Wharton at Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival each year attracts scores of filmmakers and actors, musicians and tastemakers, entertainment journalists and studio execs to Park City, Utah for one of the world’s most famous weeklong parties.

This year Sundance also attracted a less typical festival guest: The Wharton School.

Wharton used the iconic film festival as the venue to unveil the Wharton Media and Entertainment Initiative (WMEI), a new Wharton program launched with the ambitious goal of becoming the leading center for thought leadership and management education in the world of media and entertainment. Simply put, WMEI aims to train the film executives, music impresarios and media mavens of the future.

“We thought it was important to be at Sundance, because independent entrepreneurialism is central to the industry,” explains Nelson Gayton, managing director of WMEI. “This is an industry whose value has always been created, essentially, by entrepreneurs. Sundance is a metaphor for that creative entrepreneurship.”

In a sense, WMEI will capitalize directly on two of the core strengths of Wharton and Penn—interdisciplinary research and entrepreneurialism. Through research, industry partnerships, innovative real-world programming and alumni networking, Gayton hopes WMEI can deliver an educational experience that students won’t find anywhere else.
WMEI, he says, could eventually develop into a “global talent agency.”

“It is our hope that through the educational programs and research we’ve developed through Wharton, that we can build future leaders of this industry, as opposed to giving students an education that is more vocational,” Gayton says. ”We want to be on the cutting edge. We believe the industry is demanding this.”

At Sundance, Gayton offered up a glimpse of the kind of programs WMEI may deliver in years to come. In a panel discussion titled, “Wharton@Sundance: New Money and the State of Film Finance Today,” Gayton guided representatives from movie studios and venture capital firms through a discussion about a topic central to the film business: the availability of investment capital.

In recent years, says Gayton, the industry has become increasingly attractive to a new class of investor—savvy types from private equity funds, hedge funds and super gap financiers. This influx of capital could well be a good thing—but the phenomenon also brings into question whether truly independent film, and truly independent vision, will be lost in the high-stakes shuffle.

“Sundance was a very exciting and a very interesting venue for us to do this,” Gayton says. “The entire film industry is an industry that has been driven by the independent filmmaker doing things outside the system and maintaining a creative vision—that is the foundation of the production process. But if you look at what’s going on in the industry today, you might question if that independent spirit has survived.”

More WMEI events are planned for this spring’s Wharton Economic Summit, set for April 12-13 in Philadelphia. One panel, “Wall Street Meets Hollywood: Investing in Media and Entertainment Ventures,” will be moderated by Wharton Marketing Professor Peter Fader, and a second, “Building Communities Around Content,” will be moderated by both Fader and Professor Kevin Werbach, assistant professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at Wharton.

“Media and entertainment is a sector that touches so many other disciplines,” Gayton says. “We think thought leadership in this business is very interdisciplinary in nature.”

Originally published on February 1, 2006.

Originally published on February 1, 2007