Booker T. Mattison writes and directs “The Sound of Christmas”

Booker T. Mattison has been focused on “The Sound of Christmas” not just during the holiday season, but all year long.

Mattison, an assistant professor in the Department of Entertainment and Media Studies at Grady College, was tapped to write and direct “The Sound of Christmas,” a holiday film debuting on the streaming service BET+ on Nov. 24, Thanksgiving Day. It stars Grammy-winning recording artist Ne-Yo and Serayah (“Empire”) in a story about a widower who falls in love with a music teacher who brings love and music back to the family during the holidays.

The musical is based on the novel, “The Replacement Wife,” by Tiffany L. Warren, who is a friend of Mattison’s. She recommended Mattison to write and direct.

“It’s a good example of what I tell my students…relationship capital is more valuable than any currency,” Mattison said.

Mattison spent 12 days in March filming the movie, but that is only a fraction of the time spent on the project. Countless hours were spent researching concepts for the film, studying music cues, and script analysis.

“Script analysis is remarkably important,” Mattison, who was screenwriter and director for the film adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s story “The Gilded Six Bits,” on Showtime, said. “It’s part of your world building but also part of characterization. It’s how you get depth and dimensionality and is so incredibly important.”

The original songs for the film were recorded in Atlanta’s Einnor studios the day before principal photography began.

While Mattison appreciated the challenge working with Ne-Yo and the rest of the cast, this was his first time writing and directing a musical.

“Most of my movies [are dramas and] tend to be dark,” Mattison admits, “but, the most important thing to me is that it is a good story, which this is.”

Mattison teaches classes in directing, screenwriting and the production capstone course at Grady, and brings lessons he learned on set into the classroom.

“Everything I do professionally on set is a potential learning tool. The most important lesson I can teach my students is creating fail safes that will help them prepare to deviate when changes come,” Mattison said.

“The reward for me is if this becomes a movie that everyone looks forward to during the Christmas season and that people sing the songs after watching the movie,” Mattison said.

Mattison has recently committed to his next project— writing and directing the Tubi-original film, “Twisted Marriage Therapist” (working title), a psychological feature-length thriller for MarVista Entertainment to stream on Tubi.

View the trailer for The Sound of Christmas above.

UGA MFA Film program gains momentum in year three

Like any good script, the plot of the UGA MFA Film program is continuously adding developments and enriching its story.

The Master of Fine Arts in Film, Television and Digital Media is accepting applications for its fourth cohort with some exciting plot developments including a partnership with the new Athena Studios, less than five miles from the UGA campus; growth of the Distinguished Industry Mentor program that includes professionals like Chuck Hayward (“WandaVision”), Davita Scarlett (“The Good Fight”) and Damon Lindelof (“Watchmen”); and the ongoing partnership with Georgia Film Academy at the program’s second-year homebase, Trilith Studios.

January 15, 2023 is the deadline to apply for the Fall 2023 MFA Film cohort, educating students in skills to become above-the line writers, directors and producers in Georgia’s burgeoning film industry. The UGA MFA program remains rich in resources and one of the most affordable of its kind.

“We are on the cusp of our program blossoming into a world-class film school, blazing a trail with our exceptionally dedicated faculty, customized curriculum, and setting up the infrastructure to operate our program on a studio pipeline model,” said Neil Landau, executive director for the UGA MFA Film program.

Landau, an award-winning screenwriter, creative producer, author, and professor, was named executive director of the program in September, but has been directing its screenwriting classes since the inaugural classes in 2020.

Landau continued: “From development to green light, we’re ready to serve the needs of uniquely talented, diverse, emerging filmmakers and storytellers not only from the South, but also from the greater U.S. and around the world.”

Athena Studios

Joel Harber (third from left) cuts the ribbon at the new space at Athena Studios dedicated to use by EMST and MFA Film students for five years. The studios will help students forge a “path to create and work in Athens and Georgia,” Harber said.

The MFA Film program is rich in studio space and technology resources, including the new addition of a learning center and studio space at Athena Studios in Athens. The MFA’s two-year curriculum also allows students to take advantage of renovated studio space and state-of-the-art camera equipment at Grady College during the first year of the program, and Georgia Film Academy space at Trilith Studios during the second year.

“When we designed our state-of-the-art production space, it was important to include a dedicated soundstage to educate and train the next generation of TV and film production professionals,” said Joel Harber, CEO of Athena Studios. “Studio space minutes from UGA’s campus is a powerful combination that will help power the Georgia film industry’s pool of talent and resources in the years to come.”

Ribbon cutting ceremonies for the 14,600-square-foot student studio space were held Nov. 4, 2022. Undergraduate and MFA Film production classes will begin there in January. Additionally, the Athena Studios space includes offices, room to build multiple sets and a learning center to conduct classes.

Athena Studios is a massive complex currently committed to build 350,000 square feet of space to serve what is now a $4.4 billion film industry in Georgia, according to latest reports from the Georgia Film Industry. The first phase of nearly 200,000 square feet of studio space will be complete by January.

