Emerson cements LA presence with glitzy new campus

Emerson College’s flashy $85 million campus in Los Angeles houses a state-of-the-art screening room, audio and video labs, performance studios, dorms, classrooms, walkways, and a cafe.
Emerson College’s flashy $85 million campus in Los Angeles houses a state-of-the-art screening room, audio and video labs, performance studios, dorms, classrooms, walkways, and a cafe.

Turning heads on Sunset Boulevard, it is a futuristic 10-story cube of aluminum and glass cut open on two sides to reveal a funhouse-mirror vision of classrooms and dorms, walkways and plazas, overlooking the sprawling city of Los Angeles and the Hollywood hills.

“I don’t care whether you walk around it or drive by it or you see it from a distance; the thing about this building is it demands your attention,” said Kevin Bright, the Emerson graduate and Emmy-winning executive producer of the TV show “Friends” who is the founding director of the new Emerson College Los Angeles.

“We like that at Emerson. We’re not shy,” said Bright in a phone interview Sunday, the morning after a grand-opening gala for the new facility. “If we demand your attention, we probably have a song in mind.”


An all-in-one campus housed in a single, 107,000-square-foot structure designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne and billed by Emerson as the first of its kind for a college based beyond California, it is generating buzz for the Boston-based school in Los Angeles.

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Sprouting from a small lot — less than an acre — the $85 million building houses a state-of-the-art screening room as well as audio and video editing and mixing labs; a cluster of performance studios, dressing rooms, study halls, and classrooms; a cafe open to the public; and enough dormitory space to house 217 students each semester.

The center gives Emerson a permanent hub in Hollywood to prepare students and connect them with entertainment-industry opportunities unavailable back home or limited by Emerson’s previous LA digs, a modest set of rented classrooms in Burbank. Students began using it in January, though this week is the campus’s grand opening, with screenings, architectural tours, and industry panel discussions scheduled through Saturday.

“It’s not just a piece of art. We’ve made it our own,” Bright said. The interior includes posters of Emerson alumni — MTV Networks boss Doug Herzog, “Will & Grace” cocreator Max Mutchnick, and Bright — who have made their mark in entertainment, unlike the nondescript walls of the old rental space. “In one semester, we’ve tripled the networking opportunities our students had because we have a building to invite people to.”

Emerson trustee Larry Rasky called it a “statement” building that “screams of the future.” “You really can’t describe [it] almost without seeing it and walking inside of it,” said Rasky, chief executive of a Boston communications firm, after flying back Sunday from the gala.

Emerson Los Angeles film and TV students in the Vin DiBona Distance Learning Room get a broad view of the street.z

After the first students decamped from Boston’s Theatre District to the new space, one changed her Facebook status to say she was never moving back East; another, Olivia McLean, told the Los Angeles Times it was like “living in the Guggenheim.”

Though the finishing touches were still being applied, screenwriting major Tim Taylor said they were happy to be the “guinea pigs,” and that the building fosters a sense of community earlier generations of Emerson-in-LA students missed while living in furnished apartments at the Oakwoods, a less centrally located complex populated by child-actor families, Hollywood extras, and divorcees.

And it burnishes an Emerson brand that he said seems as strong in Hollywood as it is back home — or even stronger, because in Boston, some occasionally confuse it with other liberal-arts colleges in the region.

“It’s eye-opening,” said Taylor, a New Hampshire native interning at Comedy Central. “Back in Boston, I have friends sometimes trip over whether I’m at Emerson or Emmanuel.”

When Bright graduated in 1976, he drew on contacts from an Emerson mentor — the late professor Dan Lounsbery, who won Emmys producing hit variety shows like “The Bell Telephone Hour” — to join a nucleus of alumni in entertainment.

Iwan Baan
The building’s entrance.

By the late 1980s, with its reach growing in the industry, Emerson became the first college outside California to start an official semester-in-Hollywood program. Over the past quarter-century, more than 4,000 students have participated, taking classes and completing TV, film, music, or media internships.

‘The thing about this building is it demands your attention.’

That success spurred other schools to launch similar programs, and Emerson’s became one of several to occupy rented classrooms and house students out in the Oakwoods.

But Emerson made an ambitious move to distinguish itself from that group — which includes bigger institutions like Boston University and Syracuse with larger endowments — by investing $110 million in a permanent campus. (That includes construction plus land acquisition, design, and other costs, according to the school.)

“This magnificent building on Sunset Boulevard makes a statement that Emerson is committed to the City of Los Angeles and to the entertainment and communication industries for the long term,” Emerson president Lee Pelton said in a statement.

The Saturday-night gala drew 600 alumni, students, parents, and friends. Some were boldfaced names — like former Emerson students Norman Lear, legendary producer of “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” and “Sanford and Son,” and actress Jennifer Coolidge, of “American Pie” and “Best in Show” fame — while others, if less famous, illustrated the range of Emerson-alumni success.

“When I find out the music editor of ‘Game of Thrones’ is an Emerson alum, that’s big for me,” said Bright, a former Emerson trustee who has returned to teach classes in Boston on producing pilots for TV. “Or [that] Joanna Going, the president’s wife in this season of ‘House of Cards,’ is an Emerson alum — that gets me going.”

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at