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Faculty Spotlight: Jon Katzman

By Jon Graef (MA '11)

Jon Katzman, executive director of Columbia College Chicago’s Semester in Los Angeles for the past seven years, has had an enviable climb up the film industry ladder.  

After majoring in history at University of California-Berkeley, Katzman ended up working on a student film, which turned into more work opportunities on student films.

In 1989, Katzman worked at an NBC training program for executives, where he collaborated with Brandon Tartikoff, the late television producer responsible for many of the network’s hits in the 1980s, including The Cosby Show and Family Ties.

From there, Katzman worked his way up to executive positions at both NBC and Warner Bros., developing programs like Saved By The Bell and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air from 1991 to 1996. After that, Katzman started his own television company, New Regency, where he developed programs like Malcolm In The Middle and UFO drama Roswell.

He’s has been passing along his knowledge to Columbia College Chicago students for seven years as a production teacher for the Semester in L.A. program.

Semester in L.A. is a special, immersive course aimed at encouraging media students to gain experience through in industry internships in California.

“Five weeks is a pretty short amount of time. Our semester is short because we focus on internships,” Katzman said.  

Once the students finish the 12- to 16-credit semester, they are free to work (either in internships or professional positions), return to Chicago, or participate in an independent project for the rest of the semester.

About 70 students enter the program per semester, and there are 13 courses from which to choose, including classes in journalism, film, television, marketing, and fiction writing, amongst other fields.

Katzman said the program is working on a new class for the television department, titled Writing the TV Pilot, which he estimates will be ready by fall 2012.

Because the pace of the semester is brisk, Katzman said the relationship between teachers and students don’t necessarily develop over the semester. It’s afterward, when the program ends, that the relationships start to coalesce.

“The relationship [between faculty and students] deepens as they stay in town. We help place them in jobs, and they stay in touch with each other,” Katzman said.

Katzman added that Columbia’s creative community emphasizes being open to new ideas and new circumstances—both of which are advantages to working in television and movies.

“I think a great producer really recognizes the skills of others, and gets excited about a strong voice, or pitch, and vision,” Katzman said. “They have to be open to other opportunities and the world to get the project made.”

For Katzman, the most valuable aspect of Columbia’s Semester in L.A. program is that it empowers students to experience the movie industry in the most direct way possible. Those students don’t have to stay in Los Angeles for the program to be successful for them.

“We really want students who aren’t sure [about working in the industry] to explore anyway,” Katzman said. “The worst thing that happens is that they find out that it isn’t for them, and they go back home. That’s the best thing this college has provided—an opportunity to explore.”