How LA Film School CEO Diana Derycz-Kessler Is Mentoring Filmmakers & Promoting Media Arts Education

In the San Diego University Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s annual ‘Boxed In’ report during the 2015-2016 period, it found that women made up 26% of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and directors of photography across broadcast, cable and streaming networks. In film, women made up only 12% of the top 500 films, 11% of writers, 22% of editors, and 6% of cinematographers. The numbers are depressing and frustrating, to say the least.

How do we change this? How is the industry ever going to make a meaningful push toward gender-equal representation without making excuses time and time again? Can an improved pipeline from the academic level to the industry level make the difference? There is one school aiming to make this a reality. The Los Angeles Film School, located in the heart of Hollywood, has been pushing for change in a dynamic way, lead by its CEO Diana Derycz-Kessler (she also heads up the LA Recording School).

Diana has spent close to 2 decades in her role as CEO and is responsible for a recent $1 million expansion of the school while promoting media arts education and mentoring up-and-coming filmmakers. She comes from a law and entrepreneurial background, and is heavily involved in a global education expansion project through UNESCO. Through this partnership she has been encouraging adolescent girls to pursue science, tech, engineering, arts, design and math careers.

If there is one #bosslady who knows a thing or two about improving the pipeline in the arts, it’s Diana Derycz-Kessler, and we had the chance to chat on-on-one with her about her plans to continue the momentum to create parity in Hollywood, starting at the film school level.

Tell us how your career began in the filmmaking world and education?

The entertainment industry and education have always been two passions of mine. Even after I received my degrees from Harvard Law School, Stanford University, and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), my thirst for learning continued, especially in the areas of entertainment and media arts. I decided to further my studies by taking media arts/entertainment-focused classes alongside my career as an attorney.

Later, through my business practices and my continued love for film/entertainment, I was led to my current role at The Los Angeles Film and Recording Schools as President and CEO. At the school, I’m able to marry my passion for education and entertainment into one role as well as help young adults and professionals do the same. Today, the school, which was formed in 1998, is continuing to grow and we have an impressive number of alumni working successfully in the industry from film, animation, and entertainment business to recording and producing.

Previous to what you are doing now, you were a lawyer. Can you tell us a bit of what you used to do and what experience you brought to the film industry?

I started my career as an international oil and gas business attorney working at a New York law firm. My interest in business led me to launch my own law practice that focused on advising oil companies and financial institutions. To this day, I continue to have active participation in a variety of businesses through investments and board memberships.

I’ve always had an interest in film and entertainment. Even while practicing law, I started taking film/entertainment classes to better understand the inner workings of the industry and familiarize myself with entertainment best practices. My passion for the industry has and always will be essential to my success in leading The Los Angeles Film School.

You are the CEO of The Los Angeles Film School and The Los Angeles Recording School, where you have recently seen a $1 million expansion of the film school .Tell us more about what this expansion will mean for students and the film industry.

Over the years, I’ve overseen multiple multi-million dollar renovations and expansions to our schools. Through our most recent investment, the goal was to increase access to both the ground campus as well as to our growing online degrees. The expansion helped fuel a new Bachelor of Science in Film program, the launch of an English-language school facility called ELS/Hollywood and the renovation of the 6,000-square-foot Ivar Theatre.

It also increased our offerings and highlighted our commitment to offer students from all over the world the ability to connect to the epicenter of the entertainment industry and learn from the best. It is important to us to bring a diverse group of students together to learn, graduate, make connections and take the lead as the next generation of experts in the entertainment industry.

We recently added Bachelor of Science programs in Animation & VFX, as well as online programs in Digital Filmmaking and Entertainment Business. Through our online programs, we can reach students who cannot get to Hollywood but have a passion for media arts and aspire to have a successful career in the industry. These programs are essential in achieving that and more.

With so few female CEOs compared to male CEOs, how do you hope to use your role to inspire other women to pursue positions of leadership?

