USC’s School of Cinematic Arts stands as one of the university’s crown jewels: Consistently ranked as the number one film school in the country, with celebrity alumni and a reputation for regularly turning out Hollywood’s next generation of talent.
Yet the recent deaths of nine USC students — including two from SCA in the last three months — has sparked an on-going conversation between students, faculty and staff about the resources, workload and climate within the school, amid a broader, campus-wide discussion on mental health and wellness.
“SCA is notorious for a toxic culture,” said Leo Allanach, a senior studying production. “You can ask any student and you will get a very overwhelming majority saying, yeah, it's kind of f*cked up.”
Allanach said he doesn’t expect the school to take responsibility for individual students’ mental health, “but they do need to take responsibility for the culture that they create.”
Annenberg Media asked SCA officials about that culture. They defended it as rigorous and responsive to student feedback.
“Right now we're doing a lot of listening with our students to try to hear what do they see as the points of stress. Where do they think things could be handled differently,” said Dean Elizabeth Daley in an interview with Annenberg Media.
Conversations with several students in the cinematic arts school reveal concerns about its demanding culture.
“I had a professor say, you should probably tell your family and your friends and your loved ones that you're not going to talk to them for a while or ever again, because you're going into the entertainment industry,” said Elias Ginsberg, a student assistant in SCA who is also a senior studying production.
In a statement to Annenberg Media, an SCA spokesperson responded that “without having been in the room it is hard to gauge the professor’s tone, but the hope is that this was said with some levity. We know filmmaking and content making of any kind can be demanding at many points in the process.”
Students pointed to a hypercompetitive and cutthroat culture, something the school challenges on its website under its “Myth vs. Reality” page.
Ginsberg, who as a student assistant helps professors with classroom duties and is the main point of communication for students, recalled a very different reality in his first assembly as a freshman.
“Look to your left, look to your right. That guy’s going to be an executive and that guy is going to be a producer and they’re going to hire and fire you the rest of your life,” he remembers being told.
“The first thing that they tell you is that this is the most competitive thing you’re ever going to do,” Ginsberg said. “I think that certainly is the opposite of building a culture of community, relationships and safety.”
“The message is actually intended to be the opposite of the way it was received [by Ginsberg]” the SCA spokesperson told Annenberg Media, a response that echoes the “myth vs. reality” page on its website. “Students should work together and support one another, not compete… we will try to change the message so that the meaning is clear.”
Students say the school is designed to prepare them for the “industry,” which itself is competitive and cutthroat.
Established in 1929 as a joint venture with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the school has been inextricably linked with Hollywood ever since. With more than 10,000 alumni, former students include some of the biggest names in entertainment: George Lucas, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and Black Panther and Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler.
Many alumni sit in powerful positions within the industry and some, including Lucas and Feige who also sit on the school’s board. The school retains an aura of selectivity, with an estimated 3% acceptance rate, far lower than USC’s overall 11% acceptance rate.
That aura comes with a reputation to uphold and a workload to show for it. Between outside jobs, rigorous schoolwork and 12-hour weekend shoots, students described a life where few hours of sleep is common and “burnout is inevitable.”
“I have not left SCA in years,” said Ginsberg. “I get up at five in the morning just so I can get some part of my day back before everything starts again.”
“I don't think it's their intention to make us burn out, but the way the schedule works completely disregards the fact that we have a personal life,” said Stephanie Haber, a graduate student studying production who intends to drop out of the school after this semester to pursue work opportunities.
David Isaacs, a screenwriting professor within the school, said students often place intense pressure on themselves and feel like “nothing is good enough.”
“Regardless of the amount of work that’s put out there, there seems to be more,” said Isaacs.
Another concern is the resources available for students.
“There doesn't seem to be enough response at the level of individual care,” Isaacs said hours after the school gathered to honor one of the students who died this semester.
“Unfortunately the university is playing catch up... in a tough game right now.”
When asked by Annenberg Media what students’ main complaints were, Isaacs suggested “not getting comprehensive therapy care, psychiatry and counseling.”
Allanach, for his part, tried to make an appointment to receive counseling services, but the wait time was more than 10 days. Since then, USC’s Engemann Student Health Center has opened its long-awaited, new, fifth floor dedicated to long-term therapeutic services.
But Allanach and other students tell a story that goes deeper and spans longer than recent developments.
“SCA wants to put Band-Aids on something that is very clearly a structural issue,” said Allanach.
He described a production class notorious for a heavy workload where the expectation is to “push yourself to the limit.” Last year, Allanach was in that class with one of the students who died this semester. He described that student feeling “very, very clearly impacted by the high stress environment of production in a way that is completely understandable.”
