Alumni filmmakers share stories from the Big Red to the red carpet

Cornell alums Scott Ferguson ’82 and Michael Kantor ’83 — Emmy-winning producers of HBO’s “Succession” and the PBS “American Masters” series, respectively — will reflect on their careers in film and television production during a two-day visit to campus March 28-29 as part of the College of Arts and Sciences' Arts Unplugged series.

During a public event, “From the Big Red to the Red Carpet,” the pair will share clips and stories from nearly four decades of work, offering an inside look at the dynamic role of a producer. They’ll also offer tips and tricks for making it in the entertainment industry at the event, slated to begin at 6 p.m. March 28 at Cornell Cinema.

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Provided Scott Ferguson

“I’m a big believer in the liberal arts approach for undergraduate education and that all the things you learn in all of the classes you take are valuable, sometimes in ways you don’t anticipate,” Ferguson said, remembering a Cornell Roman history course that has proven applicable for his work on “Succession.” “When I sat down to meet Jesse Armstrong to talk about joining ‘Succession’ as a producer, we talked a little bit about the show and a lot about the epic of Gilgamesh and the Julio Claudians and their complex succession challenges. This was before I had any idea of how big or successful ‘Succession’ was going to be.”

Kantor said his Cornell experience also taught him to “dream big.” He’s hoping to be introduced to a new generation of big ideas and imaginative visions during this visit.

“This amazing place has been home to Nobel Prize-winning scientists, famous artists and thinkers, even Vladimir Nabokov chasing down butterflies around town,” said Kantor, adding that he plans to visit a bench overlooking Libe Slope that his friend Jim Vlock ’47 donated to honor his late wife Laurel. “Its inscription expresses a sentiment that holds true for countless alumni including me: ‘Cornell was a time and place that changed our lives. May it be for others as it was for us.’ “

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Michael Kantor

Following the event, participants are invited to a “red carpet reception” in the Memorial Room of Willard Straight Hall, featuring food, selfie stations with Emmys, a chance to meet the producers and other activities.

The talk will also be livestreamed as a keynote at eCornell. Register here to take part virtually.

“It’s amazing for our students to be able to meet such accomplished alums, to hear more about how producing film and television works, and to see connections between their Cornell educations and future professional lives,” said Sabine Haenni, associate professor of performing and media arts and chair of the department.

 On March 29, Cornell Cinema will feature two of Kantor and Ferguson's films:

  • A screening from the start of Season 4 of “Succession,” followed by Q&A with Ferguson, 5:30 p.m.
  • A screening of “Dr. Tony Fauci,” Kantor’s newest documentary about the star of the COVID pandemic response, followed by Q&A with Kantor, 7:30 p.m.

“We are grateful for this opportunity to welcome Michael and Scott not only to reflect on their illustrious careers, but also to screen and discuss their most recent work for television at Cornell Cinema,” said Molly Ryan, Cornell Cinema director (A&S). “The behind-the-scenes look at season 4 of ‘Succession’ and the Dr. Fauci documentary will reveal much about the work of a producer in Hollywood today—and may even include other special guests.”

Kantor joined American Masters as the PBS series’ executive producer in 2014. A two-time Emmy and three-time Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, Kantor's own films include “Cornerstone” (HBO), which he co-directed with Stephen Ives, “American Masters Quincy Jones: In the Pocket,” and “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy.”  His multi-part series for PBS include “Make 'Em Laugh” (hosted by Billy Crystal), “Superheroes” (hosted by Liev Schreiber), and “Broadway: The American Musical” (hosted by Julie Andrews), which won the Primetime Emmy and was honored with a special screening in Washington on the occasion of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ 40th anniversary. He holds a bachelor’s degree in theater studies from Cornell and a directing from the University of California, San Diego.

Kantor remembered an anthropology class he took as a Cornell undergrad, where students created a spoken word play using poetry and prose from the Native American writer N. Scott Momaday.

“How crazy is it that almost 40 years later, I would be in a position to greenlight a documentary on N. Scott Momaday, to be directed by a current Cornell faculty member, Associate Professor Jeffrey Palmer,” he said. “Jeffrey created a magnificent film that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019.”

Ferguson has worked as a producer with such highly celebrated filmmakers as Jim Jarmusch, Stephen Frears, Jay Roach, Steve Zaillian, Lisa Cholodenko and Jesse Armstrong, as well as Academy Award winners Barry Levinson, Milos Forman, Sydney Pollack, Robert Benton and Ang Lee. Scott has received the Emmy, Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Producers Guild Awards for each of his two seasons of “Succession” that have been aired, as well as a Peabody Award for Season Three. Ferguson received a 2014 Emmy Award for “The Normal Heart,” which also received the Stanley Kramer Award from the Producer’s Guild of America, and the 2010 Emmy for “Temple Grandin,” which also received a Peabody Award. Ferguson received a bachelor’s degree in theater from Cornell and a M.F.A. in film producing from Columbia University.

“Coming into Cornell as a wide-eyed kid from suburban Pittsburgh,  I was a little intimidated and overawed in the beginning.  But I was also excited to be among so many sophisticated, smart, interesting & switched on people from all over the world,” Ferguson said. “Going into the film business was something I don’t think I ever would have dreamed of before Cornell, but being around clever ambitious and talented people like Michael who had similar dreams helped give me the courage and confidence to give it a go myself.”

This is the next event in the College of Arts & Sciences' Arts Unplugged series, which brings research and creative works into the public sphere for discussion and inspiration. These outreach events invite a broad audience to explore the work of scholars and faculty from all disciplines, all backgrounds and all time periods and to celebrate the impact that work continues to have on our daily lives.

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