High profile alumni guests introduce UCSC students to real life in Hollywood

Ever wondered what it's really like to work in the entertainment industry? For the past eight years, students at UC Santa Cruz have flocked to a popular class taught by television consultant and UCSC alumnus Loren Steck for an inside look at the realities of an actual career in Hollywood.

Titled Working in TV and Film, the course brings in highly successful producers, directors, writers, and agents to give a candid, behind-the-scenes look at what their jobs are really like, how they got them, and the types of pressures and constraints they face on a day-to-day-basis. All of the guest lecturers are UCSC alumni.

At a recent class session, Dan Wolf, vice president of corporate communications at The Walt Disney Company, took 50 students through a whirlwind tour of his last 16 years at the company where he writes speeches, crafts press releases, and strategizes for top executives like celebrated CEO Michael Eisner.

Mixing autobiographical information with backstage details of the quirks and power struggles of the major players at Disney, Wolf shared insights about working at the company from an insider's point of view. At one point, he explained to the students how, while working as press secretary for Los Angeles Supervisor Kenneth Hahn in the early 1980s, he was offered a freelance job to write a speech for the president of Walt Disney Studios-despite the fact that had never written a speech before in his entire life.

"My advice is never to say no if there's a possibility offered to you in the industry," Wolf told the class. "Don't be intimidated. Because to a certain degree, everybody's faking it at every level. There's a lot of people at high levels of the film industry who are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to pick successful movies and they fail miserably most of the time. So don't be fooled and think that people with titles, money, and cars are any smarter than you-they may be just as anxious and insecure."

"Things tend to be a little more exaggerated in the entertainment business," Wolf added. "There are less defined skill requirements in this world than for say an engineer. I'm actually one of the few people I know with a liberal arts education who actually uses the job skills I learned in college in my work. When I write a speech, what is it? It's a research paper that involves writing and critical-thinking skills."

Wolf was just one of the eight prominent visitors that Steck brought into the class this year. Other guests included David Tenzer, an agent at Creative Artists Agency; Karina Buck, president of Genuine Buck Film; and Jim Fredrick, senior vice president of creative advertising for Warner Brothers. Recent UCSC graduate Graham Rich also made an appearance, describing how some of the contacts he made in the class helped him to complete his first commercial feature film as producer and director.

Steck himself works in the industry as a consultant, "fixing television pilots and improving programs." He also works directly for the major television networks, advising them on what shows to buy and how to market them. A trustee of the UCSC Foundation for the past eight years, Steck said the idea for the class arose out of a conversation he had with former Porter College Provost Kathy Foley during his term as president of the UCSC Alumni Association in 1996.

"I knew so many alumni in the entertainment industry who so dearly love this campus," Steck recalled. "So I thought, how can I get them involved? It's really a way for them to give back, as well as an attempt to help young students and ease their transition into the real world."

The students seem to appreciate the effort. After the last class session in March, dozens of students gathered around Steck to thank him for offering the course.

"This class gives you the real deal," observed Alex Laleh, a senior film and digital media student. "Most students who come are hoping to get a job related to Hollywood, so they're thrilled to hear personal and realistic appraisals of how hard it is to get in the door. The class was as blunt and frank as possible. It showed the deeper layers of how the industry really works."