Distinguished Industry Mentors

Also key to the UGA MFA Film program is the impressive roster of industry professionals connected through the Distinguished Industry Mentor experience, including Chuck Hayward who will serve as the program’s artist-in-residence in Spring 2023.

The Distinguished Industry Mentor program enlists more than 40 of the industry’s most prominent screenwriters, directors, and TV showrunners — including David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”), Allison Liddi-Brown (“Friday Night Lights”), and Peabody Award-winner Steven Canals (“Pose”) — to share their expertise with students via master classes, mentoring sessions, and networking.

Hayward is a screenwriter and producer earning two Emmy nominations for “WandaVision” and “Ted Lasso.” Hayward is currently writer-producer on “Life and Beth” starring Amy Schumer. As an artist-in-residence, Hayward will lend his insights and expertise to the MFA students, as well as providing personalized mentorship. Hayward was introduced to the program by Landau, and went on to mentor recent MFA Film graduate Kelvin Summerhill (MFA ’22) providing direction and generous funding for Summerhill’s thesis project.

UGA MFA program

The UGA MFA program taps into faculty members experienced in the industry of film production from Grady College of Journalism Mass Communication and Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Landau describes the MFA Film program as interdisciplinary, providing students with the opportunity to find and hone their unique voices as visual storytellers. They not only write original, feature-length screenplays and TV pilots, but also direct at least three short films. Landau continues, “We’re training them to be hyphenates in the industry; whether that’s as writer/director or writer/producer, we’re preparing them to be innovators and trailblazers.”

The intensive program is designed so that the first year is spent on UGA’s campus in Athens, Georgia, taking core classes and learning production basics including writing, storytelling and filming, among many other skills. The students produce their first film in the Fall semester, telling a story in roughly four minutes, using only natural sound or music and no dialogue, and their second short film (8 minutes, incorporating lighting and sync sound) in the Spring semester.

The second year is devoted to students completing their thesis film projects while residing in the town of Trilith, located next to the studios where Marvel movies are filmed. Classes are conducted in a custom-built suite featuring theater-quality A/V projection and sound system, editing bays and collaboration space. Studio space for additional training and productions is available across the street through another MFA program partner, the Georgia Film Academy.

The MFA Film program will host a virtual open house on Tuesday, Dec. 6 from 7 to 8 p.m. EST.
Register for the virtual Open House here.


Alumnus brings documentary film to Tate Theatre

Michael Peroff (left) and co-writer Hal Rifken (right) shoot b-roll for film
Michael Peroff (left) and co-writer Hal Rifken (right) shoot b-roll for film. (Photo: Michael Peroff)

“Behind the Strings,” a Shanghai Quartet documentary film, will premiere at the University of Georgia’s Tate Theatre on Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m. 

The Tate Theatre screening will be free for all attendees and be followed by a live video conference Q&A with Grady College alumnus Michael Peroff (ABJ ‘67), who produced, executive produced and co-wrote the film, and members of the quartet. 

“Behind the Strings” dives into the lives of the members of the globally successful Shanghai Quartet. It follows them on their rise to the top and shows what it takes to stay there. It also reveals why China keeps inviting them back to play their once forbidden music. 

“The story is about how a successful quartet achieved success and what it takes,” said Peroff. “It is about the life they lead, how they became successful and the price they pay.”

The story takes viewers back to the time of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Four young musicians fled to the West, as classical music was banned in China. Isolated and dejected, the musicians overcame the language and cultural barriers against them to become one of the preeminent string quartets in the United States. 

The quartet studied with masters, attended Juilliard and began performing at major music festivals and well-regarded classical music venues, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and The Kennedy Center. Along the way, the original cellist decided to leave, and the quartet brought on a highly praised, young graduate student from Spanish Harlem with a “New York attitude.”

Rifken shoots video of the Shanghai Quartet.
Rifken shoots video of the Shanghai Quartet. (Photo: Michael Peroff)

The pressures of their immense success, spending 180 days each year on the road, and their teaching responsibilities created a host of new challenges. The quartet persisted, though, and has played a major role in helping Western classical music gain new acceptance in China, where they now regularly sell out shows.

The film, which originally debuted in 2020, has won and been considered for numerous awards, including being named “Best Documentary Film” at the Jarvis Classical Arts Film Festival and being nominated as “Best of Festival” at the Richmond International Film Festival.

“Beyond the Strings” is being brought to campus by the Center for Asian Studies, Department of Entertainment & Media Studies, Department of History, Department of Theatre and Film Studies and the Hugh Hodgson School of Music.

Grady professors explore niche topics through first-year odyssey seminars

Eleven Grady College professors are teaching first-year odyssey seminars this semester. The goal of these seminars are to provide first-year students with the opportunity to engage with faculty members and other first-year students in a small classroom setting.

Professors chose a topic of their interest and craft a course tailored to first-year students. Courses span across all departments, and topics this fall range from telenovelas to film festivals to fake news.

Dean Krugman, Booker T. Mattison and Ivanka Pjesivac share their experience teaching first-year seminars this fall.

