Meet the Dean: Susan Ruskin Discusses Her Leadership Approach and Why AFI Alumni Stand Out in the Industry
In August, Susan Ruskin joined AFI as both the Dean of the AFI Conservatory, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, and Executive Vice President of the Institute. Ruskin comes to AFI after establishing herself as a staunch innovator and dedicated champion of storytelling and new media as the Dean of the School of Filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA). At her previous post, she continuously cultivated new ways of exploring how storytelling and technology intersect, including establishing a Media and Emerging Technology Lab and organizing UNCSA’s first Future of Reality Summit.
Additionally, Ruskin is a veteran producer and executive within the industry, having produced HAUNTED HONEYMOON, WOMAN IN RED and ANACONDA. She also served as President of Production at Middle Fork Pictures/Cinema Line and Gene Wilder’s Pal-Mel Productions, as well as a Creative Executive at Lucasfilm Ltd.
AFI sat down with Dean Ruskin to talk about her leadership style, the importance of diversity in film, and how her experience as a film producer informs her role as an educator.
AFI: What was your introduction to movie-going growing up in South Africa, and was there a pivotal film that made you want to enter the industry?
SR: In South Africa, we didn’t have television at the time so movies were my only methodology of seeing entertainment other than theater, which I had started participating in regularly. We lived out in the country, but I went to see films on a regular basis. The first film I saw that made me completely connect was WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND with Hayley Mills. And that was the first instance that made me realize that I wanted to be involved in filmmaking.
AFI: Was your initial impulse to be in front of the camera or behind it?
SR: From a very early time in my life, I’ve always been involved on both sides on the stage because my mother was involved in theater. But when it came to film, I was much more interested in being behind the camera. I attended Sarah Lawrence’s Theater program, but I realized really quickly that everybody else wanted to be an actor far more than I did, and I wanted to make plays.
AFI: What made you gravitate toward AFI and what was the catalyst for you deciding to take on this role of Dean of the AFI Conservatory?
SR: The real crux for me was that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the future of where film is going to go and how the industry is going to be affected and how we need to start training filmmakers differently. I started a Media and Emerging Technology Lab in North Carolina. That was not about any particular technology, but rather about all of the emerging technologies that shape everything that we do. It suddenly struck me that AFI should be at the head of the table talking about stories and how we tell stories in the future. And it felt like an opportunity to make sure that AFI is at the forefront and does become the voice of storytelling for the future.
AFI: While you have a background in championing virtual and augmented reality, how do we also ensure that core storytelling principles don’t get lost at the same time?
SR: Well, millions and millions of years have gone by, and core storytelling hasn’t been lost in the shuffle and will not be lost in the shuffle, so understanding the basic tenets of describing our human condition and emotionally connecting to an audience is never going to change. The technology is just a tool whereas stories are forever.
AFI: You’ve worked as a producer on many different films. How has your producing experience prepared you for the challenges of working in this role as an educator?
SR: Making movies with big snakes in the Amazon with Jon Voight, Ice Cube, Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson was quite an adventure and really prepares you for anything. But, in all seriousness, the skill sets of being a producer are really comparable to being a Dean. Frankly, it’s comparable to the skill sets of any leadership position. A film school is not the movie industry, and yet we are training people for the industry. We just have to make that shift in our minds that students are, in fact, different than professionals. We are helping them to make that transition and, at the same time, giving them a safe space to do so.
I think working as a producer also helps you be forward-thinking in strategizing how to get something done and pushing to make something happen — those are the real skill sets of a producer. If you’re confronted with a “no,” you need to figure out a way around it to get a “yes,” so that has made it a fairly easy transition. And yet I’ve also seen many people who come from the business and work in academia fail because they think that a film school should mimic the industry, and that’s absolutely not the case.
AFI: How would you describe your leadership style and approach in terms of uniting a film conservatory with six very different disciplines? Are you looking to train specialists or generalist who can wear multiple hats on set?
SR: I strongly believe that whether you’re training a cinematographer or a director or a producer or an editor or a screenwriter or a production designer that you’re actually training in essence a filmmaker and a storyteller. It’s not about what the actual discipline is, but rather about the landscape of storytelling in that each filmmaker has to find his or her own voice within the confines of their discipline here and also in the outside world. What they actually do at AFI doesn’t necessarily define what they’re going to do later in the business. I believe that we’re not training generalists, but we’re training filmmakers and storytellers no matter the tools they’re using, and we are training leaders.
I also look at my job as more than just the six disciplines; it’s also all of the different departments across AFI. My role is to really understand and appreciate what everyone is doing and to look at everybody’s discipline or department as part of the whole and how we effectively communicate with each other both internally and externally. My job here is to help progress that conversation forward and to allow people to have the space to talk and offer ideas. I’m not looking for absolute agreement, but I do think consensus is important before we make any kind of change. My role is to bring people to the table to find that consensus with some guidance and leadership.
