Byline: Mandy Ellis
A lifetime of appreciation and love for the arts gave John Oursler a one-of-a-kind opportunity: carving out a dedicated position raising funds for young filmmakers. The cinephile serves as the senior associate director of development at The School of the Arts at Columbia University, where students from around the world hone their storytelling skills and learn to express their extraordinary individual perspectives. As one of the top film schools, staying nimble with the changing environment is non-negotiable; especially when it comes to nurturing students who need support to tell their stories authentically.
EMINUTES, who recently supported Columbia’s Launch Program, sat down with Oursler to discuss the university’s new initiatives for black, BIPOC, and queer students, how the launch program helps develop filmmakers with storytelling skills, how the school helps graduating students become active artists, and why the shift in their faculty and courses is helping push for long-term cultural change.
How has Columbia University’s film and arts school changed over the last three years that you’ve worked there? What are a few critical initiatives or programs that have come to life?
First, the creation of my position is a big part. I joined three years ago to fundraise specifically for the film program in a newly-created position that the film faculty advocated for for a while. And the creation of the role was important to get more scholarships for students and more production fund money for their thesis projects.
And our program evolves as we try to be responsive as industry and social shifts make their way to the school and students. This year in light of the Black Lives Matter protests, there’s been a real ideological shift around what kind of support and what students need support in the program. So I worked with people like Jeff to underwrite, sponsor, and donate funds that are specific to BIPOC, black, and queer students who likely need greater support than other student populations in order to level the playing field.
How does Columbia’s Launch Program work, and what specific purposes do the donations go toward?
The launch fund is new within the last two years and it’s something I lobbied for because we as a fundraiser haven’t got much for scholarships or for production grants. And when students are graduating, they make short films to satisfy their thesis requirement and they cost money and production grants help students make those films. Large funds are something that didn’t really exist as they do now. And the way they work is they’re given to students upon graduation to help facilitate their transition from being a student to being a working artist.
We have a student film festival at the end of the year with 40 films, and have gifts in recognition of great student work, like best film, best director, or best female director. And they act as launch gifts, too because they’re cash awards to students who are graduating. The launch gifts aren’t tied to a project or student work, they’re more specific to black, BIPOC, queer students whose work is also great, but who did not get the best film award since there’s only one.
How does Columbia’s film program support and develop the stories of young filmmakers? What direction, skills, and resources help them launch their film careers?
The film program at Columbia has three focus areas, creative producing, screenwriting, and directing and students declare a concentration in their second year. We have really tremendous faculty who are all working artists and filmmakers, and the program is known as the storytelling school among film schools.
We have a lot of alums who go on to make big Hollywood movies, Jennifer Lee is one and she made Frozen and is heading up Walt Disney Animation. Alums do different things, but the reason they all succeed is because they’re storytellers. If there’s one thing specifically that the program nurtures, it’s an individualistic approach to storytelling. It nurtures bold, innovative storytelling and the students who pursue producing are storytellers in their own way because they tend to be drawn to those kinds of stories. As producers, they also want to produce those kinds of stories.
Why is it crucial for young storytellers to see themselves within the context of film? How does seeing diverse stories like theirs impact their filmmaking careers?
Representation is critical, in any field, but particularly in arts and media. We have a diverse faculty and student population, with 50 percent gender parity in the program and have a hugely international program with African, Saudi, Indian, and Chinese students, and many American black and BIPOC students also. And I think they want to be on the vanguard of representation, and tell stories of themselves and what they see and what’s important.
Why is it important to support initiatives like Columbia University’s Launch program and film initiatives? How does the EMinutes sponsorship impact Columbia University’s Launch Program?
Art is critical to understanding the world we live in, and this year’s shown it. What have you been doing when you’re at home? You’re watching things. I’m looking to art in the next several years to reflect the current moment, politics, social issues, and it’s through stories and storytelling mediums, like film, that we understand the world better and develop empathy towards people unlike ourselves.
And it’s critical particularly in this current moment to donate to programs like the Launch Fund for emerging artists because they have a tough time. They go to film school, they have some debt when they graduate. Even if they’re working right out of school, they’re not making big movies; they’re trying to get their work out there. And I’ve talked to so many alums who are so talented, but it’s hard to make a living right away. And if you can’t do it right away, a lot of them eventually have to, not give it up, but make trade-offs.
