His Hollywood triumphs have made him, arguably, one of Indiana University’s biggest celebrities. But Michael Uslan, BA’73, MS’75, JD’76, is much more than a comic book fanatic, the man who bought the movie rights to Batman in 1979, and an award-winning producer—he’s an educator and has been for nearly 50 years.
Uslan taught his first college course, The Comic Book in Society, as a junior at IU in the early 1970s. Today, he’s a professor of practice in IU Bloomington’s Media School—teaching weekend intensives, hosting lectures, and mentoring aspiring filmmakers.
Tell me about your three-week intensive class, Live from Hollywood.
Michael Uslan: Every semester I get 30 of my pals who represent every single aspect of the movie, television, and animation making process [to do] a one-hour Skype talk with my class.
I’ve had Mark Hamill from Star Wars talking about acting. This year, for animation, we’ve got the person who directed Disney’s Mulan.
What about your second course, Business of Producing Motion Pictures?
MU: I teach them what a producer does, what a studio does, and everything in between. I teach them how to find an intellectual property that could be commercial, and then I teach them how to pitch, package, produce, and promote it—the four Ps of being a producer.
Then, we switch gears, and I teach them how to be a studio production executive—the person whose job it is to listen to these pitches and then decide who gets greenlit.
The Batman movie franchise was built on my bloody knuckles.
Do you have any unconventional teaching tactics?
MU: I tell them in the first class, ‘My job is to scare the hell out of you and make you go fleeing into the night—back to your family business, to the safe confines of your home.’ Those who remain standing have an excellent opportunity to move ahead in this business.
What do you think scares students the most?
Really? Why do you say that?
MU: Because I set myself up as the scarecrow in a field of crows and that’s my job. But what’s great is, at the end of this intensive class, I will get a couple of people who will say, ‘Thank God I took this class. This is absolutely not the way I want to spend the rest of my life. Thank you for opening my eyes.’
It starts with scaring the hell out of them, but in the end, they embrace you and everything you have to say.
What are some notable takeaways from the Business of Producing Motion Pictures class?
MU: Better to be one hour early than five minutes late. And no typos allowed.
What are your tips for networking in Hollywood?
MU: If you’re an IU student, one of the first things you need to do is contact the Hollywood Hoosiers. It’s IU’s little mafia in Los Angeles. They can help you transition, find an apartment, find a roommate, and even help on the job front.
In connection with that, when my son David went out to Los Angeles after he graduated from IU, I said, ‘Here’s a little money. Go out and meet as many people just starting out in the business as you can. Take them to lunch, dinner, or coffee and make connections.’
Down the road, those people may become agents or directors at a studio. Then, all of a sudden, all these people with clout know you, and you know them. You’ve got the personal connection, and it’s magic.
How do you seal the deal with a networking connection?
MU: You impress people. You show them you’re committed, smart, and valuable. Along with that, people [need to] know you’re trustworthy, reliable, and a person of your word.
You don’t go out and fight battles in Hollywood, you dig a foxhole. It’s a siege. It’s not a war.
What realities about Hollywood do you pass along to your students?
MU: I promise my students that when they get out to Los Angeles, doors will slam in their face. When they do, you only have two choices. You either go home and cry about it, or you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go back and knock again—and again and again until your knuckles bleed. The Batman movie franchise was built on my bloody knuckles.
Do you believe in the idea of “right place, right time?”
MU: Doors slam in your face. You go back and you knock again and again. At some point in time, you’re going to be knocking on the right door at the right moment. There’s your luck.
Do you agree or disagree when people say that it’s harder to break into the industry now than in the 1980s?
MU: I totally disagree. There are more opportunities now than ever before. Content is in demand worldwide. The economy is strong and people are hiring.
What does the entertainment industry look like for women today?
MU: Ladies, right now, this is your moment. There are demands and directives that [require us to] have 50 percent female directors or 50 percent female writers. You’re interested in acting? There’s going to be less of a chance you’re going to get somebody slimy or predatory in the process, but you still need to be street smart.
Realistically, is success in Hollywood attainable?
MU: Can you make your dreams come true? I’m living proof you can. I’m that blue-collar kid from New Jersey who spent seven years in the oasis of Bloomington, Ind. I did it. So yeah, you can do it. Is it easy? Lord, no.
Is it quick? Absolutely not. It’s a siege. It’s not a war. You don’t go out and fight battles in Hollywood. What you do is dig a foxhole. And the most important decision you can make is who you allow into that foxhole to watch your back.