How the USC School of Cinematic Arts aims to diversify Hollywood, games and beyond

Ten years of work and millions of dollars in scholarships have pulled in students whose stories may have otherwise gone untold.

May 12, 2021 Gustavo Solis

USC School of Cinematic Arts students dominated the prestigious DGA Student Film Awards this year, winning gold in six out of eight categories in the showcase of Black, Latino, Asian and women directors.

That didn’t happen by accident. Over the last 10 years, the school has invested millions of dollars in scholarships. A tenfold growth in financial support for students — reaching more than $4.5 million last year — helped increase diversity and establish gender parity in its student body. That substantial investment has largely come from alumni and industry donors who see USC as a feeder of talent to an industry that has been criticized for lacking diversity, said Marcus Anderson, student services director at the school.

“We definitely believe that our practice and makeup should reflect the industry of the future as opposed to the industry of the past,” he said.

During this same period, the school has been developing its recruitment strategies to better recruit students from diverse backgrounds — not just based on ethnicity but also on geography and socioeconomic status. Susan Park, the school’s director of admissions, calls it a “pointed and intentional process.”

Park doesn’t just wait for prospective students to come to the school for information. She goes where they are and pitches the school to them. Her work often involves overcoming barriers that prevent students from applying in the first place.

“A lot of what we try to do in our recruitment efforts is remove some of the myths that are out there — it’s too hard to get in or I know I can’t afford it, so I’m not even going to apply,” she said.

The USC School of Cinematic Arts has also visited historically Black colleges and universities to recruit for the school’s graduate programs. Park has taken current students on these visits so prospective applicants can hear from them directly.

She would like to build on that momentum and go to minority-serving institutions as well, along with doing more recruiting among students who may not be able to visit USC’s University Park Campus.

“There is just so much we can do in terms of being more strategic and intentional about the recruitment we are doing,” she said. “There are so many talented students out there who may not know who we are as an institution — that we can be accessible, that we can be affordable with our scholarship programs.”

These efforts have helped the school achieve gender parity in its student body population. And although they’ve made progress toward having more students of color, they would like to do more.

Diversity among USC gaming students will help build a more diverse industry

The benefits of a diverse student body reveal themselves.

For example, last year a team of representatives from Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios visited USC to tour the school and talk about further collaboration with the Interactive Media & Games Division, part of a joint USC Games program shared with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. For a portion of the day, they asked to see some of the program’s most innovative titles. Jim Huntley, a professor in that division, chose the three games that represented some of the most innovative student titles being worked on that year.

“After students were finished and we were wrapping up for the day, one of the executives commented on ‘how great it was to see back-to-back women game directors,’” Huntley recalled. “I honestly hadn’t even noticed. Those were just our three strongest projects.”

Having variety in life — and in gaming — is so much more interesting.

Jim Huntley

The gaming industry is “notoriously and chronically non-diverse,” Huntley said, but they’re trying to improve that by attracting a wider variety of diverse students into the program.

The entire gaming community can benefit from this, as diverse developers may make games with characters, stories, themes and ideas that might otherwise never reach the public. Huntley mentioned recent games featuring LGBTQ+ heroines and engaging trans characters that feature deep, quality storytelling and tackle serious issues.

“Who would have made those games if everyone in the industry thought, looked and acted the same?” he said. “We would just be playing first-person shooters forever. Having variety in life — and in gaming — is so much more interesting.”

Even though the Interactive Media & Games Division has gained more women and LGBTQ+ representation, Huntley said he would like to see more students of color. He’d like to recruit at the high school and even middle school level, particularly in schools that don’t have the resources to help students make a strong portfolio piece for their admissions application.

Film students with unique life experiences can be drawn to different stories

The increased diversity also helps faculty and students take on controversial topics.

Professor John Watson’s “Feature Film” class produces a feature-length movie each year, with student writers crafting the script in autumn and student directors filming in spring. Each year, the class puts a new twist on old stories — like the retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo set in present-day Los Angeles with a Middle Eastern protagonist who unjustly gets sent to Guantanamo Bay after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The most recent film, Voodoo Macbeth, tells the real-life story of how Orson Welles directed an all-Black production of Macbeth in Harlem in the 1930s. One of the real-life performances featured Welles in blackface, which was relatively common at the time but extremely controversial by today’s standards.

The writers and directors had to decide how to approach that part of the story. It was a conversation that could not have taken place without diverse voices, Watson said.

“That was an interesting debate to have with all of the writers in the room,” he said.

Dagmawi Abebe was one of the directors on that project. The Ethiopian-born American director also was one of the students to win a DGA award for his short about Alice Ball, a little-known Black woman who found the cure for leprosy while working in Hawaii.

As one of the few Black physics majors in his undergrad, Abebe felt a connection to Ball’s story.

“I majored in physics as an undergrad, so in general I am interested in science topics,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of African Americans in my program. When I found her story, I was just interested in her background. I was just amazed at what she was able to do in those times.”

Felipe Vargas, another student who won a DGA award, drew inspiration from his native Colombia when directing Milk Teeth, a magical realist horror fantasy. Vargas wants to expand Latin American storytelling beyond immigration and cartel violence.

“I think there is space for Latinos in genres like horror and fantasy,” he said.

Slow but real progress being made regarding diversity in movies, television

At the animation division, students are telling different types of stories, often based on personal experience.

For example, one student made an animated documentary about her own immigrant journey. The title, Vicky and Xingyu, came from how her teacher could not pronounce her Chinese name so she named her Vicky.

Students are producing work that challenges the layperson’s notion of what animation is — cartoons for children, said Teresa Cheng, professor and chair of the John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts.

“A lot of students are using their own personal experience to express themselves through their work,” she said. “Animation is not just happy and pretty pictures. It shows the very deep and complex world that students live in. We’ve had projects that dealt with serious subject matter like depression and suicide.”

For professors who have had long careers in Hollywood, it is startling to see how much has changed in the last few decades.

Associate Professor Helaine Head has a directorial career that spans nearly 30 years. While at USC, she has mentored many students, particularly Black students like Ryan Coogler, who went on to direct Black Panther.

A lot of students are using their own personal experience to express themselves through their work.

Teresa Cheng

While the industry still has a long way to go, Head has seen more openness toward diversity in movies and television. She remembers how casting used to work as recently as the 1980s, where casting directors would not consider non-white actors for small roles as doctors or lawyers.

Head specifically recalls working on a television show in the 1980s that needed an actor for a role as a doctor. She had just finished working with a very talented actor who was Asian American and suggested him for the role.

“I suggested this guy and their response was, ‘He’s Asian, there’s no Asian issue in this episode,’” Head said.

She credits directors like Shonda Rhimes, a USC alum, for changing the way Hollywood thinks about casting. Rhimes casts without race in mind; she typically has different people up for the same parts and chooses the best actor regardless of how they look.

It can drive casting agents mad, but it’s more reflective of the world we live in, Head said.

“Minorities have been saying this for decades,” she added. “Especially if you live in New York. They do shows that are all white people, but you can’t do anything in New York without seeing minorities. It would be weird to see only white people in New York or Los Angeles.”