Developing a Perspective on the Changing Media Landscape

Dean Krugman is a professor emeritus in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. Prior to his official retirement in 2011, he taught courses in advertising management and advertising and society to undergraduates, as well as a graduate course in advertising management and communication theory.

Professor Dean Krugman meets with students in his first-year odyssey seminar on the first day of class. Krugman has previously taught courses on changing media, but this is the first time he is teaching the course to first-year students. (Photo/Jackson Schroeder)

Krugman held positions including department head and senior associate dean, “but nothing was as rewarding as teaching and doing research,” he said.

This year, he has returned to Grady College to teach a first-year odyssey seminar in changing media.

“This presented a great opportunity to come back and get in touch with students. It’s been really, really enjoyable,” he said.

His course on changing media is designed for students to understand how they consume media.

“The idea is for the students to build an intelligent and critical perspective of the media they’re using,” Krugman said.

Krugman says the classroom has always energized him, but that it’s been great to see how enthusiastic his students have been about sharing their views and receiving feedback. During the second week of class, students were assigned with writing a critique. Krugman said when he walked into class that day and asked if anyone wanted to share their critique, all 17 hands went up.

Krugman says the most rewarding part of teaching the course so far has been watching students grasp concepts, build on those concepts, and use those concepts in their work.

He says the first-year odyssey program is an enriching experience for students, and he credits UGA’s central administration for holding onto and championing this program.

The Short Film – A Lens of the Human Experience

Professor Booker T. Mattison’s course on short films uses films as both a genre and as an opportunity to examine humanity.

As a working writer and director, Mattison says “it’s nice to share with students not just what they learn in the textbook, but what’s happening in real time in the industry.”

Each week, Mattison screens a different short film – four of which he directed.

Booker T. Mattison sits and teaches in front of students
Mattison says his favorite part about teaching the first-year odyssey seminar is meeting first-year students. (Photo/Jackson Schroeder)

Students then write a response in class.

Mattison says it’s important for students to respond in real time so that other students do not influence their opinions. He says he hopes by doing it this way, discussions in his course are unvarnished.

For the final assignment, Mattison’s students will choose one of the films they’ve reviewed this semester and write an analysis.

He hopes the main takeaway for students in this course is that they will be able to look at visual media more critically, see themselves in visual media, and use that knowledge to better interact with others.

“The unique thing about film is that 100% of students on this campus watch movies,” he says. “The opportunity to then talk to a filmmaker and ask questions is pretty unique.” 

Fake News, Misinformation and Propaganda: How to Deal with Information Disorder

Dr. Ivanka Pjesivac’s course covers topics of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda in the digital world. Pjesivac’s course begins with an explanation of misinformation, and then delves into a historical perspective of misinformation.

Pjesivac says it’s important to teach this to first-year students, who are more vulnerable to misinformation.

“I think it’s important for young people to get digital media literacy skills as soon as they can,” she says. “It’s especially important for first-year students to be familiarized with some of the characteristics of misinformation, and how to distinguish true information from false information.” 

She says it’s important to expose first-year students to the research potential at UGA. In addition to lectures, she takes her students to the special collections library to view first-hand propaganda material, and takes the class to visit some of the research labs in Grady.

Pjesivac says it’s exciting to see an interest in news and misinformation among her students, many of whom are not pre-journalism or pre-Grady students.

“I see that there is a general interest among a variety of young people to learn about our current digital media ecosystem and how to navigate it,” she says.

By the end of the course, she hopes her students will have the tools to identify suspicious information and justify their skepticism.

Pjesivac says the most rewarding part of teaching this seminar is being able to apply her research to a class setting, and to expand the knowledge at Grady College to other majors.


Editor’s Note: Comments trimmed for length and clarity.


#ProfilesofTenacity: Xander Chiaramonte

Third year Xander Chiaramonte says tenacity is all about persistence. The entertainment and media studies major co-founded Clear Mountain Entertainment, LLC. with his brother, which he also serves as the chief creative officer.

Why did you choose your major?

Since I was very little, my younger sisters and I would create all sorts of short content on iMovie or take photos of flowers for hours. I feel that in a lot of ways, and because of the internet, digital media and our generation matured in extremely congruent years. This constantly emerging digital medium always captivated me, and the more I explored, the more enthralled I became. This curiosity led me into photography and videography as means of expression, philanthropy, and value I could provide to my community. 

What is your most memorable Grady experience?

I think my most memorable Grady experience has to be my first day of “Production Basics.” It was the first time I was able to work on tangible production work in an academic setting, whereas I would always seek those experiences outside of school throughout high school. Finally getting to experiment with this type of work in school with Professor Biddle and my equally excited classmates is so refreshing. 

Who is your favorite Grady professor and why?

Professor Fortmueller provided me with an invaluable perspective into the landscape of the film and television industries, which allowed me to form a better understanding of where I wanted to fit in within that landscape. Professor Fortmueller is a fantastic and approachable resource for me to discuss my ideas and to learn about topics that I am excited about outside of class, especially Ciné! 

What does tenacity mean to you?
Xander films with a 360-degree camera at Classic City Jam. (Photo:submitted)

Tenacity, to me, is synonymous with persistence. Many people are smart, talented, or driven, but in the face of adversity or true challenge, none of that will ever matter. It is persistence and persistence alone that drives individuals through those experiences. 

