Whatever you study in college, you should be prepared to talk about what you’ve learned with people who haven’t studied your subject. In a world in which so many are locked into small silos of understanding, it’s a great advantage to be able to talk with people who have a variety of backgrounds, levels of expertise, and hopes for the future. One of the reasons Wesleyan students continue to flock to our foreign language classes is that they recognize that speaking (and listening!) across cultural divides is both a deep pleasure and an important skill to bring to the working world.
Those adept at visual storytelling have important lessons to teach us in this regard. They can get their ideas across with images, and, of course, they can engage other senses by collaborating with musicians, writers, and technologists. For over five decades Wesleyan has been developing the deepest resources available to young visual storytellers, students who will go on to make films of all genres, taking advantage of the latest platforms created by international mega studios and by the smallest of independent artists. Our graduates discover audiences for their stories in small, quiet arts spaces and in a grand international movie market eager for explosions, thrills, chills, and tears.
The film program at Wesleyan has served students so well for all these years thanks to its historic commitment to interdisciplinary studies. I have met countless alumni who still recall the mesmerizing film classes of English and American studies professor Joe Reed, a wizard of creative teaching. Joe’s colleague in American studies, Richard Slotkin, taught film studies classes as part of his lifelong study of American mythologies; his classes on the Western (for example) made an indelible impression on generations of Wesleyan students. Alongside these colleagues, Jeanine Basinger introduced undergraduates to the great masterpieces of American cinema, helping them understand both the core elements of visual storytelling and the genius that enabled some filmmakers to create works of lasting significance. As you’ll see throughout this issue of the magazine, she also led the effort to build one of the finest film studies programs in the country.
When I first started as president at Wesleyan, I wasn’t fully aware of our university’s leadership role in American film and television—until the head of Sony Pictures asked me how it happened that a small Connecticut school “controlled Hollywood.” At that time, Marc Shmuger ’80 was head of Universal Pictures, Rick Nicita ’67 was a senior partner at CAA, and Michael Bay ’86 and Brad Fuller ’87 were building their company Platinum Dunes into a powerhouse. My classmate and actor Dana Delany ’78 was wowing audiences, as was Bradley Whitford ’81. (And their careers just continue to grow more interesting.) Back in 2007, even I knew about Joss Whedon ’87, Hon. ’13 and his pathbreaking creation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and Joss has continued to make powerful films, from an adaptation of Shakespeare to The Avengers). Jenno Topping ’89 was already building her vibrant, adventurous production company, and there were countless writers, actors, agents, and others making contributions to American film and TV. Matthew Greenfield ’90 was (and is) a senior executive at Fox Searchlight, and Toby Emmerich ’85 is chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group. After graduating from Wesleyan in 1998, Eric Dachs started a company that developed the PIX system for enhancing collaboration among teams working on a movie and accepted an Oscar for technical achievement in 2019. When the crisis became acute at CBS this past year and they needed someone to find a new leader, who did the board turn to? Strauss Zelnick ’79 was charged with finding the new CEO.
Wesleyan alumni have shaped some of the most watched and celebrated films and television shows of our era: Mad Men, How I Met Your Mother, Will and Grace, and Game of Thrones were all written and/or created by Wesleyan graduates. There’s more, a lot more, and I’m sorry to have left off this list many, many important contributors. Please forgive me! Their goal isn’t to control Hollywood, but to make—and they are making—work that matters.
Wesleyan is enormously proud of its film program, and rightly so! And we have so much we still plan to accomplish. We need to create greater diversity in the ranks of those who get their work out or have the power to enable others to make their mark. We want new stories, new modes of storytelling—work that speaks across demographic groups and draws on the experiences of those often left out of mainstream media. This should happen through our new Wesleyan Documentary Project; through our partnerships with schools, agencies, and studios; and by empowering our students to use their understanding of film history to reach beyond preconceived borders to find powerful, new ways to tell their own stories.
There’s much to celebrate here with regards to film—and, going forward, much work to be done!