What comes to mind when you hear the word “Hollywood”? Whether the first image is a struggling actor with three day jobs or Lindsay Lohan with three DUIs, Harvard probably doesn’t enter the picture. Although Harvard grads run four of the five biggest media conglomerates—Sony (Michael M. Lynton ’82), Viacom (Sumner M. Redstone ’44), Warner Brothers (Harvard Business School graduate Alan F. Horn), and NBC Universal (Jeff A. Zucker ’86)—the movie capital of the West Coast and the academic center of the East Coast seem to be separate worlds.
That was what Mia E. Riverton ’99 thought when she entered Harvard in 1995. Always interested in the creative process, Riverton–a student from Indianapolis—never thought that her passion for arts could be a turned into a career.
“People in Indiana don’t get involved in the entertainment industry,” Riverton says. “They become doctors or lawyers or find other normal jobs. I never even made the connection that you could do that for a living.”
Instead, like many Harvard students, Riverton placed herself on the fast track to Wall Street, concentrating in economics with advanced standing. But halfway through her Harvard career, during a summer internship at the Boston Consulting Group, Riverton realized that a life in the corporate world no longer appealed to her. Finished with her concentration requirements but unsure how they played into her future, she took a semester off to travel and study in Taiwan. Away from the goal-oriented environment of Cambridge, Riverton came to view the commercial arts as a legitimate profession, not just a hobby.
“It all clicked. I realized the only thing I enjoy on a regular basis is this creative process, whether that be writing or performing,” Riverton recalls.
With a renewed sense of purpose. Riverton decided to use her remaining time at Harvard to pursue the arts. She packed her final year with both on- and off-campus activities, including creative writing and drama classes, multiple Harvard performances, commercials, independent films, and television shows. Riverton began researching what Harvard had to offer someone itching to head West.
“What I discovered when I reached out to Career Services is that they had nearly no resources,” says Riverton, “maybe 10 names of alumni who were willing to be contacted, and maybe four or five that were still valid.”
Frustrated by the lack of resources available to students interested in “the biz,” Riverton compiled an e-mail list of recent grads in Hollywood and fellow students with similar aspirations. She moved to Los Angeles in 1999 after graduation, and it was through this “Harvard in Hollywood” list that Riverton got in contact with Adam J. Fratto ’90 and Stacy Cohen ’89, two alums who had been informally assisting Harvard students navigate the industry. The three grads recognized the need to expand Harvard’s resources in the industry and agreed to collaborate to create a network of alums involved in arts and entertainment. The idea for “Harvardwood” was born.
“People came out in droves giving us their names and wanting to be included,” Cohen says. “It grew faster than we could have imagined in our wildest dreams.”
Nine years later, their modest e-mail list of roughly 20 names is a far-reaching volunteer, non-profit organization with over 2000 members.
LIGHTS, CAMERA ...
Without knowing exactly where the group was headed, Riverton, Fratto, and Cohen worked to solidify a connection between their alma mater and the nascent network. They established a partnership with the Office for the Arts (OFA) and Office of Career Services (OCS) that persists to this day.
“One way to describe our relationship is as a sponsor, another way is as a collaborator,” says Jack Megan, director of the OFA. “We talk with Mia about opportunities.”
One such opportunity was what is now called “Harvardwood 101,” an intersession trip that brings about 20 students to Los Angeles. In order to legally accept University funding for the program, Harvardwood applied to become a 501-c-3 non-profit corporation. Their approval in late 2002 transformed this group of people with similar interests into a organization with an official structure.
“OCS and OFA came to our aid to help launch what’s considered our flagship program,” says Riverton. “It was the first thing that represented the core of our mission.”
The trip, which has run every year since 2003, serves as a survey course of myriad career paths in the entertainment industry, from screenwriting to radio broadcasting. Countless Harvard alums have opened up their homes and workplaces to bright-eyed students, many of whom have never been to Los Angeles before.
“I always enjoy the day I get to show the students around.” says Robert M. Kraft ’76, president of Fox Music and Harvardwood adviser. “This year they came to watch me orchestrate “Horton Hears a Who!” and...see a fabulous scoring on a 20th Century lot.”
While it may be impossible to drain the entertainment industry of all its glamour, many students value Harvardwood 101 because it demystifies Hollywood.
“Harvardwood showed me a realistic portrayal of what life would be like for the first couple of years,” says Clayton W. Brooks III ’10, who went on the trip this year and hopes to go into the recording industry one day.
And even for students who, unlike Brooks, return from Tinseltown with no desire to call it home, the trip proves to be equally informative.
Julia K. Lindpaintner ’09, a History of Science concentrator, says, “It was helpful because I found out that I don’t want to be in that industry. I could’ve done a three-month internship to find that out, but I did it in a few days.”
