Matt Tomko’s first job after graduating Northwestern in 2007 was on a little film called Tropic Thunder. The RTVF major says that landing the job was “100 percent fortunate” and the result of networking he did while at Northwestern.
A friend who had graduated two years earlier tipped him off that the producers of Tropic Thunder were looking for Production Assistants who could work on location. A phone call and a white lie later (Tomko moved to Hawaii to work as a local on the film, but was not a resident when he called about the job) and he had his “big break.”
Though Tomko’s story might seem a perfect example of the work of the infamous Northwestern Mafia — the name given to a tight-knit group of Northwestern alums working in the entertainment industry who reportedly help each other land jobs and promotions — he insists he was merely fortunate and that current students shouldn’t place too much faith in the “mafia” when it comes time to find a job.
“It exists, but not to the extent undergrads hear about it,” Tomko says of the Mafia. “Ultimately, I think that someone from Northwestern will get looked at first from another alum and if the work is good, that’s great, but if the work is crap then it doesn’t matter where you’re from. I think being from NU will get you on top of the pile but that’s about it. That’s not a negative thing, though, because anyway to get ahead is wonderful. It’s just not like, ‘You graduated, here’s a job.’”
The Mafia isn’t just a gag from the failed sitcom Joey, but most members of the “family” don’t love being associated with the mob. Instead, they’d rather be known as the Northwestern University Entertainment Alliance (NUEA), a title that more readily brings to mind images of a band of crime-fighting superheroes than hired hitmen.
The NUEA is an exclusive club for NU grads working in the entertainment industry with chapters on the East and West Coasts. The organization hosts events for alumni to network and helps connect undergraduates and recent grads with contacts in their desired fields.
Erica Schwartz, who graduated in 2003 with a degree in theater is a production manager in New York City and president of the East Coast chapter of the NUEA. Her best advice for recent graduates is to “get involved with NUEA if you’re in New York or L.A. That’s where you’ll meet a lot of other alums. Volunteer. Make as many contacts as you can and go to as many events as possible. NUEA does a bunch of events. I’d go to anything and everything you hear about—even if it’s not NU related. You might meet someone who did go to NU then you have an instant connection and sense of loyalty. Look for any excuse to make an introduction and send out a resume.”
“I think of it more as a supportive community network,” says Liz Kimball, who graduated from Northwestern in 2006 with a double major in theater and English and a musical theater certificate. She is currently working steadily as an actress in and around New York City. “It’s a network of people who all have this common thread and help each other out.”
Last year, Kimball, who is also a member of the East Coast chapter of the NUEA, helped organize a mentorship program to help connect current Northwestern seniors with alums residing and working in New York City. She described the first year of the program as a success and said that some of the participating students were offered jobs as a result of the experience.
“Part of the mission at NUEA is to be a resource for alumni and help seniors get connected in the community,” she says. “People graduate and automatically come into the arms of this community and it’s a smooth transition for everybody.”
According to Kimball, all graduates are considered members and need only “activate” their memberships to start receiving newsletters, job postings, event invitations and for NYC members, discounted tickets. The price for access to what Kimball describes as the “the root” of the NU entertainment community is $20 a year.
This is good news for undergrads who are considering careers in the entertainment industry and counting on this network when they venture out into the job market after graduation. These students know how tough breaking into their desired careers is and the Mafia helps make dream jobs seem possible.
“I want to be Martin Scorsese,” RTVF junior Olivia Mascheroni say of her dream job. “Or I want to be Scott Rudin without being a really huge terrible mean person. I want to go into producing or directing.”
Mascheroni, who works for the RTVF department and is deeply involved in the film community at Northwestern, says she was relieved when she first heard of the Mafia as a freshman.
“When I first heard of the Northwestern Mafia I was so excited,” she says. “You always hear about people at UCLA or USC going to those schools and then becoming instantly connected when they go out into the industry and here we are out in the Midwest and that gave me a lot of confidence. It made me think, ‘maybe it’s not really just David Schwimmer and that’s it.’”
Undergrads put a lot of faith in the Mafia, but just how much can an NU diploma help aspiring entertainers? Quite a lot, it seems. Most of the graduates interviewed for this article said they would “definitely” give more attention to someone with Northwestern on his or her resume—but that the common alma mater would only help those otherwise worthy of hire. So, in other words, “family” or not, there are no free rides based on Purple Pride.
“I think going to Northwestern gives you very much of an intellectual edge,” Mascheroni says. “It says you went to a good school, you’re academically worth your salts, a high achiever, not just there for the glamor or glitz, there for more than wanting to play into the star power.”
Though a Northwestern diploma can’t by itself land grads dream jobs right away, alumni unanimously agreed that it’s a foot in the door—and that’s a lot in such a competitive industry.
“I’ve had people hook me up with people I didn’t know,” she says. “I had some friends who went up to a theater director and mentioned NU and ended up getting a lunch date—that just doesn’t happen.”
Kimball says that her NU connections have helped open doors she wouldn’t have even thought to knock on otherwise and that being an alum leads to opportunities that recent graduates from other schools often aren’t able to secure.
One of the easiest ways into the Mafia is through slightly-older friends who have recently graduated. Though older, more established alumni generally come to mind when students start to think about networking, it’s important not to overlook recent grads with whom you might already have a strong connection.
Mascheroni won’t graduate until 2010, but she’s already had first-hand experience with the Northwestern Mafia through summer internships and she’s confident that students should take the Mafia seriously.
“I would say that just because people don’t see or hear about it all the time doesn’t mean it’s not there,” she says. “Like a good mafia we try to keep quiet. There are a lot of diehard purple bleeding people in the industry.”