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

The best advice I have received regularly is that “everything changes.” My mother always reminds me of this and grounds me in the reality that in life, just like in nature, everything is in a constant state of change. This advice has always helped me to not get hung up on the little things and keep on moving. 

Xander with his mom, holding up a Classic City Jam poster
Xander says his biggest accomplishment in the past year was organizing the Classic City Jam event he organized. Here he is pictued (middle) with his mom and Grady student James Hawran (right). (Photo:submitted)
What has been your biggest accomplishment in the past year?

My brother and I formed Clear Mountain Entertainment, LLC in 2021. In this past year, the biggest accomplishment has to be holding a day-long festival called “Classic City Jam” in downtown Athens. The reception from the Athens community and UGA students was unbelievable and has allowed us to begin working on much larger events and productions than we expected to produce at this point in our business.

What do you plan to do after graduation?

After graduation, I plan to pursue an MFA in film and television production and continue to work on Clear Mountain Entertainment in Athens and Atlanta. I hope to work on productions in the Atlanta film market and continue learning and connecting with driven individuals in the industry. 

What is an example of a time you used your skills in a real-world experience?

Almost everything I work on outside of school has been centered around these digital media skills, both within Clear Mountain Entertainment and Xander Chiaramonte Media ( Through these two endeavors and constantly testing myself into different software programs, technical roles, and ideation has allowed me to constantly surprise myself as to what I (and anyone) can do simply with a computer or camera. 

Where is your go-to restaurant in Athens?

Chuck’s Fish on Broad. Some uptown chicken and a sushi roll or two from Chuck’s can change your whole life.

Keith Wilson to premiere new film ‘I Didn’t See You There’ at Ciné

I Didn’t See You There,” a new film produced by Keith Wilson, a lecturer in Grady College’s Department of Entertainment and Media Studies (EMST), will make its Georgia premiere at Ciné on Wednesday, Oct. 19. The screening is one of two upcoming local events involving Wilson.

The film, which had its theatrical opening at the Firehouse Cinema in New York City on Sept. 30, won the Directing Award for U.S. Documentary at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It follows a disabled filmmaker who launches into an unflinching meditation on spectacle, (in)visibility and the corrosive legacy of the Freak Show, after a circus tent goes up outside of his Oakland apartment. 

“About three years ago, I saw some early footage the director had shot for the film, and it quite literally changed the way in which I moved through the world,” said Wilson, a director, creative producer and visual artist. “In 76 cinematic minutes, it manages to convey joy, anger, criticality, messiness and perfection while presenting a perspective that is new to most audiences. I’m grateful to Grady and the EMST Department — particularly Kate Fortmueller and Jay Hamilton — for making it possible to bring ‘I Didn’t See You There’ to Athens.”

Ciné Athens is located at 234 West Hancock Avenue. The screening is at 8 p.m.

Performative Lecture: Gangway

On Wednesday, Oct. 12, one week prior to the the screening of “I Didn’t See You There,” Wilson will be presenting a live documentary performance about a 106-year-old San Francisco gay bar called The Gangway. The event will happen at The Athenaeum. 

Before its closure in 2018, The Gangway was the site of police raids, community organizing, early HIV-AIDS activism and general joy-making. Combining archival material, 3D models and performance, this immersive piece explores new models for experiencing lost places and the creation of future narratives. 

“I am thrilled to present the Gangway in Athens at the Athenaeum, which is such an exciting, new venue for contemporary art in the Southeast,” said Wilson. “The live documentary piece not only introduces viewers to an important piece of queer history, it also questions the notion of what a film, a lecture, a performance is or isn’t.”

The Athenaeum is located at 287 West Broad Street. The event is at 6 p.m.

#ProfilesOfTenacity: Aleesa de Castro

A division one athlete, fourth year entertainment and media studies major Aleesa de Castro says tenacity is all about persistence and resilience. Aleesa and her sister Cate share a passion for film, and together they founded de Castro productions and organized the first ever Backlight Student Film Festival this past spring. Aleesa serves as the vice president of The Industry, is a videographer for Strike Magazine, and she is currently interning for the Producers Guild of America.

Why did you choose your major?

I enrolled into the University of Georgia as a biology major, but I’ve had a strong love and passion for film all my life. As a freshman, I was looking to get more involved on campus and stumbled upon the entertainment media industries club, better known as The Industry. I began to meet others who shared my passion. Many of them were entertainment and media studies students who were looking to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. I was truly inspired by my peers. Watching them follow their dreams assured me that this too was a career path I could follow. I changed my major and began cultivating my career in the industry.

What is your most memorable Grady experience?

