October 1, 2008

The Cornell Connection: Gaye Hirsch '84, CW Executive

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Ever dream of working in showbiz? Then talk to Gaye Hirsch ’84, Senior Vice President of Current Programming at the C.W. television network. She helped make movies for Tom Cruise’s production company, Cruise/Wagner and held a gig with HBO, before settling down to oversee shows like Gossip Girl and Smallville at the C.W. The Sun had the opportunity to sit down with Hirsch in Los Angeles this summer to talk about her path to show-business:
The Sun: So you’re a pretty big deal. Would you mind explaining what exactly your job entails?
Gaye Hirsch: Sure. Well I guess, by the time this article comes out, I will have a new title, which is Senior Vice President of Current Programming. What the Current Programming department does — at most networks, including the C.W. — there’s a development department and a department for current programming. We work very closely together — and particularly here, because we’re a small network. The distinction is that the development people work on the creation of the new shows, new pilots. They develop a number of new scripts every season.
Of those scripts, a subset will become pilots, which actually get shot, or pilot presentations, which are not the full pilot, but pieces of it that are enough to see basically what the story is, who the characters are, and get a sense of the show. And then, every year, of the pilots and presentations that get made, a subset will actually become series that get put on the air.
And at the point that a series has been determined — that it will go forward — the development team and the current programming team will work very closely together on the first few episodes of the show. And once the show gets up and running, and everyone sort of agrees on what the parameters are and what the creative vision is, then the current department takes over. So it’s kind of a seamless transition between development and current.
What the current department does, on a day-to-day basis, is oversee the creative vision of the show, and work very closely with the show-runners — the writers, the producers, the studio — to deal with every aspect of the creative execution of the series. So it’s everything from looking at the stories that the producers want to write; reading outlines; reading scripts when they come in; watching dailies; watching every stage of the process and offering input — it’s very collaborative. We work very closely on every show with the studio, and of course with the writer-producers of the show.
Sun: If someone had told you, while you were a student at Cornell, that someday you would be sort of in charge of all of these different shows, what would you say?
G.H.: Well, it wasn’t on my radar at the time. When I was at Cornell, I was in the College of Human Ecology and a child development major with every intention of becoming a psychologist. I actually went to graduate school for psychology for a period of time. But when I look back on it now, I think the very things that interested me about psychology are similar to the things that interest me about movies and television — understanding people, understanding characters, delving into what makes people tick.
And I also was a big reader and loved movies and television. I love stories.
So, although at the time, it would have been surprising if you had told me that I’d be doing this job, looking back on it I feel like everything I did along the way was actually quite relevant to where I wound up.
Sun: So where do you think you fall on the scale between traditional and untraditinal path to Holllywood?
G.H.: I think there are as many pathways to the entertainment business as there are people. The beauty, and the frustration, about breaking into the business is that there’s no one set way to do it — which I look at as an opportunity, because anybody who is creative and has ideas and wants to pursue them can go down a different path. I think it’s a perfectly good path to go to film school and study the technical aspects of filmmaking, as well as story theory and everything else along the way. That’s one path. Another path is to study whatever you want and be a well-rounded individual and then, ultimately, learn by doing — by getting into the business and getting an internship, or just learning whatever you can.
After [pursuing a graduate degree in] psychology, I went to graduate school for business at UCLA. And I just used every opportunity I could to meet people in the entertainment industry, and did everything I could to learn about it — whether it was reading scripts for free or doing my thesis project for an entertainment company. I felt like that was all worthwhile knowledge that I was compiling, and ultimately I look back on it and think that it did help me … as well as what I studied in school. I took classes in Freudian analysis, and I took classes about how to schedule a movie, and I took legal classes about the film business. Everything about the film business I could learn about, that’s what I did. And again, it’s a little bit of luck-of-the-draw — what opportunities present themselves to you once you’re ready to look for a job.
Sun: Would you say the MBA track is the anomaly, or is it common?
G.H.: I wouldn’t say either one. I wouldn’t say anomaly and I wouldn’t say common. I think there are a lot of people who pursue graduate degrees of any type, whether it’s a masters in writing or a film or a business degree, a law degree.
Sun: Do you think any one path is best to get into show business, like film school, for example?
G.H.: I think you don’t have to know what you want to do when you’re in college. I had a certain idea, and it turned out that was a different idea than what I wound up pursuing. I think the great thing about college is you can learn about a lot of different things, and as good an education as you get at Cornell prepares you for so many different paths. There’s always graduate school if you want to become specialized in a particular field, but I feel that a great across-the-board, general education is invaluable.
So I don’t know that you need to know when you’re going through undergraduate that you want to be in the film business. I think if you do know, and you go to a place that’s tailored to it, that’s wonderful — and if you don’t know you can always pursue it [later]. And there are many people in the film and television industries that never studied film, as undergraduate or as graduate students.

Much thanks to Cornell in Hollwyood for helping to facilitate this interview.