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Ferguson and Kantor speak to the Sun on their experience as Emmy winning producers.

April 19, 2023

Emmy-Winning Producers and Pals, Ferguson ’82 and Kantor ’83, Chronicle Paths From the Slope to the Silver Screen

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This article is supplemented with a video interview, accessible here.

When Emmy-winning classmates Scott Ferguson ’82 and Michael Kantor ’83 first stepped foot onto Cornell’s campus, Kantor intended to be an actor, and Ferguson — a prospective engineer — spent considerable time at the now-defunct Division of Unclassified Students

“‘Any person, any study,’ was kind of what I really needed when I came to Cornell,” Ferguson said. 

Today, Ferguson helps tell stories of a rivalrous billionaire family as executive producer of HBO’s critically-acclaimed show “Succession,” while Kantor documents master figures and cultural icons as executive producer of PBS’s award-winning biographical series “American Masters.” 

Scott Ferguson ’82

Long before his Emmy-winning success, Fegurson grew up in Pittsburgh. He was encouraged by his friend’s mother, who was a guidance counselor, to apply to Cornell due to its economic resources. 

“[Cornell] was probably the greatest gift in my life,” Ferguson said, having received a full ride via the Maud Alice Palmer scholarship. “I came from a somewhat sketchy, downwardly mobile family. We had no money — I had no idea how I could go to any college.”

Equipped with a four-year scholarship and the freedom to explore, Ferguson migrated from the Engineering Quad to the Arts Quad, where he dipped his toes into acting before realizing that it was not his true calling. Taking Marilyn Rivchin’s 16-millimeter filmmaking course at Cornell inspired him to commit to filmmaking.

“That’s where the bug bit me — this is what I want to do,” Ferguson said. “I was drawn like a moth to the flame to something I was really interested in.” 

Ferguson ultimately graduated with a theater studies degree. At Cornell, he participated in plays and took a wide range of courses, including Roman history. Ferguson’s knowledge of ancient history unexpectedly surfaced when he and “Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong bonded over discussions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as the Julio-Claudian dynasty and their complex succession challenges. 

“You never know when [your Cornell education] will come out,” Ferguson said. “Those classes meant something and added a little layer to how I think.” 

Upon graduation, Ferguson briefly returned to Pittsburgh after his father’s passing, restoring his family home and taking small jobs as a waiter and department store employee. Hoping to break into the media industry, Ferguson volunteered at the public television station in Pittsburgh for three years until he found himself producing and directing short segments of a documentary series.  

You’re [at first] in charge of taking the lunch order,” Ferguson said. “[What makes you stand out] is applying yourself with energy and enthusiasm in those early, more mundane tasks.” 

Ferguson’s true passion, however, lay in independent, arthouse films, which motivated him to enroll in Columbia University for an M.F.A. in film producing. He continued to work up the ladder from entry-level production assistant roles. 

“It took me year after year, starting at the very bottom,” Ferguson said. 

Ferguson worked to expand his network, accruing more responsibilities with each job. After years of smaller projects, he earned credits on award-winning films including “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and the Oscar-nominated “Brokeback Mountain.” 

“Sometimes the conditions are rough — it’s cold, it’s late, hours are long,” Ferguson said. “The tip and the trick is you have to be crazy enough to like it enough to want to do it. You just keep doing it and see where it takes you.” 

Ferguson later entered the television space, producing series and TV films including “The Night Of” and “Temple Grandin.” In choosing new projects, Ferguson described a combination of factors including good people, material and luck. 

“If you come into [a project] saying, ‘hey, this is pretty cool’ — those are the ones that have done better for me than the [projects] with the big giant star. I go based on those instincts,” Ferguson said, describing the mindset that landed him on “Succession.” 

According to Ferguson, crafting an episode of “Succession,” a TV series centered on the conflicts of a media conglomerate family, involves a multi-layered approach. The process requires researching the business aspect, adding humor and then incorporating the most crucial layer — the emotional family drama.

“It’s about trying to figure out the heart of [the story] that we all relate to. We’re not billionaires [like the characters on ‘Succession’],” Ferguson said. “But most of us have had a fight with our brothers, or disappointed our parents.”