This past summer, I attended the Cannes Film Festival study away program. All in all, there is no other way to describe this trip than a dream. As an aspiring film producer, there was no better fit than the Cannes Film Festival. For the two weeks of the festival, my classmates and I were at the global epicenter of the film industry. We were meeting filmmakers and buyers from all over the world. We were able to grow our networks and open our eyes to a variety of careers that exist in the entertainment landscape. It was magical. Every day consisted of screening international films, attending press junkets, dressing up for red carpets, meeting talent and industry professionals, trying different French foods, and exploring the French Rivera. I look back at this experience and it almost doesn’t even feel real.

aleesa wearing uga jersey mid-run
Outside of her involvement at Grady College, Aleesa is a division one athlete, and runs both cross country and track and field. (Photo:submitted)
What does tenacity mean to you?

Tenacity is all about persistence and resilience. As a division one athlete, this is something that has been instilled in me; however, I also feel there is a component of giving back and looking out for others. Someone who is truly tenacious is also focused on uplifting their teammates and those around them.

Who is your professional hero?

Fred Rogers is someone I really admire. He had a profound effect on television and media in general. He touched the lives of millions and his messages continue to resonate with me. In his commencement speech at Dartmouth he said, “You never have to do anything extraordinary to be special.” This is something I think about often. It reminds that what is important in life is loving, acknowledging and recognizing those who have loved you and supported you, and sharing this same love with others in your life.

The Industry holds a meeting in the PAF
Aleesa serves as the vice president of The Industry, an entertainment and media studies club. (Photo:submitted)
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

I’m involved with The Georgia Way, an organization that helps athletes develop their leadership skills both in sports and life in general. A great piece of advice they shared with me is that leadership is all about energy. The energy you bring onto the track, on a film set, in a meeting, and so on has the ability to uplift those around you or bring them down. I believe a strong leader believes and invests in their team.

What are you passionate about?

Spending quality time with my cat and dog. Shoutout Luke and Bobbi.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

Something most people don’t know about me is that I am an identical twin. My sister is a superstar finance and entertainment and media studies major, and also my best friend. We share our love for film together and hope to eventually become producing partners. We have even founded our own production company in Athens and are currently producing a feature film!

twin sisters pose on red carpet
Aleesa (right) and her twin sister Cate organized the first Backlight Student Film Festival, which took place in April of 2022.  (Photo:submitted)
What has been your biggest accomplishment in the past year?

My proudest accomplishment this year was co-founding the Backlight Student Film Festival. It started out simply as an idea to unite and showcase filmmakers’ work, but it quickly grew into so much more. It truly took a village to make this all happen, and it was so rewarding to see so many Grady and UGA students working together to celebrate one another.

twin sisters pose on red carpet
Aleesa is currently interning for the Producers Guild of America. (Photo:submitted)
What do you plan to do after graduation?

The one thing I know for certain after graduation is that I will return to the Cannes Film Festival. For the two weeks of the festival, I aim to work with either an agency or production company before returning to the United States. After that, my future is less certain. I will then either make the move across the country to Los Angeles to work for a studio or agency, or I will continue to grow my network here in Atlanta by working on film sets and developing content. Either way, I am certain Grady College has prepared me for my future career as a film producer.

Where’s your favorite place on campus and why?

One of my favorite places to meet on campus is the new MFA room located on the first floor of Grady, or the “the fishbowl” as we like to call it. The fishbowl is where I run into all my peers before class. We catch up, share what we are watching, what we are working on and so on. It lightens my day seeing them all and demonstrates what a supportive community the EMST program is.

Neil Landau named executive director of MFA Film Program

Neil Landau (MFA ’18), an award-winning screenwriter, creative producer, author, and educator has been named Executive Director of the University of Georgia Master of Fine Arts in Film, Television and Digital Media.

“Professor Landau brings a vast amount of experience not only in the film industry, but in the MFA space, as well,” said Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College of Mass Communication and Journalism, which co-sponsors the MFA Film program along with Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “He’s been an amazing addition to the Entertainment & Media Studies department, and he has vision and energy commensurate to the task. Our MFA program in Film, TV and Digital Media truly is one-of-a-kind, and he’s the leader it needs.”

Landau addresses the third cohort of the MFA Film, Television and Digital Media program during orientation at Grady College on Aug. 12, 2022. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

Prior to assuming the Executive Director title, Landau served as Director of UGA’s screenwriting curriculum, where he created the Distinguished Industry Mentor program. The Distinguished Industry Mentor program enlists some of the industry’s most prominent screenwriters, directors, and TV showrunners — including David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”), Allison Liddi-Brown (“Friday Night Lights”), and Peabody Award-winner Steven Canals (“Pose”) — to share their expertise with students via master classes, mentoring sessions, and networking.

Of his new role, Landau says “I’m genuinely excited to be part of building and leading our MFA film, television, and digital media program, based on a production company/active studio model, to meet the rapidly expanding Georgia film and TV production ecosystem.”

Landau describes the MFA Film program as interdisciplinary, providing students with the opportunity to find and hone their unique voices as visual storytellers. They not only write original, feature-length screenplays and TV pilots, but also direct at least three short films. Landau continues, “We’re training them to be hyphenates in the Industry; whether that’s as writer/director or writer/producer, we’re preparing them to be innovators and trailblazers.”

