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)

 

Inaugural class of MFA Film students graduates

They are trailblazers and creatives…and now they are graduates of the MFA Film, Television and Digital Media program at the University of Georgia.

Elise Nation carries a large production camera.
Elise Nation shows off one the hand-held production cameras at the beginning of the MFA Film program. Nation, who appreicates a variety of film genres including animated movies like “Mulan” says, “I want to be part of making those films that inspire little girls and boys of the next generation to be able to do anything.” (Photo: courtesy of Elise Nation)

The program, which was approved in Spring 2020 and met for the first time behind masks that fall, held graduation ceremonies August 13, 2022.

“There are so many learning experiences,” said Nalani Dowling (MFA ’22), a member of the inaugural class. “There were really good mentorships, and having the time and resources to explore what it means to be a filmmaker was invaluable.”

Another graduate, Elise Nation (AB ’18, MFA ’22), was attracted to the program because it built on her undergraduate degrees in entertainment and media studies and film. She also liked the idea of having a terminal degree if she wanted to teach one day. In addition to the education, it was the connections that proved most memorable for her.

From the Halloween bonfire the group enjoyed their first year in Athens, to the Friendsgiving celebration they bonded over when they were living in the town of Trilith, Nation admitted it is the friendships that develop over shared experiences that will be lasting.

“It was the summer films that we made in Athens right before we moved to Trilith that I will remember,” Nation recalls. “It was the first time doing our own work, all crewing for each other, that sticks in my mind. They were crazy and long hours, but a wonderful experience. You wanted to be the best you can be for their projects, because you wanted them to be the best they can be for your own project.”

MFA Film Foundations
Two ladies at a table and four students standing around with light in the corner, ready to film a scene.
The inaugural class started the program in fall 2020, amid masks. Their first production classes took place at the OTS film studios in Atlanta. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

The MFA Film program is a two-year intensive program teaching students directing, screenwriting, producing and other skills related to move into creative careers in Georgia’s lucrative film business, a $4.4 billion industry in fiscal year 2022.

While the focus is on above-the-line industry positions, each student is educated in a variety of fundamentals, from sound design and lighting, to acting and camera work.

“If the students learn how to do these things and learn the language, they will understand the process better and have greater insight and empathy in the long run,” said Jeff Springston, former director of the MFA programs at Grady College.

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, telling a story in roughly four minutes, using only natural sound or music and no dialogue.

Neil Landau, who is current director of screenwriting and the new director of the MFA Film program, notes that in two years, the students create at least one TV pilot, one feature film and three films.

“It’s extremely rigorous,” Landau admits, “but that’s what works really well — students are trained to be writers and directors, or writers and producers and not trained to do just one thing — they are learning a combination of skills.”

The MFA Film program is led by faculty from both Grady College and Franklin College and blends the curriculum to benefit the students.

One of Nation’s favorite courses for instance, Art Direction for Film and Television, was taught by Julie Ray and included discussions about art in film, color theory and how to merge roles through color and costuming.

“She taught me that film is not just about shots and story, but about color and music, too,” Nation said.

The second year is spent living 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, sophisticated 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.


Applications for the MFA Film cohort beginning Fall 2023 will be late November/early December 2022. Visit MFAFilm@uga.edu/apply for more details.

Thesis Film Projects
Two people film a girl in a tent for Elise Nation's thesis film, "Poppy."
One of the thesis films screened at graduation was “Poppy,” the story of a little girl in a pillow fort experiencing adventures in her dreams. (Photo: courtesy of Elise Nation)

Students turn to creating their thesis film projects during the second year as they choose between a writing/producing track writing full scripts and producing films their classmates are directing, or a writing/directing track, where they develop full productions that are 8 to 15 minutes in length. The thesis films were screened at graduation in front of parents bursting with pride and faculty and student colleagues who empathized with the personal investment and creative stamina needed to pull them off.

To further their education in real-world scenarios, students were encouraged to participate in real-world exercises ranging from working the backStory group to partner with composers from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance to produce original scores for their films, to pitching their project to a team of faculty and mentors for additional money to produce their films.

“Once students are in the work world, the whole game is about pitching your product,” Springston explained about the pitch competition.

Nation and Dowling were two of three students awarded additional money for their projects, and agreed that the exercise was about more than just the money.

“Pitching our films was a wonderful experience,” Nation said. “It’s a good lesson in how to pitch your own material and get other people excited about it and try to get your vision of it across.”