There is no limit to what women can achieve. I hope to lead by example and impart my knowledge, know-how and enthusiasm for the industry to other women in business and education to encourage them to reach their highest potential. Throughout my career, my best asset was the ability to work hard with a positive outlook. The formula for success can often be as simple as waking up, working hard and taking a step every day towards your desired goal.

Sometimes it can be easy to get derailed from your end goal when workplace problems arise, anything from a change in your job duties to a spat with a co-worker. Keeping a positive outlook is important so you can stay focused on working towards the ultimate achievement. When I read about other female CEOs, I find their path was similar.

Additionally, I plan to continue to give back to the global community and be a part of developing more female professionals through my work with UNESCO.

Why are you passionate about promoting filmmaking and arts education in Los Angeles?

Los Angeles is the center of the entertainment industry. I believe it is important to bring students to where the crux of the industry is to not only learn from the best, but to also have the opportunity to network with peers, leaders and potential colleagues in the industry. Entertainment media has a global presence in today’s world, but Hollywood and Los Angeles continue to be the epicenter of deals and creativity. What better way to learn about entertainment than in the heart of the entertainment world? These are the types of competitive offerings we give our students at The Los Angeles Film School from day one.

We see a lot of stats about the under-representation of women and minorities both in front of the camera and behind in key positions like director and writer. How do you combat the status quo through your institutions?

There are many ways to do this, but in my own experiences, in youth and as a young professional, I did not view gender as an obstacle. I was impassioned by a dream and toiled away day-by-day towards that dream, being mindful of the people and opportunities around me.

Although being a lawyer and businesswoman in a sea of male lawyers and businessmen certainly made me ponder the gender differences, I felt I had earned a seat at the table through my hard work and was certain that others could do the same if they put their minds to it.

The female students arriving at The Los Angeles Film and Recording Schools have a dream and a desire to succeed in the entertainment industry. Our part is to continue feeding that dream through education, so we can help make their hopes and dreams a reality. There is not a more powerful tool than education. In addition, we encourage our students to seek out mentors in their respective programs. We have many accomplished female professors that can and have shared their experiences about combating status quo and provide a positive example of successful women.

What will it take for the film industry to change their perspective on power structures and give more opportunities to women and minorities?

There is a certain catch 22 to this question. It will take more women working their way up through the industry to positions of leadership to make this happen. My own approach is to simply hire capable people regardless of gender or race. I think if more institutions did this, by definition there would be more opportunities for women and minorities, and companies throughout the industry would have a diverse mix of people in their workforce. Fortunately, I do see more and more leaders taking this approach.

You have recently joined UNESCO’s TeachHer Project which aims to expand education access on a global level. What do you hope to impart to the participants of this program?

The mission is to bridge the educational gender gap that exists around the world. Although here, in the United States, we have exemplary access to education for both genders, there are many parts of the world where the opportunities are not readily available to adolescent girls and young women.

The TeachHer program is focused on helping countries impart compelling STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) education to adolescent girls around the world. The idea is to inspire and engage girls in a world of learning that, in turn, can give them improved opportunities should they choose to embark upon a career (and we hope they will). This is a monumental task as it includes changing the mindset of people in those countries to create more opportunities for up-and-coming young female professionals, but with young women empowering themselves with education you can only imagine the positive effects!

How can film and the arts be a powerful vehicle for change in the world today?

No one is immune to the effects of a great story, especially with the power of visual and audio storytelling. In my recent visit to Costa Rica for the UNESCO TeachHer program, technology was everywhere: from locals holding smartphones, to educators teaching through compelling visuals, to young girls talking about new apps and ways of communicating.

Not only can film change mindsets in a traditional way (watching and learning), but the interactive nature of technology and media arts in today’s world is a more powerful force of change due to its ease of access. It provides young folks with a means of expression – to create and connect with peers –in a way they never had before. When self-expression is increased, studies have shown that improved self-esteem can follow, improving a person’s confidence and energy to succeed.

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