“Neil Landau is instrumental to this program and for its success going forward,” said Nalani Dowling (MFA ’22), a recent graduate. “He makes each student feel like he really cares about our success and genuinely wants to understand our work and where we are coming from.”

Mr. Landau is a graduate of the UGA Narrative Nonfiction Media Writing program in Screenwriting and brings years of academic experience to the job, including more than two decades as a screenwriting instructor at University of California, Los Angeles School of Theater, Film & Television, and several years as Assistant Dean of Special Projects and co-Director of the UCLA MFA Screenwriting program.  He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Film/Television from UCLA.

As a screenwriter, his credits include feature films “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” and the global animated blockbuster “The Adventures of Tadeo Jones” (for which he won a Spanish Academy “Goya” Award), and the television series “Melrose Place,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.” Upcoming projects include the worldwide release of the animated feature film “Mummies” from Warner Bros. in late February, and “Little Big Boy,” an animated western, currently in production. His latest original, live-action screenplay, “Flinch,” is currently being produced by Teri Schwartz (“Sister Act,” “Beaches”), in partnership with WME Independent.

Landau is also author of six books including the 2022 second edition of “The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap: Creating Great Television in an On Demand World,” featuring interviews with 19 of the most respected showrunners in television, such as Issa Rae of “Insecure,” Chris Mundy of “Ozark,” Sam Levisnon of “Euphoria,” and Jesse Armstrong of “Succession.”

The MFA Film program is a two-year intensive program teaching students directing, screenwriting, producing and other skills needed for creative careers in Georgia’s film industry, which brought $4.4 billion to the state in fiscal year 2022.

Jeff Springston, who previously directed the MFA Film, Television and Digital Media program, continues directing the MFA Narrative Media Writing program.

Photo of MFA graduate with MFA faculty members
Landau (second from left) poses for a picture with MFA Film graduate Nalani Dowling (MFA ’22) and MFA Film faculty members Sanghoon Lee and Shandra McDonald after graduation ceremonies at Studio A of Georgia Film Academy on Aug. 13, 2022. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)


40 Under 40 honorees visit Grady College

five 40 U 40 honorees and Darby Taylor in PAF for 40 U 40 panel
Darby Taylor moderated “A Message to my Younger Self” panel. (Photo:Jackson Schroeder)

Five Grady College graduates named to the UGA Alumni Association’s 40 Under 40 class attended the “A Message to my Younger Self” panel on Friday, Sept. 9, offering insight to current students about their paths to success.

Emily Curl (ABJ ’14), Lauren Culbertson Grieco (ABJ ’09), Chad Mumm (ABJ ’08), Kevin Schatell (ABJ ’16) and Michael Waldron (ABJ ’10) attended. Christie Johnson (ABJ ’07) was not able to attend the panel.

Dean Davis welcomed the alumni and students, saying the honorees exhibit “the leadership of this college and the careers that people launch from this college.”

Darby Taylor, a fourth year entertainment and media studies student and Grady Ambassador, moderated. The following are highlights of questions from Taylor and attending students, along with select responses from honorees.

What is one piece of advice you would tell your younger self about breaking into various areas of the industry?

Mumm: “Don’t be afraid to just go out and do it. Pick up a camera or write a screenplay. Use your early part of your career to make those mistakes. I think my biggest mistake probably was I felt like I had to do it all myself. When I moved to New York, I wanted to do it all on my own and I didn’t ask for help, but I wish I would have.”

Emily Curl smiles at Kevin Schatell
Emily Curl and Kevin Schatell have remained best friends after working together at the UGA Visitors Center as undergraduates. (Photo:Jackson Schroeder)

Grieco: “I completely agree with asking for help. If you want to work in the field of politics, the beginnings can be pretty brutal, but they’re totally fun and worth it. I worked on a campaign, but another option would be to get an internship or entry-level role on Capitol Hill.”

Curl: “I think what I would tell myself looking back is just take your time and don’t worry so much. I think it takes a long time to find your voice and to find out what you want to say and what you want to put out into the world.”

Schatell: “One of the best pieces of advice I got working in my first job was ‘You have nothing to prove, only to share.’ This has stuck with me, and it reminds me that your worth is not in what other people think of you, you just have skills and experiences to share. Something else I wish I would have developed early on is the art of asking good questions. As a producer, it’s all about asking the right questions and being genuinely curious.”

Waldron: “When working on projects, it’s easy to have a creative idea. But, to actually start something and to see it all the way through is where the brilliance in any creative work comes from. I think the earlier in your careers, if you can learn the value of just finishing things, that’s hugely important. The other thing is to know what you want to do and tell people that. Even when I was changing toilet seats, I made sure that everybody at ‘Rick and Morty’ knew I wanted to be a writer. Don’t be afraid to call your shots.”

All of you made a big geographic move after graduation. What tips do you have for students who want to move to big cities such as New York or L.A. after graduating?

Waldron: “Spending time here in Athens is amazing, but by moving away, you will grow as a person in ways you simply can’t imagine. Just getting out to another part of the country and other parts of the world is the best thing you can do.”