Nalana Dowling sits in a corner looking at a camera reviewing production footage.
Nalani Dowling takes a few minutes to review production footage on her camera during filming of her thesis film, “Breach,” about the relationship between two sisters-in-law. (Photo: courtesy of Nalani Dowling)

In a nod to the adage, “write what you know,” both Dowling and Nation directed thesis films that are personal pursuits in several ways. Dowling worked on a project called “Breach,” about the relationship between two sisters-in-law during a stressful pregnancy for one of the characters. Dowling is attracted to themes of female relationships, drawing on the relationship she has with her sister.

Nation directed “Poppy,” a dream sequence following a young girl who pursues adventures like traveling in space and exploring the African wilderness…until the camera comes back to reality and she is in the hospital fighting for her life. This, too, hit close to home as Nation spent time right before the program started caring for her niece who was battling leukemia. Although the short film ends on an uncertain note, Nation’s niece is doing well and attended graduation to cheer on her aunt.

Making Connections

In the end, the film industry is about connections and that is another lesson illustrated many ways throughout the MFA program.

For instance, once the students moved to Trilith, they had to establish a pipeline to accomplish their end goals. These contacts ranged from connecting with the crew from Georgia Film Academy who helped with their thesis films to an impromptu encounter with Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A and a main investor in Trilith Studios. Cathy is also a key financial supporter of the MFA Film program at UGA.

Dowling recalls how Cathy was very helpful. He had talked with the group on a call early in the program, telling them they have been challenged to impact the world and storytelling is the most impactful way to do that. Then, he gave the students his cell number. And, the students used it.

“We were meeting at GFA and one of my classmates just texted him to let him know we were there,” Dowling recalls. “He came right over and we just piled in a van and he showed us the studios. They were filming the most recent Spider Man movie and we hadn’t signed waivers or anything, but he was showing us all around the studios.”

After the tour, he took the group out to dinner, one of a few times he did that.

The moral of the story is clear, said Dowling: “Don’t be afraid to ask, and know who to ask.”

A group of about 16 MFA Film graduates and Chick-fil-A employees gather for a picture around a table in a restaurant.
Dan Cathy (seated in light blue shirt at center of group), was a major financial supporter of the MFA Film program and helped the MFA Film students get acclimated to their second year of the program once they moved to the Town of Trilith. (Photo: courtesy of Elise Nation)

Cathy had periodic interactions with the students, including attending the graduation ceremonies.

“Here at Trilith, we are setting the stage to inspire the next generation of storytellers,” Cathy told the graduates. “It’s incredibly exciting.”

Nalani Dowling holds flowers at graduation and poses for a picture with MFA Film faculty.
Nalani Dowling (left) is congratulated after graduation by MFA Film faculty Neil Landau, Sanghoon Lee and Shandra McDonald. Dowling praised Landau for caring about the success of the students and helping to bring out their identity as filmmakers. “He genuinely wants to understand our work and where we are coming from, but also to give us creative freedom since we all come from different places with our beliefs and experiences,” Dowling said. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

The students also connected with an impressive A-list of industry professionals, serving as Distinguished Industry Mentors. Each student was paired with a mentor who shared ideas, taught lessons and helped students network in the industry.

The inaugural class also had a two-hour master class with Stephen Canals, co-creator and executive producer of “Pose.”

Next Steps

Chuck Hayward, acclaimed for his work on “WandaVision” and his co-executive producer role on “Ted Lasso,” mentored new graduate Kelvin Summerhill (MFA ’22) and has already signed on to be an Artist-in-Residence for the new class of MFA Film students. Landau said that Summerhill exceeded his modest goal raising money for his film, “Black Butterfly,” thanks to an attractive contribution by Hayward.

Dowling was paired with Davita Scarlett, writer and co-executive producer of “The Good Fight” and “Evil.”

“Being paired with Davita was awesome,” Dowling said. “Even with her busy schedule, she took the time to read the first TV pilot I wrote in the program. She gave really helpful feedback and notes on how I could improve the episode, as well as my TV writing skills overall.”

With graduation behind them, the students will start using those networks to land jobs.

Nation has taken a job to teach film at Emory, while Dowling has renewed her lease for her apartment in Trilith and will continue working part-time for a small production company she has worked with the past few months.

Most the students will also submit their final projects to film festivals, a popular avenue to garner attention from agents and representation for future projects.

“The success of this program depends 100% on the accomplishments of the students, that they leave happy and are ready to break into a really competitive business,” Landau concluded.

In the meantime, there were a few students from the new cohort of MFA Film students in the graduation audience watching the thesis films, some nervous about their turn but all excited about what’s to come.


For more about the MFA Film program, see the “Lights. Camera. Action!” feature from Georgia Magazine.
To view pictures from the MFA Film graduation, see the UGA Grady Flickr account.

