Columbia Filmmakers Connect: Introduction

Felix Van Kann
November 03, 2021

In this series, we feature the new mentorship program that connects recent alumni with industry professionals.

To ease the transition from graduate school into the industry, Columbia University School of the Arts' Dean’s Council recently launched a new initiative to help with this effort: to connect those striving to make a name for themselves with those who have. Veteran alumni provide recent alumni ongoing guidance, contacts, and support while also strengthening the Columbia network around the world. In this series, we feature those pairs. 

As a member of Dean Carol Becker’s Council, Academy Award nominated producer, alumnus Albert Berger '83 (Nebraska, Little Miss Sunshine), was asked to chair a committee of the board, bringing together Film alumni, mostly based in Los Angeles, with graduating students. For the last decade, when the Columbia University Film Festival screened graduating student films for alumni, friends, and the industry, there would be many chances to connect the students with alumni who had taken their careers to Hollywood. With the onset of the pandemic, this chance to travel west and forge these connections was disrupted. Berger, in partnership with John Oursler, who serves in the development office as the Senior Associate Director for Film, got to work, and assembled a group of 25 alumni to serve as committee members, all of whom work successfully in the industry and feel a close connection to Columbia. Some members include Cherien Dabis '04 (Amreeka), Simon Kinberg '03 (Logan), and Amy Talkington ’99 (Little Fires Everywhere).

Berger suggested that the committee’s first goal be to establish a robust mentorship program to help students launch their careers once they graduate. The program opened with an impressive 58 pairings in its first year. In fact, alumni participation was so great that the initiative was not only able to find a mentor for every 2021 graduate but for some 2020 graduates as well. 

The depth of experience amongst the mentors is quite extensive. In addition to all committee members, the mentors include acclaimed filmmakers such as Chris Teague ’06 (Russian Doll), Gina Atwater ’11 (Westworld), Lawrence Michael Levine ’08 (Wild Canaries), and many more.  

“It's exciting to see how well so many of our film alumni are doing in the film industry and even more thrilling to observe how willing they are to share their knowledge and connections with the next generation,” Dean Carol Becker said of the program. “I love how enthusiastic they are to help this younger group, but also how much they feel they are learning from them at the same time. It’s a simple but brilliant idea and one that is sustainable over time.” 

Creating the pairings of industry professionals with recent alumni was no small feat. Oursler said, “The committee members were all going to be mentors from the start. They each gave us a few names of their classmates and alums they know in the field. We reached out on recommendation-basis, which made the process more personalized. And then it snowballed.” The Film Program’s Director of Industry & Festival Outreach, alumna Alece Oxendine '11, also got involved to strike the best possible matches with recent graduates.

As an alumna herself, Oxendine knows the struggle of first entering the industry. “Starting out is already difficult enough, especially so during a global pandemic,” she said. “The mentorship program is helping recent graduates navigate this tough terrain with the help of more established alumni.” So far, the reactions from both groups have been thoroughly positive. “Students are both relieved and excited to know they have the option of a mentor when they graduate,” Oxendine said. “In the future, I hope to see more success stories where mentors help with getting scripts produced, finding jobs, and getting represented by managers and agents.” 

The Film faculty, led by Associate Professor Hilary Brougher who was Chair at the start of the program, also helped to get the initiative into motion. “Seeing this come together last year was a personal highlight for me because it embodies the strength, generosity and connectivity of our community and it came together at a time when nothing was easy as we were deeply challenged by the physical distancing and stress from the COVID pandemic,” Brougher said.   

“Another great byproduct of this program is the fact that it raises the question of what it means to come out of Columbia as a filmmaker,” Berger said. “It’s an interesting dialogue that’s taking place on the committee to hear people’s stories, what they are working on, what they are interested in, and how they got there. Simultaneously, we are connecting deeply with the students. Maybe this helps to define what the Columbia film program does.”

In our first series, we’ll hear more from Albert Berger '83 and his mentee Barbara Twist '20.