Grieco: “You will grow so much by getting different experiences. Travel has been one of those things I’ve done in my personal life that has made such an impact on my professional life. It really not only changes your perspective, but it also helps you reflect on who you are as a person and what you value. It gives you a completely a new new lens on life and the work that you do.”

What is the best way to reach out to alumni and build a connection with them?

Mumm: “With Dean Davis and all that the college has done, they’ve created so many opportunities here such as the mentorship program and Grady LA. When it comes to making connections, just ask for that intro. I get a lot of emails and introductions, and sometimes I miss it the first time around. Don’t hesitate to follow up. If someone is nice enough to connect you to someone else and they don’t respond right away, don’t be afraid to send a follow up note checking back in.”

Grieco: “Ask your professors. I’ve met so many people through Karen Russell and the dean.”

Waldron: “Never feel bad about following up again…I think anyone who went to Georgia, and especially those who are working in similar industries as us would be more than happy to talk to students.”

When you first started, what was your first major setback and how did you overcome it?

Schatell: “Moving to New York, although was the fulfillment of a dream of mine, was also pretty difficult. There was a season, especially toward the beginning, when I was slammed with anxiety. I’m not talking about the butterflies in your stomach because you’re excited kind of anxiety, but actual anxiety. I had to navigate learning to understand what was happening to my body when I had a panic attack, what was triggering it, and getting the help to fix that.”

Curl: “To quote my queen Kacey Musgraves, ‘You can’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but why would you want to be?’ I like that quote because when you’re in a public facing job, there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t get it – but there’s going to be someone who does, and there’s an audience for everyone. Keep perfecting your craft. People are going to tell you no, but you have to believe in yourself.”

Chad Mumm speaks at a Grady College panel
Mumm explains how he overcame the setbacks he experienced when moving to New York after graduation (Photo:Ashley Balsavias)

Waldron: “I wrote a spec episode for the show ‘Workaholics’, which I thought was super funny. It turns out that someone I knew happened to know the editor for the show, and I asked them to pass along my script to them. I then anxiously awaited the life-changing call saying ‘This the best script we’ve ever read, we’d like to bring you on, etc.’ But, I got an email back about two weeks later that was so scathing. I think the first sentence was ‘I don’t even know what to say,’ and it just got more punishing from there. The truth is, in any creative work, you fail 99 times a day, but you just got to get it right once. One good idea makes for a successful day. That was my first brush with serious rejection, and then I realized that it doesn’t kill you, it doesn’t really have any reflection on who you are as a person. Then you get up and you write a better script that isn’t a spec of ‘Workaholics’ and keep going.”

Mumm: “When I first moved to New York, it was at the height of the financial crisis. I was frustrated that I couldn’t get a job immediately. I was thinking that I would just walk into the city and immediately be on the 51st floor at NBCU. I remember walking around with resumes that I printed out bought very expensive paper for (because I thought that was going to matter), and I was going to HBO offices and NBCU, handing the security guards my resume. That didn’t work out of course, so I ended up taking a job for a commercial director who needed someone to change the toilets and clean the place…I get asked a lot by students what my goals are, and I honestly don’t have goals, I just have a direction. I just think, ‘Am I going north still?’ To me, that means pick your direction and stay at it. I think that kind of perseverance will take you super far. You just have to keep grinding and sticking with the things you believe in, and great things will happen.”

What was a moment in your career where you felt that you had “made it’?
Lauren Culbertson Greico speaks at the panel
One of Lauren Culbertson Greico’s defining moments in her career was arranging an interview between former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and former president Trump. (Photo:Ashley Balsavias)

Schatell: “For me, it was Dec. 8 of  2017. It was the day I arrived at work and Ed Sheeran was there, but so was Zac Efron. That was truly a milestone for me. I emcee the experience on our plaza every day, and every single one of the hundreds of people in that crowd knew how excited I was to meet that guy. It was one of those major ‘pinch me’ moments in my career. Whatever the ultimate dream is, it will happen, and your Dec. 8 of 2017 will come too.”

Grieco: “My ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’ moment was when I staffed a meeting at the White House between our former CEO Jack Dorsey and former president Trump. I just sat there and I was like, ‘This is the most surreal moment of my life. How did Lauren from Marietta, Georgia, get here?'”

Mumm: “I don’t honestly have a moment that I could pinpoint as ‘the thing’. I like to use a stair analogy a lot. Sometimes you’re on the stairs, sometimes you’re on a landing, and you’ve just got to find more stairs. I like to think about it as one foot after the other.”

Curl: My ultimate dream was to work for E! News. I ended up auditioning for them and made it to the final rounds until I got a call from them saying they were going to go in a different direction. That was crushing, but looking back, I’m so glad I am where I am now and it all worked out. When I got the call from iHeartRadio, I got full body chills and started screaming. Something about that moment solidified it for me, where it was like, ‘Okay, I’m officially a host. I don’t have to pretend that this is a dream anymore. I’m actually doing it.’ All that is to say keep your options open – obviously have those goals and those dreams – but it’s okay to allow yourself the space that if those goals and dreams change, that’s going to be for the best for you too.

Thank you to our alumni for taking the time to offer students advice.

