How to create a win-win collaboration between academia and the themed entertainment industry
by Peter Weishar
ABOVE: Zsolt Hormay and Colleen Meyers from Walt Disney Imagineering work with university students in a collaborative character plaster class.
It is no secret that there is a great divide between the worlds of academia and industry. Although there are many exceptions to the rule, the fundamental differences between the scholars in academia and practitioners in industry are far greater than just their approaches to problem solving. There are tenets entrenched in the respective cultures that result in different ways of thinking as well as different goals.
This paradigm holds true in the burgeoning academic field of themed experience and the established themed entertainment industry. But communication and realistic expectations are leading us to fruitful collaboration.
Many years ago, when I first started developing the concept of a dedicated degree program for themed experience, I knew engagement – and eventual collaboration – with industry would be key components for success. I would define “engagement” as encompassing such things as professionals speaking to a class, class visits and tours of studios, portfolio reviews, and hiring interns. “Collaboration,” on the other hand, refers to an equal partnership that utilizes unique and complementary skillsets and expertise.
Academic mindset and channels of recognition
In a research university, faculty strive to become tenured professors. Tenure is a multi-year process in which faculty are tasked with creating new knowledge, adding to the body of work in their field, gaining a national (and eventually international) reputation through recognition from established peers. The process and documented methodology are, in most cases, more important than the outcome or popularity of the work.
Themed experience being new to academia, there are relatively few traditional channels for recognition within the university system. As with more established disciplines, to become recognized in the field of themed experience and earn tenure (to keep one’s job and move one’s career forward), professors must present at conferences, publish in journals and obtain the recognition of established academics in their discipline. To address this need and help foster quality higher education, my colleagues and I have formed the Themed Experience and Attractions Academic Society that “exists to enhance communication between themed experience and attractions researchers and educators in order to create new knowledge, add to the body of work in the field and facilitate teaching and learning.” Our peer-reviewed publication is the Journal of Themed Experience and Attractions Studies (https://stars.library. ucf.edu/jteas/) and our symposium, the Themed Experience and Attraction Academic Symposium, takes place during the annual IAAPA Expo in Orlando.
Academic priorities vs industry objectives
Students also have some priorities that run contrary to most industry objectives. Universities and colleges prioritize the student learning experience over the end product. Therefore, work showing creative growth and understanding of context is more valued than producing a commercially viable design. This emphasis on process, methodology, and intellectual exploration is even more evident in graduate level programs. In business, the end product of exploration must be commercially viable, but for students, exploration is the goal.
Furthermore, the structure and schedule of an academic institution are rather rigid. Coursework must be completed in a fixed semester or trimester schedule. Classes must be scheduled months in advance and course goals and outcomes must be consistent with objectives of the degree program in order to meet accreditation requirements. Therefore, a great idea for a collaborative project may not fit the schedule or requirements for a program. So, prior communication and planning are necessary if a collaboration is to take place with the fast-paced themed entertainment industry.
Most universities and colleges do not have themed experience or entertainment programs yet. Since the creation of themed experiences requires coordination with individuals that possess many different skillsets, collaboration with a university that does not have a dedicated program may require a cross-disciplinary effort. This is a challenge that may call for time and logistical coordination.
For example, in a collaboration with both architecture and scenic design students, the departments would need to make sure classes meet at the same time, credits for the class would count for both degree programs, that classroom space accommodates both classes, and the timing of assignments is synchronized. These issues are compounded by the fact that many students in the class see themed experience as a curiosity, not a career aspiration. Such issues are not a factor in a degree program dedicated to the themed entertainment industry.
Creating a collaboration
Most collaborations between universities and industry are initiated by faculty. Informal engagements such as a portfolio review or speaking in a class are simple arrangements handled directly with the faculty member. However, if there is an NDA involved or a specific project targeted, the collaboration should also involve a development or research office at the university.
From the industry side, when seeking to structure a collaboration with a university, start with a short, written goal of about a page or so. The goal should lay out the company’s objective regarding the intended creative project or research. If your company is approached by the university, expect the same from them. Clearly define scope of work and expected timeframe from start to completion. Dates and times almost always should coincide with the academic calendar, with work spanning the length of a semester.
