Sahara Byrne is a Communication professor here at Cornell University, specifically in the area of Media Communication. She teaches Media Communication, Media and Human Development, and a Campaign class discussing how to create effective health campaigns; she is also a part of the “Learning Where you Live” initiative. Being a professor at a beautiful school in the Northeast was always her dream, but her journey to Cornell was filled with lots of stops along the way.
Professor Byrne attended NYU Tisch and received a BFA in Screenwriting and Producing. She then began working at Ministry of Film as a receptionist and script reader, where the co-founder and chairman of the company, Alan Mvruka, became her mentor. Mvruka, perhaps now best known for creating E! Entertainment, was producing a show for HBO at the time. After writing for the show, Byrne was asked by the president of production at Playboy for an interview. Byrne was asked to be the executive in charge of the feature film department, which was producing 12 erotic films a year. Bryne’s feminist upbringing made her hesitant to accept, but after encouragement from her mother, she relented. She gave it a try and loved it; at the time Christy Heffner was the CEO, and Professor Byrne says she learned so much about production even though the subject matter was erotica because Playboy was a major studio. Professor Byrne felt that Playboy was actually a fantastic place to work as a woman—she never felt harassed or objectified in any way, and they had the best maternity leave program of any place she has never worked at.
Eventually, Professor Byrne left Playboy because she wanted to do something a little different. She began working at Paramount. There, she worked in the Animation Department, on a series called “Forty and Shorty.” She worked in Development for producer Claude Brooks and loved it. Compared to being on set and being involved with production, animation was a change of pace. Working in production/on set was sometimes tedious, and the days were extremely long. Animation was a great department to work in—the artists were so interesting, the voiceover actors were more dynamic than any other individuals she had met, and she had never laughed so hard in her life.
Ultimately, Professor Byrne found herself becoming more and more interested in what the effects of the messages she and the entertainment industry were putting out into the world were. She wanted to know what these messages were doing to people, and to society. She came across some research being done out of Stanford, Cornell, and UC Santa Barbara. Ultimately, she went to UC Barbara to get her PHD in Media Communications—a track she felt was much more true to her roots, as she had felt torn between medical school and film school as a young adult. Studying Media Communications allowed her to be a social scientist, thus combining both of her passions.
After receiving her PhD, Professor Byrne was offered a position at Cornell as a professor in Media Communications. She loves it here; she loves having engaged students. Professor Byrne acknowledges that Ithaca is quite far from the Entertainment and Media Industry, but feels that it is her responsibility to bring the industry to Ithaca. She is the live-in faculty for Mews, offering a class every fall to freshman and transfer students where the class follows a newly premiered TV show, and the opportunity to speak to different executives about the industry.
For those of you who are interested in a career in the entertainment industry, such as one that Professor Byrnes had before Cornell, she had some advice.
1) Finding a good mentor is important. They may not be sweet or nurturing, but if you meet someone who wants to help you further your career— listen to them. Your mentor may not be that much older than you—one year of experience in the entertainment industry is a lot.
2) Do not look at your friends in finance who are getting jobs their junior year. It will not happen that way for you— jobs in Media open when they open, and they will fill as soon as they open. There is no “cycle.”
3) You may graduate without a job, and just have to go to LA, or NY, and become a Production Assistant. You have to be ready to work tomorrow—they aren’t hiring you for a month from now—they are hiring you for tomorrow.
4) Talented people are sometimes really nice… and sometimes they aren’t. And the same goes for driven people and artistic people. Learn to deal with them. Remember the more you can enjoy their presence, and have a sense a humor about it— the better you will do. Don’t take yourself or others too seriously.
5) Show up on time. Seriously. You wouldn’t believe how many people in this industry get promoted because they are punctual. Dependability is invaluable.
6) Learn how to do basic office skills like keeping a phone log and calendar. The less time you have to spend learning simple skills, the more time you have to learn from your boss.