 

Neil Landau authors second edition of “The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap”

Interviews with 19 of the most respected showrunners in television today are at the heart of the all-new second edition of “The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap: Creating Great Television in an On Demand World” by Neil Landau.

Landau, founding director of screenwriting for the UGA MFA Film program, follows the success of the bestselling first edition of his book, supplemeted by interviews with today’s most trailblazing showrunners, including Issa Rae of “Insecure,” Chris Mundy of “Ozark,” Noah Hawley of “Fargo,” Jesse Armstrong of “Succession,” Liz Feldman of “Dead to Me,” Sam Levinson of “Euphoria,” Steven Canals of “Pose,” and Daniel Levy of “Schitt’s Creek,” among others.

“This book reflects the enormous changes that have occurred since the first book came out in 2014,” Landau said about the new edition that focuses exclusively on streaming shows and features several international shows.

Among the topics covered in the new book are a conversation with Hawley about reinventing the Coen Brothers’ classic film; insight from Damon Lindelof of “Watchmen” on world building, and an interview with Alex Pina of “La Casa de Papel” (“Money Heist”) on non-formulaic episodic story structure. Other topics covered by Landau include the power of empathy, family dynamics, antagonists and pitching projects.

Landau explained that at the time the first edition came out, there were very few books about creating and writing an original TV series, and few people know the role of a showrunner, or the person who is the head writer and executive producer of a television show.

“This book is for people who may someday be showrunners,” Landau, who said he was raised on television, continues. “It breaks down the process of what the elements are to writing and creating a successful television pilot and how to sustain it over time. It’s a book for writers and creators.”

He added that the first edition was frequently used in the classroom, including the Sundance Institute Episodic Lab.

Several themes emerged while writing the current edition of the book, according to Landau, including the international impact of entertainment.

“The entire entertainment business, not just television, is global. It’s not a Hollywood-centric business anymore,” Landau said.  “You cannot sell a show if it doesn’t have international appeal.”

He further explains that most of the growth happening with Netflix, HBO Max and Paramount+ and other streaming services is occurring because and they are opening offices in cities all over the world and their focus is local programming produced by people who live in that country using the local language of that country.

Landau also said that intellectual property is now driving the entertainment business. He said the Spider-Man and Batman movie franchises are prime examples.

“If you have a built-in marketing hook, like a show based on a best-selling novel or super popular characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, entertainment providers know that when they go to air it, they will have a built-in audience,” Landau said. “There are still original shows being written, but most are based on known source material. The value of intellectual property is more crucial than ever to break through the noise of over 560 scripted series across multiple platforms—an all-time record.”

Landau also notes that the lines between cinema and television have blurred.

“Television is not a lesser-form of creativity. It’s actually an artform unto itself.”

He continues: “Because TV is available globally, at its best, it can plant seeds of empathy, and reinforce that we all share a common humanity. Hopefully this book will show that we are in the midst of a creative renaissance and it will inspire people to participate, because your voice matters.”

Landau has numerous screen credits including “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead,” “Melrose Place,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.” His animated movie projects include “Tad: The Lost Explorer” (“Las Adventuras de Tadeo Jones”) for which he earned a Spanish Academy Goya Award, Gaudi Award, and Cinema Writers’ Circle Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2014.

This is the sixth book that Landau has published. Previous books include “TV Writing on Demand: Creating Great Content in the Digital Era,” “TV Outside the Box: Trailblazing in the Digital Television Revolution,” “The Screenwriters Roadmap: 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story,” “The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap: 21 Navigational Tips to Create – and Sustain – a Hit TV Series” and “101 Things I Learned in Film School,” reissued by Random House/Crown in 2021.

 

First-year MFA Film students premiere short films

Many first semester graduate students spend the end of the semester stressing about finals, but students in the MFA Film program face another type of stress: producing films that will engage audiences.

Imagine the added pressure of creating a full story that is shown in 4 minutes or less, with three characters or less and that has no dialogue.

Such was the final semester assignment for the nineteen MFA Film students in Bryan Cole’s Introduction to Directing class who premiered their films in front of an audience of fellow students, professors, family and friends on Dec. 9.

Story plots introduced the audience to characters who learned lessons about themselves ranging from the agonizing struggle to make a connection at a match-making mixer to the fear of fighting addiction and the pain in losing a loved one.

The trailer above features short clips from each of the films produced by the first-year MFA Film students.
The first-year students spent weeks writing, blocking, recruiting, filming and editing their stories. And, since these projects were produced on very small budgets, the students had to rely on each other to serve as camera operators, sound engineers, editors and other roles required in film production.

Recruiting resources and exploring creative vision are some of the most important lessons of the program.

For Rebecca Myers, getting to know the cohort and learning to lean on each other has been the highlight of the semester.