AFI: What do you think sets AFI Fellows apart from other film schools in both LA and around the country?
SR: One thing that does stand out for me is the rigor of the training and the intensity of how AFI Fellows learn by doing. They also are taught the perspective within each of the disciplines on the art form of not just doing, but also looking both backwards and forwards to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Again, it’s about finding that voice no matter what the discipline is.
I also think that AFI is an extraordinary launchpad. It’s a small and very close-knit group of people that ultimately have this bridge to the industry and what I find remarkable about AFI is that we’re walking the walk with our diversity of culture. I think that creates an atmosphere for more compelling storytelling when different cultures come together, listen to each other, work together and learn by doing together. Hopefully, that will be reflected in the future of the business as well, so that we are accepting applicants who are the filmmakers whose work we want to see within our industry in the future. Given that AFI has done a good job creating that pathway, I think we just need to build on that.
AFI: How can we encourage more people to invest in filmmakers who are women and people of color and change the representative landscape within the industry?
SR: It’s remarkable how we’re talking about it, but the numbers are not being reflected in the industry. I believe that the only way forward is to ensure that women and artists of color are far more present in every aspect of the business starting with film schools. If we create the same kind of environment that we want to see mirrored in the industry in a film school, then we will create a culture of what people are used to and shape the kind of people they’re used to working with and the kind of sets to which they’re accustomed. I think it’s really important that it starts in film school, and then we have to make sure that we are supporting a diverse group of people once they enter the business as well.
It’s not just about diversity of representation among filmmakers, but also agents, managers, lawyers and distribution and acquisitions people. We need to focus not only on the artists, but also the infrastructure of Hollywood, which has a long way to go. But I’ve actually spent a lot of time trying to encourage women and artists of color to be in positions of power because I don’t believe that until they’re in the agencies, management companies and production companies and go from being on someone’s desk to being a VP that this is ever going to change.
AFI: While you were at the University of North Carolina, School of the Arts, you established the Media and Emerging Technology Lab. Can you talk a little bit about this initiative and how you view the evolving landscape of the film and TV industry?
SR: I’d been watching the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier space since it originally began in 2007. When I first started seeing the kind of work that they were doing, I thought it was interesting and unusual. But I’ve known for a long time that games and film are going to at some point really intersect. And the New Frontier program was evidence of the interactivity starting to happen. It’s inevitable because it’s all storytelling of one kind or another. I found that as VR and AR and these more immersive fields were beginning to emerge, that filmmakers, coders and engineers really needed to start working together. We need to respect these fields as being different, but also incredibly creative. And filmmakers weren’t necessarily making that leap. People in positions of power didn’t understand where the bottom line was necessarily and what the use was for these emerging technologies.
And then I started looking beyond that at the idea of creating content across the spectrum and how artificial intelligence and blockchain are going to affect things. And it became evident to me that all of these emerging technologies are bumping up against the tradition of filmmaking and that we needed to form a literacy about understanding how to communicate more effectively with one another. There’s an opportunity of exploring it in a way that is collaborative so that we can share the same sandbox. We can incubate things together, rather than separately, and that was the purpose of creating the Media and Emerging Technology Lab in the first place.
AFI: Up-and-coming filmmakers have more resources at their disposal than ever before, but we’re also living in the age of peak TV and content saturation. Do you think it’s a more advantageous time to be a filmmaker in terms of access or do you think the current climate presents more challenges?
SR: Yes and no. It’s a far better time because there are so many more outlets for artists’ work to be seen and obviously it’s getting more inexpensive to produce, so there is no better time than now for filmmakers to actually be in this space. I also think that there is going to be more work available in other kinds of verticals that are not just traditional entertainment at some point in the future.
But with that also comes a discussion about data analytics, blockchain, how you find your audience and how you self-distribute effectively in this marketplace. The ability to curate becomes just as important as the filmmaking process. Part of the learning curve for emerging filmmakers is how does curation itself happen and how do you get your work seen in the right places that are curating for your particular audience. So, the audience is just as important as the content that you’re making in the end.
AFI: What are goals or objectives that you’d like to implement at AFI down the line?
SR: What I’m looking at mostly are some of the infrastructure changes that can really help to smooth the way things are done. This place has an incredible magic to it that I would not want to affect or change at all. So how do we maintain the soul of AFI and at the same time make the infrastructure more effective and make sure that the budgets are there and look to where we need to raise money and raise awareness? Most importantly, we need to bring together all the constituents at AFI to come up with a strategy for the future and a vision for what that future looks like.