"It's not show art, it's show business": Drew McClellan on the future of film
Photos provided by Drew McClellan
Having achieved a Bachelor's degree in English from Howard University, a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and currently pursuing his Master of Business Administration at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California Los Angeles, Drew McClellan is the Chair of the Cinematic Arts Department at the esteemed Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA), distinguished as the #1 Arts High School in America. He also serves as an Adjunct Graduate Professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, contributing to the institution's mission of nurturing talent and fostering excellence in the cinematic arts.

With his father serving as chairman of a major corporate board and the former Dean of the Boston College Graduate School of Management, and his mom being a fine artist and graphic designer, Drew has been exposed to "left and right brain" experiences since childhood.
His journey has been, of all things, unconventional. After graduating from USC, Drew went into freelance production and juggled gigs throughout LA for several years. At one point, he oversaw production and social media for the W Hotel Hollywood as the hotel chain transitioned from being solely a hospitality brand into developing an entertainment brand identity. Filming in-house content like travel shows and jazz nights with artists Justin Bieber, Nicole Scherzinger, Prince, Stevie Wonder and Kevin Hart. The filmmaker believed there had to be something more. "This was not sustainable," he explains. "This was before being a content creator was a viable position in the industry."

While freelancing, McClellan got invited to teach film production with the Los Angeles Department of Children & Family Services for its Independent Living program. Every week, he'd teach foster teens the necessary film production skills so that they'd be able to secure entry-level jobs in entertainment. "I unlocked a passion of mine – this was another way I could use my skills to not only give back but have more stability rather than the typical feast or famine from job to job," he says.

Around the same time, Drew was introduced to a new program at a very prestigious high school that needed leadership for their newly developed cinematic arts program. Initially hired as a teacher, the filmmaker was offered to run the program a year later. Since then, LACHSA went from a school only known in certain circles to being consecutively ranked as the top arts high school in the country.
For McClellan, high school is where raw creativity is unlocked and should be moulded and amplified. "There's a certain jadedness that can creep in as an artist: the older you get, the more frustrated you [become] when you try to put your work out," he elucidates. "But when you're in high school, a lot of students are free to create, talk about [their] ideas, and experiment." So, the director tries to mold this raw creativity and give it structure.

The first two years of the program focus on laying the foundation for compelling storytelling. "The foundation of any good story is someone wants something very badly and has difficulty getting it – we first teach that. Everything else is just add-on and accessories," Drew says. Having been accepted into the USC Film School, the institution changed the name of the program to the USC School of Cinematic Arts mid way through his matriculation in order to reflect the seismic technological innovations that were occurring within Hollywood.

The word "cinematic" plays a crucial role in McClellan's perception of storytelling. In the early 2000's, George Lucas and the USC board of directors recognized that the film industry was changing and the school name didn't encapsulate what was going on in the industry anymore – cinematic arts was becoming much broader. That concept has stayed with him to this day and he carries it through everything he does.
"If you have a good story, it's timeless. We start there and then whatever new technology is out at the time, we incorporate it to tell that story."
Another part of it comes through embracing new tech. Humanity is at a unique point given the way everyone consumes and creates content – the consumer of content now has the ability to be the same person who creates the content, which has never been the case on a large scale before.

One of the experiments that Drew's doing with film students at LACHSA is giving them story prompts, having them write a scenario, and then giving the same task to ChatGPT. "Then, we have students shoot [both] scripts, see what comes out, and test which one the audience likes," he says. "How does AI do with creating stories vs humans? It helps students understand the limitations and advantages of AI. Since we're currently at the inception of artificial intelligence entering creative industries, the most important thing we can do is lean into new technology, expose students to new tech, and experiment with it."

The comparison between many colleges' and universities' approach is stark. "There's often a disconnect – larger universities face complex bureaucracies and struggle to adapt to the speed at which things are changing, and at the same time are obligated to teach traditional forms of media creation," McClellan shares. Being a smaller educational institution, the head can quickly adapt the curriculum, work with hand-selected faculty, and pivot. In his words, while there are many institutions embracing innovation, they're innovative by their definition.