Ferguson has won numerous Emmy, Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice and Producers Guild Awards for his work on “Succession.” One of the most successful television series of all time, “Succession” currently airs each Sunday and is currently in its fourth and last season. 

Michael Kantor ’83 

Kantor, on the other hand, grew up in Connecticut exploring the Sterling and Beinecke libraries at Yale University, where his father worked as an academic physician. Kantor’s academic background motivated him to maximize Cornell’s vast course offerings, which ultimately led him to theater.

“I was not a high school theater kid,” Kantor said. “[Cornell’s theater studies] opened me up to storytelling.”  

Kantor expressed gratitude for his diverse education at Cornell, which he said — similarly to Ferguson’s Roman history experience — has presented itself in unforeseen ways. 

One of the courses that left a lasting impact on Kantor was an anthropology class that explored the works of renowned Native American author N. Scott Momaday. Kantor later produced the Emmy-nominated documentary “N. Scott Momaday: Words From a Bear,” directed by Prof. Jeffrey Palmer, performing and media arts. 

“We were exposed to really talented people and ideas, which I think set me up on the path for figuring out what I wanted to do,” Kantor said, recounting memorable classes, Lincoln Hall plays and concerts for students. “We learned how to learn here [at Cornell].” 

After graduating, Kantor received an M.F.A. in directing from the University of California, San Diego. He originally hoped to dive into innovative cinema — specifically bringing plays to the big screen. 

When I graduated [from] Cornell, I really wanted to be a combination of [renowned filmmakers] Orson Welles, Elia Kazan and Sergei Eisenstein,” Kantor said. “I wanted to break all cinematic bounds. But you learn your limitations, and you realize your talents lay elsewhere.” 

Kantor’s interest shifted to documentary filmmaking after he worked with famous actors in the voiceover booth for Ken Burns’s historical PBS documentaries. According to Kantor, the excitement of educating millions and working with top talent contributed to his decision to enter the field.

“The next thing you know, I was producing these documentaries,” Kantor said. “For me, It was like that overnight paper that you stay up for, but you really love it, [and] the time [moves fast].” 

Kantor founded an independent film company, Ghost Light Films, in 1996. He rose to the executive producer role of “American Masters” in 2014, winning numerous Emmys and Peabody Awards for his multi-decade portfolio of work. 

According to Kantor, public media is distinct from traditional entertainment due to its focus on education and real personal narratives. “American Masters” has profiled everyone from music legend Quincy Jones to Anthony Fauci M.D. ’66. 

“Whether you’re working with Julie Andrews and telling the history of the Broadway musical, or working with Billy Crystal on comedy, if you have the passion for it and find a way to earn people’s trust, it works out,” Kantor said.

Kantor said he hopes to promote storytelling that provides viewers with both mirrors and windows. The idea is to allow viewers to see themselves and their aspirations reflected on screen, while also gaining insight into diverse perspectives that are outside of their own. 

“[A good story] is emotionally engaging,” Kantor said. “It’s not enough to tell somebody something or to do something artfully. It’s all about heartfelt work.”

From Big Red to Red Carpet

Ferguson and Kantor may share illustrious careers now, but decades ago, their paths first crossed as undergraduates on Cornell’s campus. Though from entirely different backgrounds, Kantor and Ferguson met through the College of Arts and Sciences’ theater community, where they had the same circle of friends. 

“Those friendships that you make here, they end up being lifelong,” Ferguson said. “[Kantor and I] haven’t seen each other a whole lot, but we had dinner and immediately it felt like no time had passed — other than our hair and beards.” 

According to Kantor, one of the valuable aspects of Cornell is the opportunity to befriend talented and diverse people on campus. 

“When you find your people, they can be all kinds of people, and that’s so exciting,” Kantor said, recalling his first-year hallmates, who were international students.

Both Ferguson and Kantor advise Cornell students to explore, experiment and absorb as much information and experience as possible.

“Seek out the experiences you can’t get anywhere else,” Kantor said, reflecting on fond memories of Italian movies at Cornell Cinema and late-night Hot Truck runs on West Campus.

“It’s just such a great time to absorb and try so many different things,” Ferguson said, “whatever your major is.”