Feature of the Week

March 2, 2014 11:11 pm

Students and teachers drawn to the bright lights of film

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection/REX (719326a) Audrey Hepburn Audrey Hepburn outside Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, America - 1950s©Rex Features

Audrey Hepburn at Paramount Studios, Hollywood, in the 1950s

A glance at the bright lights and glamorous dresses at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony may give a sense that little has changed in the film industry since Joan Crawford and Susan Hayward were nominated in the first televised Oscars event in 1953. The film studios know different, however.

The popularity of 3D filming, cable and digital streaming, combined with globalisation and social media, has rendered the business of film almost unrecognisable from a decade ago. As the distribution model is disrupted and demand for Hollywood blockbusters outside the US overtakes that of the domestic market, a feast of opportunities has emerged, both for MBA students who want to work in the film industry and starry-eyed business school professors who want to teach the subject.

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One such enthusiast is Mark Young, professor of sports and entertainment business at the Marshall School at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, who over the past 12 years has turned his hobby into an MBA concentration in film, TV, music and games.

“You don’t know when you wake up in the morning what new technology is going to be in place,” he enthuses, which makes teaching about the film industry a different prospect from teaching in his other class – on cost accounting. Some of the material in the latter has been virtually the same for 20 years, he says. Not so with his class on the entertainment business. “I think when I teach this class in five years it will be very different.”

An entertaining role

With a background in technology consulting, Jihye Shin knew when she applied to business school that she wanted to work in the entertainment business on graduation. Indeed, so convinced was she that she only applied to two MBA programmes, both in southern California.

“I had this passion for entertainment and technology,” she says. Her confidence has paid off.

Even before she graduates from the Marshall school at the University of Southern California later this year, she has landed her plum job, in digital distribution at Paramount Pictures. Digital distribution is a “place where the business model hasn’t settled in”, she says. “It’s a place where there are a lot of opportunities.”

Ms Shin worked for Paramount as an intern at the end of the first year of her MBA. Now completing her second year, she is continuing to work for the company.

“USC is local so it has meant that I am able to do that.”

Ms Shin says that several high-ranking executives at Paramount are MBA graduates.

It is a sentiment echoed at Harvard Business School by Anita Elberse, a business administration professor who has made a name for herself writing cases about the likes of Lady Gaga and Jay-Z.

“I do have a sense that my cases have a shorter life [than traditional cases],” she says, citing research she published in 2007 about The Passion of the Christ, the film directed by Mel Gibson. “If you look at that case now, it looks very old.”

Many of the issues facing the film industry are bread and butter to business schools. For Sanjay Sood, associate professor of marketing at UCLA Anderson, brand management is central to the appeal of film. “Film companies . . . have to build a brand and get people to love it in a weekend. Where [MBA] students really can add value is in the online and social media aspects.”

In New York, Sam Craig, professor of entrepreneurship and arts and media management at NYU Stern, highlights the power shifts in the industry. “Control is passing from the firms to the consumer,” he says.

As a result the film industry’s attitude to business schools is changing. “The industry hadn’t really focused on recruiting MBAs for industry until recently,” says Prof Sood. “Before, they focused on people from creative backgrounds.”

This interest has been cemented by changes in film company hierarchy, adds Prof Elberse. “Studio heads used to be people who studied at law school. Looking at senior executives now, they went to business school and have an MBA.”

The success of companies and services such as Netflix, iTunes, YouTube and other start-ups mean interest in MBA classes in entertainment is thriving. Prof Young reports that a decade ago 20 people turned up for his seven-week course: “I now have two sections and a healthy waiting list. The students want to be all kinds of things: business managers, talent spotters, producers, legal contractors.”

The Anderson school has launched 10 courses in entertainment over the past five years. These often combine team teaching with a professor and an industry practitioner, says Prof Sood. “You get rigour and relevance at the same time. Because we are here in LA, it’s a location advantage.”

Business schools in New York also report growing interest. NYU Stern teaches more than 20 courses on film and other media while Columbia Business School has appointed Miklos Sarvary, a former Insead professor, as faculty lead on the media programme on the MBA. The programme was set up a decade ago but has been beefed up in the past 18 months and now comprises 16 courses. “A lot of students come to Columbia to work for media companies,” says Prof Sarvary.

The changes in the film industry coincide with MBA graduates’ increased interest in jobs beyond the stalwarts of consulting and investment banking, says Prof Elberse, who plans to teach a course for entertainment industry executives this year.

The variety of jobs available to graduating MBAs numbers is increasing as the industry evolves. At Marshall, graduates are scooping up jobs in analytics and big data, the convergence between media and technology and digital marketing.

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Between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of MBA graduates from Marshall and the Anderson school go into the entertainment business, but additionally MBAs who head for finance and consulting jobs in California often deal exclusively with entertainment issues.

Prof Elberse is confident that MBA graduates will become increasingly significant as traditional technology companies move into media. “That notion of Silicon Valley coming closer to Hollywood will help MBAs find roles,” she says. “The production of content – the art of storytelling, which is what Hollywood has traditionally done – is being done by more and more companies.”

However, securing a job in the film industry, even with an MBA, may not be easy and is heavily dependent on networking. “If you look at media companies recruiting, their behaviour is not like investment banks or consulting,” says Prof Sarvary. “The students have to spend a bit more time organising recruitment.”

The situation may be more complex for students and professors, but few would change it. “It [the film industry] used to be much simpler to teach,” says Prof Craig, “but not so much fun.”

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