At the same time, you can't really blame these institutions – there's a lot of bureaucracy that comes with higher education. Given that new tech is coming out so fast, you don't have the instructors and curriculum developed beforehand and, although they've adapted to embrace digital innovation, they just don't have the ability to pivot at the necessary speed.
That's why it's so important for students to develop an entrepreneurial spirit. "One of my mentors at USC, Bruce Block, who has taught Visual Structure for 40 years, that I now teach as well – says: 'the best skill you can have is the ability to figure it out'," Drew shares. "When you go to school, you're honing a skill, but there is a real possibility that by the time you get out, that skill will be obsolete because the tech is changing so fast." How fast you're able to adapt is what will determine whether you'll be able to cut through the noise and succeed in the industry.

The landscape itself has also drastically changed: now, there are the streaming giants that control a major part of it. While there are only a few major players, there are a lot more options within those platforms, which unlocked the ability for people to curate and tailor their experiences to exactly what they want to see. Assessing what's going on in the world and how people's tastes are changing is key. "As much as artists feel like they can create what they want and on the timeline they want, it's the intersection of art and commerce that drives the industry," the filmmaker says. "You have to be clear on what audiences are looking for and what is bringing people in [that] sparks a willingness to pay for the content you're creating."
"This is not show art, it's show business."
Artificial intelligence will continue to disrupt content creation and consumption, which will in turn affect tastes. The way Drew sees it, the film industry is reaching the end of the comic and graphic novel universes – the audience's appetites are waning. With companies like Marvel and DC scraping the bottom of the barrel of their IP, people crave new and different stories.

As the appetite increased, the attention span lowered. People aren't willing to wait six months and lose interest if you're not churning it out – that accelerates the rate at which content is produced. "Moving forward, we'll see smaller targeted stories with movies like Coda and Minari," McClellan predicts. "Production companies will be more clear on identity vs major studios trying to capture as much market share as possible."

Although there are more opportunities because there's more content, they're still limited since they go to people who are already there. When Netflix pivoted to original content, they invited renowned directors like David Fincher and Shonda Rimes, so making it to streaming services is a challenge in itself. "They're all about revenue growth and market share – for them, it's about eyeballs and usually, they don't wanna take unsolicited projects," the filmmaker conveys.
In Drew's case, he worked on a couple of documentaries that were then sold to Netflix through a management company. One of them, At All Costs, followed the story of two emerging high school basketball players who were part of Compton Magic. To portray the story of how they ended up in one of the premier high school basketball programs in the country, McClellan was invited by his friend to help out. The story ended up getting picked up by the streaming giant.

The giant also reached out to Drew directly to promote the Lin Manuel Miranda directed film, "tick, tick…BOOM!". For the lead-up marketing, Netflix invited different high schools with film programs to take one of the movie's songs, "Louder than Words", and have students create a short film that the company would then stitch together and promote.

The downfall, however, is that unless you are a big-time name, it's not promised that getting to Netflix is going to make you successful. "[Your work] may just get buried on Netflix and you have to do self-promotion," he says. "They have the ability to just take it down because it's just such a high turnover rate." That is what happened to the documentary.
With most of the power being concentrated between four tech streaming giants, they decide who they're going to invest in and amplify – everyone else will simply try to get a piece of that exposure. [Netflix was the underdog and now it's one of the biggest players.] Talking about emerging structures and business models, Drew mentions that not so long ago, Hollywood was vertically integrated, owning every element of distribution from actor contracts and production companies to theater chains. The Department of Justice had to come in and disrupt the monopoly, which allowed for a new structure in Hollywood.

There's a similar trend happening with Netflix – if before it was the underdog, it's influencing a big chunk of the entertainment industry, slowly taking up the entire chain of production. As artificial intelligence and other emerging tech continue to disrupt the industry, we'll see new underdogs level the playing field. Just like Netflix once did.
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