Alumnus proves ties pay off in long run

Richard Outten, professional screenwriter and USC alumnus, would not be among the handful of fantasy scribes that the average moviegoer associates with big-budget studio pictures. He has worked consistently since his first sale but is unlikely to market himself based on prestige or public demand in the way that Eric Roth, David Koepp or Akiva Goldsman tend to.

Nevertheless, despite a layer of obscurity, Outten has enjoyed an extended career in film and television, writing for major studios and Academy Award-winning directors. Now, with another major studio picture entering the production phase this year, Outten could be the sleeper hit of his profession.

After earning his master in fine arts degree from the Peter Stark Producing Program in 1984, Outten was hired by Oscar-winning director Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of The Apes, Patton, Papillion) to pen the script for Lionheart, thereby securing Outten’s status as a studio-worthy screenwriter. He then went on to co-write the Miyazaki-esque Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland with Chris Columbus and do uncredited work on the Gremlins sequel at the request of Steven Spielberg.

“I sold my first script, the sixth one I’d written, to a major producer two months after graduating from USC,” Outten said. “Since then, I’ve been fortunate to make a comfortable living scripting projects for the major studios and networks, which has allowed me to focus singularly on my writing career.”

Throughout his career, which is still very much alive, Outten has negotiated 25 writing deals, including a sequel to The Goonies, which remains unproduced. He has also ventured into television, writing scripts for Tales From The Crypt as well as shows for Fox and CBS.

Although he is still more of an under-the-radar success, Outten’s Mysterious Travels was recently acquired by Walden Media and New Line Cinema, for release in 2011 by Warner Brothers as the sequel to Journey To The Center of The Earth, which grossed more than $240 million internationally. The film stars the venerable Michael Caine and might serve to kickstart a new and fruitful era in Outten’s already admirable career.

“Writing for me is like breathing. If you’re truly engaged, I think it’s impossible to shut down the creative process,” Outten said.

Despite Outten’s laundry list of achievements, his true relevance to USC students comes in the form of connections; personal and lifelong connections that he made with colleagues on this campus.

“The [Peter Stark Producing] program gave me access to motion picture professionals who would later play a role in my career,” Outten said. “My classmates and fellow alumni are friends and colleagues to this day.”

The idea that the people we meet in college are the ones that determine our course has become somewhat of an orientation cliché for incoming freshmen. We are told time and again that our personal networks give us staying power in the working world, especially given high turnover in cinematic realms. In the case of Outten, USC was and is the greatest investment he ever made.

“In some way or another, I can trace the majority of the 25 writing deals I’ve made over the years to relationships that developed directly or indirectly as a result of studying cinema at USC,” Outten said.

So how do we personalize this fact and implement it in our four fleeting years here? We must first learn to balance proactive networking with openness. This is to say that the most profound connections are often made arbitrarily. No network is developed without effort, but we must also remain open to the possibility of making a connection anywhere and with anyone.

It is not always at the exclusive mixers or the Sundance pre-screenings that business relationships are forged. More often than not, enormous success stories begin on that random film class set or in a coffee shop years later.

The danger in viewing the college world through this lens, however, is to render every connection a business connection. The best business relationships begin with a mutual compulsion to work together, to create something of worth. Within this relationship is a shared belief in one another. The relationships are not mergers, which are calculated efforts to consolidate power. The types of connections that you want to make in college transcend financial matters and begin with respect, admiration and hopefully, friendship.

When we come to college, there is an expectation that we will find a mirror of ourselves. We hope for colleagues who will echo our passions, which can only encourage and inspire us to be better at what we do. But in doing so, we also narrow our understanding of the world and those with whom we share it.

Whether we learn about an international student’s culture, someone’s tragic loss, a roommate’s game-winning touchdown or a neighbor’s summer trip to Spain, we are growing not just as students but also as people. What incoming freshmen should be told is that the people we meet in this hub of cultural and spiritual diversity are the people who give our character dimension. For Outten, the connections that he made at USC have defined his entire life, both on set and off.

How else do we come to understand ourselves? And what is college anyway, but one long conversation?

Brian Ivie is a sophomore majoring in cinema-television critical studies. His column, “Dreammaking,” runs Tuesdays.