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Penn Media and Entertainment Week Presents Allison Shearmur

What do George of the Jungle, The Bourne Identity and American Pie all have in common? No, it’s not a scruffy male lead or box office figures. In fact, these movies all hit closer to campus than you may believe.

The production of these films was overseen by Penn alum Allison Shearmur, Class of ’85. Former President of Production at Lionsgate Films and Paramount Pictures, Shearmur has also worked for Universal Studios, Walt Disney Pictures and Columbia Pictures. She was hosted by the Undergraduate Media and Entertainment Club and Alpha Kappa Psi as the keynote speaker for Penn’s Media and Entertainment Week, which kicked off on Monday, November 12th. 

A lithe blonde who couldn’t see over the podium, Allison more than made up for her small stature with a strong, bold personality and a direct, clear speaking style. “The way I found myself in Hollywood had everything to do with an event like this,” Allison said, beginning her talk with enthusiasm.

In fact, Allison’s life seems to be made up of a series of perfectly timed opportunities. During her time at Penn, there was no such thing as a Cinema Studies major—her film education came from afternoons spent at the Ritz Theater in Philadelphia. However, when asked how she knew that she wanted a career in the film industry, she answered with one simple reason: “I just love movies.” Not one to pass up opportunity, Shearmur attended an event sponsored by Penn’s Career Planning Services that offered a contest to win lunch with Stanley Jaffey of Columbia Pictures. This was Allison’s first lucky break. She not only won the contest but also found a lifelong mentor in her biggest role model.

There was one thing that Shearmur stressed throughout the 90 minute lecture: “If you want to have a career in film or TV, you will have to move to Los Angeles.” In an attempt to simultaneously please her traditional Jewish father and follow her dreams, Allison attended law school at USC (passing up an acceptance to Columbia that she conveniently ‘forgot’ to tell her father about). This maneuver ended up being “one of the best decisions of her life.” Law school allowed her to build a network and make connections, which she cited as the first take-away lesson for us Penn students. “It’s not who you work with, it’s who you’re next to,” she explained. “It’s the people in the mail room with you, not who you work for.” In fact, Allison said it was the “extra special superpower” of persistence that she gained from law school that eventually got her the rights to The Bourne Identity.

The second lesson was an important one for over-achieving Penn students to hear: “Being an assistant is an awesome job.” Living in Hollywood gave Shearmur the opportunity to be an assistant at Columbia/Tristar Pictures, which, as glamorous as it sounds, Allison admitted was “not fun.” She made no money and did menial work for people far above her in the ranks, but if there is one word that best describes Allison, it is optimistic. “I just waited it out for the next opportunity,” she said, unknowingly providing Penn students with another, arguably more important lesson—there will always be a next opportunity.

Through a combination of her intense motivation and a series of random interactions with key important people—bumping into movie executives in parking lots, delivering special diet meals to cinema production leaders at luncheons—Shearmur got jobs at Walt Disney, Columbia, Paramount and Lionsgate. “My best worst habit is that I lead with passion,” she told students. “I do what I feel personal about, and then I’ll figure out the business model later.”

But her career hasn’t been all green lights and gold stars. After changes in the company at Paramount, Alison’s promotion was stalled. “This was the first time that I knew I was going to fail,” she said. Failure is not really the appropriate word, however. In typical Allison Shearmur fashion, she took advantage of her time off to start a family. And, as luck would have it, eventually the call came.

The call was from Lionsgate Pictures, an independent start-up unlike any studio Allison had ever worked for before. However, she saw it as the perfect way to figure out how to extend her career. “You always need to ask yourself, ‘What’s my longevity?’” Allison stated. What happened next enhanced her career beyond a level that no one predicted. Lionsgate easily bought rights to a little film called The Hunger Games. No one else in Hollywood wanted it, but Allison knew that the script contained something special. “I can look for the opportunity in this,” she told herself at the time.

And that opportunity, besides grossing over $4 million, also turned out to be a big Penn reunion. With Gary Ross (director) and Elizabeth Banks (actress) both being Penn alumni, no wonder the film ended up being magical and unlike anything audiences had seen before.

The talk wrapped up with a final student question asking what it is like to work in the film industry. Allison admitted that it’s competitive and always uncertain. “I don’t think it’s any different than Wall Street,” she said with a wink to all of the Wharton students in the audience.

Taking a break from studying for endless midterms to attend Shearmur’s talk ended up being the best thing that this group of students could have done. Her third and final point was to always remember “something awesome is going to happen.” She emphasized that she is not special, that every single student in the audience has just as much, if not more, potential to achieve their wildest dream. As she concluded, “Never count out the miracle.”

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