To Shakespeare’s eternal question “What’s in a name?,” Yeidy Rivero has a simple answer: “Everything.”
Rivero, professor of TV history, chairs the newly renamed LSA Department of Film, Television, and Media. The new name became official on September 1, and Rivero is thrilled.
Originally coined as the Department of Screen Arts and Culture at its founding in 2004, the department’s name was intended to encompass a field whose technology is constantly changing. However, there was a small problem, Rivero says: No one understood what it meant. “Students didn’t know how to find the department. Parents of students didn’t know what their children were studying. Donors—many of them from Hollywood—didn’t know what ‘screen arts and culture’ meant.”
Jim Burnstein, director of the department’s renowned screenwriting program, says “the unkindest cut of all” came this past summer when U-M basketball coach John Beilein toured the department on behalf of a potential recruit and expressed his surprise and amazement at everything we had to offer.
“It kills me that one of the top sports programs in our own university didn’t even know we existed, and that's on us not them” says Burnstein, who’s taught screenwriting at Michigan for over two decades.
The new name “says exactly who we are and what we do,” Rivero says. “You come to the department to study film, television, and media—including digital media.”
Students take classes in everything from screenwriting and film and TV production to early cinema, sitcoms, digital media, and the history and theory of film, television, and media. They also attend lectures and master classes with visiting film and TV professionals, and they write and produce their own work. Every year, the department sends two student-produced films to the Traverse City Film Festival, founded by Michael Moore.
“We train our students to think,” says Rivero, a media historian who has published two books—a history of Puerto Rican television as it relates to race, and a history of prerevolutionary commercial Cuban TV. She’s at work on a new book about Colombia’s role as a production center for narco telenovelas—serial prime-time TV shows about the drug trade. The genre is popular throughout Latin America and helped inspire the Netflix show Narcos.
Rivero is also writing a history of a little-known era in U.S. media when the Kennedy administration launched a series of radio telenovelas with anti-communist messages. The shows were produced in Miami and broadcast throughout Latin America. It’s because of this U.S. government–sponsored propaganda program, Rivero says, that Miami later became the Spanish-language media capital of the U.S.
As department chair, Rivero is working to increase faculty diversity and attract even more students to Michigan, especially students from high schools that have a strong focus on the humanities. The department name change is key to those efforts, she says. “I look forward to the day when students find the department not by chance, but because they came to Michigan deliberately to study in the Department of Film, Television, and Media.”
In a recent issue devoted to “The Best Film Schools in the U.S. and Canada 2018,” MovieMaker Magazine hailed the LSA department’s name change as “a sign of the times” and ranked Michigan among the top film schools in the U.S., noted for its “outstanding screenwriting training” and the success of its alumni.
Department graduates work “all over the industry,” says Burnstein. “It’s hard to keep track.” Michigan alums hold leadership positions at Netflix, AMC, Comedy Central, Fox, Amazon, Warner Bros, and dozens of other organizations in L.A. and New York. They’ve written for Blackish, House of Cards, and One Day at a Time. They’ve served as showrunners; sold pilots to HBO, AMC, and HULU; and have written, produced, and directed studio and independent films that have played in theaters and festivals around the world, including the Sundance and Cannes festivals.
Many of the department’s most successful graduates are women. In fact, the two films the department sent to Traverse City this year were written and directed by women. “Women are among our most successful graduates,” Burnstein says. “We're helping to change the game in Hollywood.”
Alumna Kelci Parker (LSA ’11), director of development at Comedy Central, is one of them. Parker credits her success in large part to the department. “The program at Michigan really helps prepare you for the industry,” she explains. “In upper-level classes you have to pitch your ideas, and you’re told ‘no’ the same way you are in Hollywood. You get real budgets, and you have to figure that out. There’s lots of hands-on experience that you don’t get in other schools. All of my friends who came out of Michigan are working in L.A. or New York and are really successful.”
Alumnus Eddie Rubin (LSA ’09), a producer whose films include 2016’s The Last Poker Game and this year’s Puzzle, says the department deserves its great reputation, which he predicts will only grow under its new name. “I’m really happy with the name change,” he says. “When people in the industry see a resume with ‘Screen Arts and Culture,’ they question what it is. The new name will better serve students.”
Rivero says she’s not surprised to hear that graduates are as happy with the new name as she is. “Finally their employees will know what they studied!” she laughs. “‘Screen Arts and Culture’—it’s, like, what?”