In addition to the intersession trip, Harvardwood has grown to offer a variety of other services to undergraduates, including a summer internship program, social mixers, and “Harvardwood Presents...,” an on-campus seminar conducted once a semester by an industry alum. Students who don’t have time to attend Harvardwood events can stay connected through the organization’s extensive website and monthly newsletter.
“I can’t express enough what a wonderful service and resource Harvardwood has been for students,” says Gail E. Gilmore, assistant director for Public and Community Service, General Counseling, and Career in the Arts. “When I came here it didn’t exist and it was very hard for me as a counselor trying to work for students interested in an industry located across the country.”
A SIG IS BORN
While Harvardwood has prospered from their partnership with the OCS and OFA, subsequent ties to the world of alumni have been met with mixed reviews. The organization became officially tied to the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) in 2005 as one of its first “Shared Interest Groups” (SIGs), defined by the HAA Web site as alumni groups unified by a purpose other than class affiliation.
But the relationship has sparked a debate about just how much Harvard can help Harvardwood. The alumni association offers logistical assistance, including online tools, access to alumni mail addresses, and a yearly posting in the HAA’s newsletter. But having already been in existence for roughly six years, Harvardwood did not rely on these benefits the same way that a newly established organization would.
What Harvardwood did need—financial support—was not part of the deal.
“I hear the different voices within my organization, voices of independence,” says Riverton. “They feel we persisted and flourished for so long—why don’t we just continue to work with OCS and OFA and not worry about being a part of University proper?”
And Harvard is not the only college to benefit from Riverton’s brainchild. Harvardwood has held joint events and programs with other universities, and has even contributed to the start of similar groups at Brown, Columbia, and the University of Virginia.
“The stated general mission of Harvardwood has changed over the years,” Riverton says, “from providing resources and information to Harvard students and alums to a broader mission of strengthening the ties between arts/entertainment and education.”
R. Baxter Churchville ’88 was inspired by Harvardwood to create Columbia University Entertainment in 2007, a similar network at his graduate film school. “I was frustrated that there wasn’t that opportunity to connect with alumni from Columbia,” says Churchville. “When our group first met, someone said Harvardwood is the gold standard, and I think that’s very accurate.”
Having transformed itself into a model for alumni groups at Harvard and other universities, the organization is now returning its focus to its undergraduate roots. Harvardwood has failed to achieve a strong campus presence—a problem that has surfaced as the group contemplates its future.
One problem was that undergraduates weren’t discovering Harvardwood until late in their college careers.
Angela Y.H. Lin ’02, who—like Riverton, was an economics concentrator with a passion for the arts—only came across Harvardwood, still an e-mail list at this point, her senior year.
Although her introduction came late, Lin jumped at the chance to get involved as an alumn: she moved to New York after graduation and reached out to Riverton and other alumni through Harvardwood’s mentorship program.
Now located in Los Angeles, Lin currently serves as membership director, helping other undergraduates discover the same Harvardwood resources she stumbled upon—[but] much earlier.
“I wanted to give back,” Lin says, “and help other undergraduates who were in the same boat that I was just a couple of years before, which was completely clueless.”
One way Harvardwood hopes to increase awareness amongst undergraduates is with the introduction of student liaisons drawn from previous 101 participants.
“Harvardwood 101 had been such a wonderful experience and we wanted to expose the Harvard community to the benefits of this opportunity,” says Estelle L. Eonnet ’08, a student who specializes in documentary filmmaking. “We wanted to make sure that students interested in the arts knew there was an outlet.”
Eonnet and Sophie C. Kargman ’08, an aspiring actress and Harvardwood’s other student liason, hope to develop more regular contact between undergraduates and Harvard alum by getting an on-campus Harvardwood group officially approved by the University.
“The best thing Harvardwood can do is build that network at Harvard,” says Harry T. Rimalower ’10, an aspiring director involved with the Harvard-Radcliffe Television soap Ivory Tower. “After all, the undergrads of today are the alumni of tomorrow.”
A TOUGH SELL
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles Harvardwood faces in its push to build a following on campus is the fact that the creative arts are often overshadowed by other, more prominent career tracks.
Alyson J. Sheehan ’09, who will work with Rimalower as the next campus liason, is an English and American Literature and Language concentrator interested in creative writing, but hadn’t seriously thought of screenwriting until her 101 trip. Over intersession, she saw the possibility of making a career out of a writing style more “Heroes” than Hemingway.
“Harvard is in a region that is concentrated mostly in business and consulting, near New York and Boston,” says Sheehan, “the sheer lack of proximity makes Hollywood less possible.”
