Doing the Work: Susan Ruskin, AFI Conservatory’s Visionary Dean

Doing the Work is a series profiling key recipients of HFPA Philanthropy

Susan Ruskin made the transition from successful film producer to film educator more than a decade ago. With credits such as Anaconda and Haunted Honeymoon beneath her belt, she came to the field armed with both practical knowledge and a vision of how films might be made in the future.

In 2009, when she made the switch to education, it seemed evident to her that the industry was going through some seismic shifts and changes, yet old business models still predominated. She felt that academic institutions provided a more fertile ground than film sets for exploring new models of filmmaking, not just in storytelling but in financing, distribution and marketing.  “And that is what motivated me to give academia a try,” she added, “because working in film, I found myself spinning my wheels more and more in terms of getting movies green-lit.” And so the question of how the new generation can tell their stories in the face of an ever-changing industry became her professional focus. As the Dean of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts/School of Filmmaking, Ruskin paid special attention to new media and technology. She founded a Media and Emerging Technology Lab, oversaw the completion of a 30,000-square-foot New Media Building, and organized the school’s first Future of Reality Summit to initiate cross-field discussions surrounding emerging technologies.

Her hands-on background provides an invaluable asset in her work as an educator. “For other people wanting to do what I have already been successful in doing, my own background is relevant to understanding what their experience was,” she explained. “But, at the same time, whatever my experience has been in the business, it is not necessarily what theirs is going to look like in the future.”

Even though Ruskin has always looked to the future, she admits the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the pressures of creative film-making exponentially, not only for now, while we are all in survival mode, but also with regard to the long run, after the health crisis is over. “There is no question that things are going to be different, but we already knew that before the pandemic,” she said. “The timeline has just been shortened dramatically. The pandemic is a horrible thing for everyone to be going through but, at the same time, we will get through this and we will come back to a different set of normal.

“For instance,” she continued; “the most obvious example to look at is the collapse of the window between theatrical release and streaming distribution. This has been going on for some time, but now the crisis is forcing that change more quickly. However, we’re not suggesting for a moment that every film should be shown only on video-on-demand and eventually on streaming. There are movies that really need to be screened in the theater, and it’s just going to have to be the theaters and the studios that are going to have to think about how to make a movie that people will feel impelled to come out of their homes to see, to go to a movie theater and sit next to strangers and have that shared experience. That desire for the communal experience is not going away, but I do think that it’s going to be harder for exhibitors to find the films that really need to be seen in the theater.

“How we make films might change also,” Ruskin went on. “Is it possible to be creating story content on game engines in the future? … And because right now we can’t be on a set with a crew of 120 people, and we can’t be running film through a camera – not even a digital camera – some of these new methods of virtual filmmaking are going to be moving forward quicker than they have been moving in the past.” 

Ruskin took charge of the prestigious AFI Conservatory in 2019, following a tumultuous period for the school, and seems to have brought with her both stability and an exciting vision of a hybrid film education. “I’ve always believed that information can be found on the internet. Gathering information, exposing people to facts and figures, can always be done online, and it is not necessarily a bad way of teaching because it means that people can actually learn at their own pace. But when it comes to discussing what they have learned, when it comes to using that knowledge, and when it comes to branching out on that knowledge to form new ideas, that is when we need to be in the same space together in order to create something together … Of course some of that can be done in a virtual space – there is no question that it’s possible – but a lot of inspiration just has to do with the camaraderie, the relationship, the conversation, the idea of innovation that comes from exchanging ideas in person.”

But why is academia a better forum for innovation than the industry itself? “The way I see it,” Ruskin explained, “is that the industry has to care – and does care, for all the right reasons –about what the financial models are for whatever projects they choose to embrace. In an academic institution, the financial model is not based on profit and loss; it is based on providing an education for the students who are enrolled in your school so that they come out of it prepared to go into the industry. And the industry that they are going into is changing so rapidly that the educational institutions actually have to be one or two or three steps ahead of it. What we need to be teaching is not, ‘This is how you do it’ but ‘This is how you think about it’, because the ‘how you do it’ changes but ‘how you think about it’ doesn’t necessarily change. Where I think AFI can really be a thought leader, is in what the future of storytelling will look like, not in the exact methodology of moviemaking. That’s who we are – we are the people who are educating the future storytellers. And those storytellers will go out in the world and take all that emerging technology, and actually use it to tell the kinds of stories that people will want to watch.”  

For this visionary educator, the priority lies with trying to grasp how storytelling, not technology, is changing. “The technology is no use without great content,” she emphasized. “The content is what moves people’s hearts and minds and sensibilities, reflects back on our communities and on our countries, and helps people to see things in a way they haven’t seen them before. Storytelling goes beyond the movies that we go to see, the television that we watch, the games that we play. Story is in everything we do. And as we become more and more immersed in the digital age and the information age, and spend more and more time on the internet, stories become more relevant and, I think, more involving. When you are more engaged in the story, either as the storyteller or as an audience member, there’s a shift that happens that takes it away from the traditional 3-act structure, and makes it become more of an active experience. All this is going to require a new language of cinema, because that sense of involvement is very different today from the way it used to be, and I think that it shouldn’t just be the technology companies that are thinking about this, it should be filmmakers too.”

She continues: “Filmmakers are the ones who understand the emotional impact of storytelling, and they complement the space of thinking about story in a way that technologists just don’t.  The analysis and the innovation, the practice and the function cannot be mastered unless there is communication with other people who are experts in their different disciplines. I really believe that there needs to be a literacy among all these different disciplines so that people can communicate more effectively together and, therefore, make use of and innovate from whatever their expertise is.”

It is no longer adequate to stay strictly focused on one discipline, Ruskin said. “How do you move mountains? You can’t do it on your own, you have to do it in conjunction with people who have different expertise than you do. This generation is much more aware of many, many things than previous ones, and also more self-aware about what matters to them. But if they don’t have the skills to communicate it across to other people who have different interests, they won’t get anywhere.’

It is precisely the idea of communication and innovation in storytelling, that is what Ruskin has in mind for her students of the AFI Conservatory: “It’s about maintaining the integrity of education that the Conservatory has offered for the last 50 years and also moving that curriculum forward, expanding on the possibilities of what our fellows can learn about the future, and moving towards that future.” By the end of the conversation, Susan Ruskin’s complex and unambiguous thinking had inspired complete confidence in this interviewer. I knew that she could move mountains if she wanted … and all by herself.