically and creatively, do independent research, write well,” he said. “And just as students found success in entertainment before the FMS major, I would like to think FMS students will go on to do any number of careers—lawyers, bankers, whatever else.”
For some, though, the lure of Tinsel Town is irresistible. “Whenever I make money, I’ll spend it immediately on making a film,” said Amir Mosallaie, the recent Tufts graduate trying to break into Hollywood. “It’s all a learning process, a lot of experimenting—I write, direct, shoot, edit everything I make—and each time I just try to do something different from what I’ve done before.” His latest personal project is a web series called L.A. Artist, a comedic fictional take on his own efforts to make it as a filmmaker in Hollywood. “I try to mingle a lot,” he said. “In L.A., you go to a bar and everyone around you is working in the industry. Or trying to.”
Alyssa Giacobbe is a writer and editor in Newburyport, Massachusetts. This is her first piece for Tufts Magazine.