At one point, according to Allanach, the student started vomiting after a long day of shooting video.
“I said, you need to go to the hospital right now. And he freaked out,” Allanach said, because he worried that the professors would punish him for letting someone else be the cinematographer.
Allanach said he told the student, “You go to the hospital, I'll take over the camera and we'll figure it out, but you are not okay. And I like argued with him for hours over it. He was like, no, no, no, I'm fine, I'm fine.”
This incident, according to Allanach, led the student to become so “constantly anxious” that he was calling multiple times a day. Ultimately, Allanach said, the student took a leave from the school.
"We are looking very closely at more effective ways to teach students to manage stress better,” Kristin Borella, SCA’s associate dean of communications and public relations said in a statement.
Presented with Allanach’s recollection of these events, Borella gave some specifics about the student who was involved.
“Professors made many accommodations to [this student] throughout the process and were in touch with him very regularly, especially when he was struggling.”
Allyssa Callahan, a senior, wrote about her struggles with this very class in an emotional letter to the editor published this month by the Daily Trojan student newspaper.
“When I broke down a couple weeks into my own 310 semester, my mom heavily encouraged me to seek counseling,” she wrote, referring to a specific production class at SCA.
“I think part of it was simply fear of confirming that I was not OK. Everyone else was losing sleep and dedicating all their free time to 310, so I felt like I needed to tough it out and do the same,” said Callahan.
At the gathering in honor of Allanach’s classmate in October, Allanach said he left as his frustration grew.
“I was furious because this was something that could have been preventable if somebody had listened,” said Allanach.
Daley said faculty within the school are currently considering changes to curriculum in order to reduce stress.
“I don't know if it's major, or if it's minor. Our curriculum is constantly under review,” Daley said in the interview.
Allanach said that type of response isn’t sufficient.
“They're not going to change anything because we've been here before and they didn't really care,” said Allanach.
He pointed to the death of an SCA student in the spring of 2018. It was the second death of that semester.
Then-Provost Michael Quick emailed students at the time detailing the resources available to those suffering from depression and anxiety while also acknowledging the “dramatic rise in the need for mental health resources on campus.”
“The number of students reporting overwhelming stress and anxiety increases each year,” Quick said then.
“Right now, there is an epidemic of mental illness in both SCA and the University of Southern California,” former SCA student Blair Dereaux told Annenberg Media back in 2018. “We’re just trying to keep them from filling a grave.”
The language SCA uses today is nearly identical to what was said during the difficult time in the spring of 2018. Borella told Annenberg Media then the school was in “active discussions with their students about what they would like to see.”
Allanach says he spoke upon the need for reform within the program that spring of 2018 at a mental health forum held after the death of his schoolmate, but was “admonished for doing so, and highly encouraged to switch out of my major if I couldn’t handle it.” Borella wouldn’t comment without knowing what was said and by whom, but noted that the school “made several accommodations to assist students during this time.”
Daley described a “balancing act” between preparing students thoroughly, but not overwhelming them.
“You really have to try to make sure that you're preparing students thoroughly,” Daley said. “Students spend a big portion of their life and a lot of money as well to be here and you want to make sure that you give them a really thorough and complete preparation for what they want to do and what they want to achieve. At the same time, trying not to overwhelm people.”
Students like Ginsberg question whether there’s a middle ground.
“I think the program should to an extent stay rigorous and structured because that would mirror the industry,” Ginsberg said. “But then that contradicts exactly what I said earlier about creating a new generation of filmmakers who don’t want to be used their entire life and don’t want to give up their lives for the work.”
As a student assistant within SCA Ginsberg said he has had the opportunity to reach out and help other students who are struggling.
But it can sometimes be difficult to tell who is and isn’t okay.
“Everyone in our school is an actor and they can cover up their emotions and not even think about it,” he said.
Ginsberg said he learned of a student was struggling and it came as a particular surprise, “because she was lying to me and everyone else.”
Since the second death of an SCA student this year, the school had a counselor on-site in its student affairs office until Dec. 13. Daley says the school is advocating this continues into the future and is also looking at creating peer counseling groups for students as well as faculty mentors, “not to teach them, but just to check in, and find out how they are doing.”
At recent faculty meetings, Isaacs said he and his peers have acknowledged the need to more closely monitor the wellbeing of their students.
“Upping our game in terms of reaching out to students, not waiting for students to come to us,” said Isaacs.
For and many other students, there remains a fundamental tension between student preparation and student wellness.
“We get pushed so hard here that I do feel like semi-prepared to be able to leave this school,” said. “But it’s also at what cost is that happening at?”
Sarah Domai and Leslie Ambriz contributed to this report.