Most universities will collaborate with outside partners through their foundation or development office. A university development officer can work with legal to ensure a proper written agreement and appropriation of funds. They will also often act as liaison for financial and logistical transactions. Usually there is some percentage taken from funding for the collaboration for overhead. It can be as low as 1.5% or as high as 50%.
Before commencing the collaboration, an industry member should have an agreement that is signed by university administration (not just the faculty member). You should also see a syllabus, especially if this is a “special topics” class developed for your collaboration. The syllabus should have a specific class-by-class outline of the project in question with the dates you are expected to interact with students. The syllabus is an academic contract between the student and the professor. The professor can’t change the course description, grading, goals or outcomes once the class has started. Collaborating successfully
In collaboration with academia, industry professionals should be mindful of not treating the academic institution as if it were a production studio. Students are not junior employees and most faculty are not production supervisors.
Some of my most successful collaborations with industry have been full-semester class projects devoted to a conceptual expansion of a retail experience adjacent to a theme park, a concept themed food service area and a concept for a live/work space on the property of a major theme park company. In all instances, some of the ideas and concepts were utilized in the final project. For the food service project, the company built the design submitted by the student – and that student is now one of the company’s star employees.
Now that you have the basics for arranging and structuring a collaboration, here are some tips for making it successful:
Do not center the collaboration around a short turnaround, concrete project. If you are looking for a professionally-designed piece with accurate production specs ready for construction, you are not playing to the strengths of academia. Instead, think of a more conceptual project that does not have an immediate deadline. This allows students to think, grow and learn while also giving you interesting ideas that may come to fruition.
Expect to provide financial and creative support for your collaboration. Institutions need to pay for faculty, travel, facilities and materials for the collaboration. The amount of financial support should be proportional to the engagement and commitment from the institution.
Plan very far ahead. Students start registering for classes four to five months ahead. The academic calendar and schedule are often set a year in advance and the addition of a collaborative class must go through an approval process that can take a few months. Work with faculty to create assignments and a schedule that fits within the curriculum while also providing you with the opportunity to add your insight and professional expertise to the project.
Provide appropriate feedback. Speak from the perspective of an industry professional and yet understand you are still working with students. In an academic setting, we offer critiques and drill into areas that need improvement. I have seen many external reviewers be either too polite to provide constructive feedback, or too harsh and treat the student like an employee who has not lived up to professional expectations. Communicate with faculty before going into a critique to understand the level of the students and the parameters of constructive feedback.
Understand the limits of confidentiality. If you have a strict NDA with a client and a project must be kept under strict wraps, it will most probably not be appropriate for academic collaboration. Students need to develop portfolios. If you are working with upperclassmen, they will be graduating and seeking employment in a few months. Students may not be interested in working on your project if they cannot show their work. The university itself is founded upon an open exchange of ideas and academia is just terrible at keeping secrets.
Understand where your needs and the needs of your academic partner intersect. When you engage with a university you will benefit from exploring new ideas and producing interesting work. Your academic partner benefits from engagement with industry that will help students gain practical experience in production and creative development. However, the primary benefit for you will be the recruitment of new talent. The primary benefit for the academic institution will be to place its students in prominent industry-leading firms. And the primary benefit for students is finding viable employment opportunities in their field of study. Here, all parties share the same goal. Collaboration with academia provides an industry firm with exposure and communication with potential hires. The students gain exposure to the company, its culture and its expectations.
I have found industry collaborations to be some of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my academic career. As programs in Themed Experience and entertainment proliferate at institutions such as the University of Central Florida, we can look forward to increased, meaningful and productive partnerships that bridge the great divide. • • •
Peter Weishar ([email protected]) is a Professor of Themed Experience and Program Director of the Themed Experience Graduate track at the University of Central Florida (https://www.ucf.edu/degree/ theatre-mfa/themed-experience/). He also serves as an Associate Member of the TEA Eastern North America Division Board, and chairs the TEA Academic Network. Previously, Weishar was Dean of Fine Arts at FSU and Director of the Themed Experience Institute. He also served as Dean of Entertainment Arts at SCAD where he founded the first MFA in Themed Entertainment Design. Weishar has authored three books, Digital Space: Designing Virtual Environments ; Blue Sky: The Art of Computer Animation ; and CGI: The Art of the Computer Generated Image.