Donating to things like the Launch Fund is vital to support artists. Jeff seems to also want to support artists at the moment in their career when they’re first becoming filmmakers; when they need the most support, and the Fund is an invaluable resource to give to them. We’re also thinking about a masterclass or exit strategy in the spring.
What do Launch gift recipients receive beyond financial support? How does that change the trajectory of the film careers, and help diversify the indie and Hollywood film landscapes?
We made the commitment for those Launch Fund gifts to go primarily to BIPOC and queer students. Giving them extra help when they’re coming out the door helps them in so many ways to take their films to festivals, which gets them exposure, it helps them move to Los Angeles to start a career, maybe it gives them a couple of months to focus on working on a project. A lot of those students who’ve benefited from the Launch Fund really needed extra support and that’s why we want to give it.
There’s also a mentorship component with many of these Launch Fund gifts. Just helping someone at that critical time early in their career what it does is diversify the landscape, it changes the kinds of stories that you see. Because too often graduating students are saddled with things that almost preclude them from being artists. We want to help and we want them to be artists. They came to us to learn and be nurtured and we want them to be artists.
How does Columbia’s film school work toward long-lasting cultural change in the film industry? What specific steps does the school take to ensure new voices are heard and new stories are authentically told?
Just in the last year, we launched an advisory committee that augments the work of our alumni network, but more specifically for the film program to develop mentorship models and a tangible network of alumni industry professionals who can act as contacts and mentors for graduating students. When students first start their career, it’s vital to their long-term viability as artists to make sure they have contacts and we can help them get agents. We can get their scripts read, we can help get them in writer’s rooms, and that’s difficult to do on their own.
And the shift in understanding is we need to give some students greater resources in order to help them succeed. That evolution in our thinking about how we work with those students has been an important change. And how we think about fundraising for scholarships and Launch Funds and production grants for those students, we as a school devoted a lot of time and resources to doing the work to get more money specifically for those kinds of students.
Oftentimes donors who are alums, or in the case of Jeff not an alum, want to support emerging artists. They look to us for guidance on what the program and the students need. This is where we’ve shifted in evolution. People are really open to ideas about how they can make the biggest and most meaningful, real impact. I’ve noticed a shift in the way donors and philanthropists think and their openness to being guided towards a different paradigm of giving, too.
When you’re not trying to help raise needed funds for an amazing film program filled with student potential, who are you and what are you doing?
I’m a person who spends a lot of time with my boyfriend watching a television. I try to be physically active and I’m an arts person. When I moved to New York 16 years ago, I went to the New School to learn how to be a writer, like critical writing, but always loved film, ballet, classical music, and theater. But I’m not an artist; I have no misunderstanding that I’m an artist just because I love the arts.
However, I carved out a very niche career for myself in arts fundraising, specifically film arts fundraising, and I love that. It’s my way of contributing to something that has enriched my life. Supporting artists and storytellers whose work really guides how I see the world. That’s a big part of who I am. One of my favorite movies is called, Dancer in the Dark, with Björk. It’s wrenching, tragic, operatic, heartbreaking, beautiful.
What program or student film are you most proud of?
A film called, Darling, directed by our student, Saim Sadiq, about a Pakistani trans dancer who auditions for a dance company. It’s memorable as much for its representation as how spirited and cinematic it is as a love story. Truly an achievement for such a young filmmaker.
What should we be looking for in the future of Columbia University’s film program and all the amazing talent and stories that graduate from there?
We’ve added a lot of courses and professors in teleplays, TV writing, as so much of the industry has become series, and there’s been a lot of interest from students to pursue that alongside features. And the shift in inclusivity and diversity will continue in the faculty and student base, and I know that we’ll continue to be responsive to the needs and interests of the students. The program has evolved a lot while staying one of the top three or four film programs in the country, and we couldn’t do that unless we had keen insight into the industry and what the students want and what we can do to make them successful.
What advice would you give to aspiring young filmmakers?
Write and make what you’re passionate about, follow your creative instincts, and don’t do what you think will make money.
BIO: John Oursler is the senior associate director of development at The School of the Arts at Columbia University, a top film and arts program in the nation, in New York City. He’s also on the board of directors at Queer|Art, which helps with mentorship, and presentation and regranting work for young, emerging queer artists.