Editor’s Note: Please visit the Grady College YouTube page to view a video of the entire 40 under 40 panel discussion. Please visit the UGAGrady Flickr page to view pictures of the 40 under 40 panel.


  • Kevin Schatell and Emily Curl take a photo with Dean Davis. (Photo:Jackson Schroeder)


40 Under 40 honoree profile: Kevin Schatell

schatell sits at a table inside studio 1a of the TODAY show with CEO Jeff Shell
Schatell interviews Jeff Shell, CEO of NBCUniversal, inside studio 1A where TODAY  is anchored. (Photo:submitted)

We are proud to recognize Kevin Schatell (ABJ ’16) as an honoree of the UGA Alumni Association’s 40 under 40 class.

Schatell is an Emmy-winning producer for NBC’s TODAY show. He began his career by participating in the NBCUniversal Page program, working with assignments for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live, WNBC’s Creative Services and NBCU’s Talent Development. Following this program, Schatell joined TODAY as an associate producer, and was promoted to a producer in 2021.

Schatell won his first Emmy in 2020, and has received multiple Going the Extra Mile (GEM) Awards at NBC for going and above and beyond on company projects.

We are pleased to highlight Schatell in his own words.

four people stand in front of Macy's in downtown New York City
Schatell with TODAY hosts Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2021. (Photo:submitted)
What experience during your time at Grady College had the biggest influence on where you are today?

Serving as a Grady Ambassador changed my college experience. Once I joined that team, Grady transformed from an academic institution into a home. Dean Davis and his family welcomed the Grady Ambassadors over to their home for dinners each semester, which made me feel seen and valued as a student. That experience also connected me to Ben Mayer, a fellow Grady grad who became a mentor. Now, we’re both at NBC News – I’m a producer at TODAY, and Ben is a senior broadcast producer at NBC Nightly News. How wild that we both work together at 30 Rock? Relationships like that were made possible thanks to the Grady Ambassador program.

What would you tell your 20-year-old self?

I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self these words of wisdom that a friend shared when I moved to New York City: “You have nothing to prove, only to share.” I think about that phrase whenever I get overwhelmed or anxious – in an interview, a stressful assignment, etc. “You have nothing to prove…” (Your worth is not determined by what other people think of you.) “…only to share.” (You simply have gifts, talents, experiences to share with the world.) So take the pressure off of yourself! It would’ve been encouraging to hear that earlier in my journey, and I hope that helps anyone reading this now.

What accomplishment or moment in your career are you most proud of?
Schatell, in a star sweater, moves his hands as he speaks at Grady College
Schatell is always willing to share advice to current students, whether over a Zoom conversation with a club, or stopping by campus for a short chat as he did in February 2022. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

I recently had the privilege of sitting down with our NBCUniversal CEO, Jeff Shell, to launch a new series for NBCU employees called “Ask Jeff.” I hosted an interview with Jeff inside Studio 1A, in the seats where Savannah and Hoda anchor TODAY every morning. The whole experience was surreal, and it was an opportunity I’ll never forget!

What does success mean to you?

I currently define success with this question: “Would the younger version of myself be proud?” I like to imagine “young Kevin” getting a glimpse into my current world. To be honest, it makes me emotional! I’ve been fortunate enough to see and experience things that were once a far-off dream. So if I ever want to measure success, I just think about that younger version of myself, and how proud he’d be of the person I’ve become.

Are you currently working in your “dream job”? If not, what is your dream role?

My role is the definition of my “dream job.” I feel fulfilled, challenged, and motivated… all thanks to my team at TODAY, and the culture at NBCUniversal. Serving as the Plaza Producer, I oversee the audience for TODAY, while also producing interviews, segments, and concerts on the show. When that alarm goes off every morning, I wake up with a pep in my step. I don’t take for granted this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I’ve been given. I grew up watching TODAY with my family – and the fact that TODAY has become my family is beyond my wildest dreams.

Favorite Podcast? Making Space with Hoda Kotb (shameless TODAY plug, but nothing calms the soul & inspires quite like listening to a Hoda interview!)
One job-related tool you can’t live without: The app CapCut (great for editing videos on your phone)
Favorite restaurant in Athens: The Last Resort
Favorite place you’ve traveled: Maui, Hawaii
Item on your bucket list: Visit Australia (maybe the Brisbane Olympics in 2032?)


Schatell encourages students to connect with him on social media:

Instagram: @kevinschatell

Six Grady College graduates are represented in this year’s UGA Alumni Association 40 under 40 class. GA graphic advertising Grady's 40 Under 40 alumni panel. rady College alumni honored in 2022 include:

  • Emily Curl (ABJ ’14)
  • Lauren Culbertson Greico (ABJ ’09)
  • Christie Johnson (ABJ ’07)
  • Chad Mumm (ABJ ’08)
  • Kevin Schatell (ABJ ’16)
  • Michael Waldron (ABJ ’10)

We will welcome five of the honorees back to Grady College on Friday, Sept. 9 for a “Message to My Younger Self” panel. Please join us in the Peyton Anderson Forum (room 238) at 10 a.m. A light breakfast will be offered.