Susan Thomson, BHP ’99, co-founded and co-produces FilmMatters, a film dialogue series that focuses on the use of film to encourage social change. Susan spent over 12 years as a media consultant, with roles in strategy, operations, and distribution at Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Really Useful Group,” and the BBC before co-founding FilmMatters.
You didn’t begin your career in the entertainment industry. Why did you decide to venture into it?
It was a progression. My first job was in New York City at Lehman Bros. When I was at UT, I minored in Classics and Art History, so I decided to take an internship with a museum on the weekends. I knew I loved both art and business, and soon realized that a better merge of the two disciplines actually existed in the entertainment industry. I decided to move to Dallas to work for Arthur Andersen’s Consulting arm, and started learning about the work we did for entertainment clients. I also volunteered with a Film Festival in Dallas during my spare time, and I loved it. My mentor suggested that I move to Los Angeles and work for a studio if I really wanted a career in the entertainment industry. A connection from the Dallas Film Festival helped me get my job in LA. After 5 years in LA at Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures, I decided I wanted to move to London and I thought consulting would be a good way to put my core skills to use and develop as a Manager. I got a job with Deloitte Consulting with the help of a strong referral from a friend I’d met back at Arthur Andersen training 6 years before. During those years that I was in LA and then in London, I continued to do projects with the people I had met through the Dallas Film Festival. I produced some events for them and helped bring a few films to the festival. When I moved back to the States in 2010, I started FilmMatters with one of the women I’d been working with on and off for 10 years.
Tell me more a bit more about FilmMatters.
My friend Melina McKinnon and I started FilmMatters because we just love filmmakers that are trying to change the world for the better. For years, we had both been counseling super passionate filmmakers who often had a nearly completed film but had no clue about distribution options or how to take that film through the system and actually achieve their desired impact. Sometimes they hadn’t even defined the impact they wanted so there’s your first problem. I think the root of a lot of missteps – especially for young filmmakers – is just a lack of education. The film industry is deliberately opaque, so that’s not surprising.
Our team decided to put together panel discussions that deal with what we call “Movies with a Mission” and stated key goals “To educate, entertain and inspire”. We bring in people like PBS execs, TV and Film Producers and Filmmakers ranging from novice, to Oscar nominated Directors to share their experiences and offer advice. We just had our 3rd event last week at the Dallas International Film Festival and each one just gets better.
You have had many different types of roles in your career. What skill sets do you think have been most transferable?
I think the ability to listen and dig down into the detail to find the source of problems is one of the best skills I’ve honed and put to use in a variety of situations. A lot of times you discover that a problem is people-related instead of process-related and if you want to fix something, you have to sell the person on “the new way” and make sure they are capable of doing it. The other obvious one is project management and people management. Last week one of our great interns thanked me for giving him context about what his tasks, which are fairly dry, would be used for. I had great managers along the way reinforce things like that.
How did your career changes come about? Were they intentional, or were they more related to opportunities that came your way?
They were all very intentional. I thought a lot about what I wanted to do next and I always had a through line in terms of my actions and goals. Working at a bank, I realized I would be better in consulting, learning transferable skills. I wanted to understand the business of making films, so I moved to an entertainment company. At this point I had a team working for me, but not much skill at how to manage teams. I still wanted to work in the entertainment space, but I also wanted to learn to be a better manager, so I went back to consulting in the entertainment industry. That job was always going to be for a short period as an opportunity to transition. Once I had my first child, I wanted the ability to choose my projects and be involved in the creative side of the business. By then I had built the reputation and skill sets I needed to do just that. Each move I made was because I wanted to round out my skill sets or work in a specific industry.
Which project or job have you enjoyed the most?
Working for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Really Useful Group” was possibly my favorite role. It was so intensely British. My job there was what I know how to do best. I was the jack of all trades project manager and I diagnosed problems and fixed them. Musical theater is like nothing else; you encounter very interesting, passionate personalities. I was the middle man between creative and business types, which I really enjoyed. Andrew Lloyd Webber was producing music for Phantom of the Opera 2 in the next room, so that was really amazing, and I got free tickets to all the shows!
What advice would you offer current students?
Do something in your spare time to learn more about an industry you enjoy. When I left Arthur Andersen it was 2001 and a manager I knew told me he didn’t understand why I would leave such a secure job on a wild hair. Three months later Enron exploded, and a lot changed for everyone at that firm. If you aren’t enjoying what you are doing, don’t stay where you are just because you think it is a sure thing, because it may not be. Nothing is anymore. Push yourself in that first job as hard as you did when you were a student. You are never going to have less responsibility than at the beginning of your career, so it is a great time to pour your energies into work and build a solid reputation. That said, set goals for yourself outside of work and don’t lose that other part of your life. Whether it be physical goals, travel plans, learning a new language, or something else, just don’t lose the other layers that make you fulfilled and stimulate you. In every job you do, if you see your boss’s job and don’t want that for yourself, then you are probably in the wrong place. As long as you know you are only there for a short period of time, it is okay, just make sure you know your exit strategy. One of my greatest friends in BHP, Carrie Rippstein Show, sent me an email that first year of work when I was an analyst and absolutely in the thick of what felt like complete drudgery – long hours of detailed boring work. Of course I now realize the skills I learned on that job were very important and helpful later, but none-the-less, it was a tough time. The email included a quote that said, “He who masters the grey every day is a hero.” I really loved that line and it got me through some long afternoons.