These programs can lead to crucial turning points for students interested in arts and entertainment when other careers have such a strong presence. “There are just four careers that are beat into the ground at Harvard that are an option for you,” says Brooks, “consulting, investment banking, law school, and medical school.”
About half of Harvard seniors surveyed planned to enter careers in finance or consulting, while just under a quarter planned to enter graduate school, according to a 2007 Crimson survey.
The career-driven environment at Harvard may serve to push people in the direction of lucrative fields rather than riskier careers.
“There’s the feeling that if you don’t [follow these career tracks] you’re not living up to the standard of what a Harvard graduate should be doing with their life,” says Andrew C. Coles ’09, another Harvardwood 101 veteran.
Students interested in the entertainment industry often have to find their own path. “It was really fascinating to hear that pretty much all of the Harvard alums we talked to said, ‘Yeah, I did consulting for a year or two,’” recalls Coles, “or ‘I did law school and was miserable, and moved on to do what I was passionate about.’”
Coles, an African American Studies concentrator pursuing a secondary field in film studies, has always been interested in film and television. Last spring he realized that he didn’t want to go to law school after all, and spent the summer after junior year in Los Angeles.
Another challenge that Harvard students aspiring to break into entertainment face is the prospect of having to start from scratch. The lifestyle of an alum in their first years generally pales in comparison to the expectations that often become attached to a Harvard degree.
“You realize the only way to get somewhere in Hollywood is to go to LA, get there, and work your way up,” says Geraldine K. Prasuhn ’09, a recent Harvardwood 101 attendee. “You have to start with the real tasks like getting coffee and a Harvard education is not going to help you there.”
The mystery that surrounds Hollywood careers can be the factor that causes even the most eager Harvard students to cross them out as options. Gilmore, in her experience at OCS, has learned that the entertainment industry lacks the ubiquity on campus that seem to have popularized consulting and investment banking. “They know that people enter the entertainment industry, but they have no idea how they would do it,” Gilmore says. “It’s a very closed industry to outsiders, and people who are inside will be the first to admit that.”
But the program has narrowed the gap between the West Coast industry and prospective East Coast hopefuls. Gilmore says the access that Harvardwood provides to alumni who are in the entertainment industry all over the country has made a significant impact. Before she began working with Harvardwood, the counselor had difficulty helping students who came to OCS California dreaming: “It was very hard for me as a counselor trying to work for students interested in an industry located across the country.”
But much like the screenplays written by its members, Harvardwood’s story has a twist of its own.
Since 1999, Harvardwood has matured under the auspices of its founders. But over the last nine years those spearheading the program have grown and taken on other responsibilities. Just as it makes gains on campus, Harvardwood faces losing its driving force.
Fratto is now Vice President of Development and Production at Piller/Segan. Cohen is heading up production for a new co-financing company based at Warner Bros.Riverton—now 30, married, and facing greater professional and personal demands—has planned to step down from the day-to-day management of Harvardwood this year.
In order to stay afloat, Harvardwood will need to rapidly institutionalize and ensure that its presence on campus is sustainable.
Gilmore says OCS and OFA have been working with the board members of Harvardwood to prepare for a future without Riverton at its helm.
“We’ve been discussing feasible ways to enable Mia to reduce her level of involvement in the organization and yet allow the organization to move forward in order to continue the programs that are currently being offered and also to develop new programs,” Gilmore says.
Riverton says they hope to establish a paid position for someone, possibly a Harvard graduate, who’s interested in running a nonprofit. “I would never expect anyone to devote the energy and hours I have without getting paid,” says Riverton, “I chose to do it willingly because it was my baby and I wanted to see it through.”
Harvardwood’s campus presence is also contingent upon continued financial support from the university. Riverton is hopeful that University President Drew G. Faust’s Task Force on the Arts will discuss Harvardwood and its importance to within the College’s gates.
“I think that Harvardwood is a model for the type of organization that can help students from Harvard who want to make a career in the arts.” says Megan, who serves on the Task Force and works closely with Harvardwood, “It’s a very important model and one that the task force very much appreciates.”
“It’s going to be a difficult transition since Mia is so wonderful and energetic, but it is feasible,” says Eonnet. The base that Harvardwood has built--both structurally and in terms of relationships—won’t necessarily crumble, but the issue is more a matter of maintenance and growth.
“It might take it going away to make them realize that maybe after a couple years of not having Harvardwood 101, and summer internships, and on campus stuff, the university would step up and fill that void,” says Riverton. “It will be interesting to see and I will definitely be keeping my eye on it.”
In the meantime, Harvardwood is finally finding its place at its East Coast namesake. “We went to the career fair for the first time in order to get the name out there,” says Eonnet. “We were across from Google and Ralph Lauren, Morgan Stanley was down the way. We were the only students who had a stand. We were telling people there is another direction, and people were really excited.”