“Truthfully, to learn to trust each other with tasks in a creative atmosphere that’s so welcoming and assertive and go-getting…I love that,” Myers said.

Albin Pepe, another first-year student, agrees.

“I wanted to avoid the culture of film schools in New York and LA,” Pepe said about his decision to apply to UGA’s MFA Film program. “I don’t see anyone in the program as my competitor. We are all collaborators. We are all like family. We are trailblazers. We are all friends.”

Pepe adds that the growth of the film industry in the state of Georgia is another draw to this program.

“Independent film in Georgia is growing and here to stay,” Pepe said.

The Master of Fine Arts in Film, Television and Digital Media program was introduced in 2019 as  joint project between Grady College and Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and this class is the second cohort of students. Students spend their first year in Athens, Georgia, learning writing and technique and their second year in Fayetteville, Georgia, at Georgia Film Academy at Trilith working on more involved projects. Instead of a traditional MFA Film program that covers three years, the UGA MFA Film program covers six semesters in two years, including summers.

“It’s a lot of work,” admitted Bryan Cole, who teaches the directing class to first-year students.  “Balancing the production side with the writing side is work-intensive. As one of the students said, ‘I’ve never worked so hard in my life.’”

 

MFA Film program announces Distinguished Industry Mentor initiative; applications open until Dec. 1 for second year of program

Details about the MFA Film program and the Dec. 1, 2020 application deadline can be viewed on the MFA Film website.

As the application timeline opens for its second year, the University of Georgia’s Master of Fine Arts in Film, Television and Digital Media announces a new addition: the start of the Distinguished Industry Mentor program.

The Distinguished Industry Mentors initiative will draw on top talent from more than 45 professional writers, producers and directors to work with the students by providing master classes, hosted conversations, special screenings of their work and networking opportunities. Mentors signed on to help include recent Emmy winner Damon Lindelof, co-creator/showrunner of “Watchmen,” “The Leftovers” and “Lost”; Amy Aniobi, executive producer of “Insecure” and “Two Dope Queens”; and Justin Hillian, showrunner of “The Chi“, among others.

Steven Canals, co-creator, director and executive producer of “Pose” will be a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence for the MFA Film program in spring 2021. Canals and “Pose” won a Peabody Award in 2018.

This spring, the program will host Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, Steven Canals, co-creator, director and executive producer of hit television series, “Pose,” to teach writing techniques and provide critique for students.

“Our goal is to provide students with a world-class education and that includes having contacts with some of the most accomplished television and film professionals in the business,” said Dr. Jeff Springston, director of the MFA Film, Television and Digital Media program. “Our faculty have invited their extensive network of Hollywood talent to the program through our Distinguished Industry Mentors and Writers-in-Residence initiatives. These connections not only set our program apart from others, but the mentors are sure to provide inspiration and motivation to our students.”

This fall, the University of Georgia and the Georgia Film Academy (GFA) rolled out the state’s first-ever professional Master of Fine Arts in Film, Television and Digital Media program for Georgia filmmakers and content creators, in collaboration with film industry center, Trilith. Through this master’s program, the state is building a content creation industry to rival that of Hollywood.

“This is an unprecedented advancement in laying the foundation to create writing and content creation jobs in Georgia,” said Jeffrey Stepakoff, executive director of the GFA. “For the past five years, we have been actively training a robust workforce of Georgians in below-the-line fields, and this program will create opportunities for storytellers, who would otherwise have to leave the state for jobs in New York and Los Angeles.”

Joining the list of MFA Film faculty this academic year are industry veterans Neil Landau and Bryan Cole. Neil Landau joined the faculty as director of screenwriting. Landau’s screen credits include cult teen comedy “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead,” “Melrose Place,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” and “The Secret World of Alex Mack,” among others. Accomplished editor Bryan Cole, editor of “Who Killed Malcom X, also joins the program in January 2021 as associate professor, Department of Theatre and Film Studies.

“Drawing this level of talent to Georgia sends a strong message to the industry,” said Stepakoff. “Georgia means business.”

After spending their first year studying at UGA’s campus in Athens, MFA Film students spend the second year taking residence with GFA at Trilith, the 935-acre master development for the creative industries in South Metro Atlanta that is home to Trilith Studios, the second largest purpose-built studio in North America, where blockbuster films like “Avengers: Endgame” were produced. The studios feature 18 sound stages ranging from 15,000 to 40,000 square feet with adjacent workshop facilities and an extensive 400-acre backlot. Immersed in the industry, students will gain real-world experience in advanced writing, production, advanced directing, computer animation and thesis films, and will graduate with a master’s degree from UGA.

Applications for the fall 2021 cohort are open until December 1.