From Dickinson to Hollywood: John Orlando’s 2020 Cogan Talk

Caroline Strapp ’22, Staff Writer

John Orlando ’96 visited campus to share how his English degree and Dickinson College education has helped him enter and navigate the world of Hollywood over the past 20 years.  

Orlando opened his remarks by commenting that he is much better at writing than he is with public speaking, which resonated with most of the audience as they laughed, clapped and nodded in agreement. He then dove straight into explaining his career in a field most people, including Orlando himself, think they can only ever dream of entering.  

Orlando started by explaining one of his previous jobs at Sony where he worked as Head of Content for the startup streaming platform Sony Crackle. There it was his job to produce and choose what content made it onto the streaming site. He then detailed the process of how a movie or television show gets created from script to screen and how his job fits into that process. It was already becoming clear how much Orlando loves his chosen industry ten minutes into the talk as he became more and more enthusiastic about his work.  

Orlando then took the audience all the way back to the story of how he arrived in Los Angles. A few years after graduation, Orlando and a fellow Dickinson College graduate decided it was time for a change of pace and they were moving together to Los Angles. Orlando packed his belongings in his car and drove from Massachusetts to Virgina only to discover that his friend had decided that he would not be joining him. Orlando decided to continue the journey by himself.  

Once in Los Angeles, Orlando couch surfed until another Dickinson College friend set him up with a Disney recruiter. This Disney recruiter was impressed by Orlando’s English degree and his job as a writing fellow at the writing center. While writing this talk Orlando said it was at this point when he realized just how much his Dickinson College education had helped his career. He said that he had fun writing his speech because he realized that his entire career path in Hollywood was started entirely by his time at Dickinson College. He never imagined his English degree would bring him to Hollywood where he is “paid to develop movies?! Unheard of!” Orlando said.

He then connected his time abroad in England to a broader preparation for life and career. He said that he gained valuable “life perspectives” abroad that he could not have acquired elsewhere. He found this to be uniquely applicable to his career. In Hollywood the most important part of the industry are the stories, and the best stories to make inside the industry are the ones that come from outside of it.  

Story and characters have always fascinated Orlando. He has always been fascinated by the study of literature and storytelling. For him “stories are what make the world go ‘round” and being in Hollywood means his whole world is stories, they are what drive him and make a “strange, strange business[,] tremendously rewarding”.  

Over the years Orlando has worked for that first Disney recruiter, the William Morris Agency, the talent agency Circle of Confusion where he finally broke his lifelong habit of procrastination, Sony Crackle, Contradiction Films and now as the Senior Vice President of live-action production at Universal 1440 Entertainment.  

Students were excited to ask Orlando questions about the movie industry as he received ones about everything from how to get started as a screen play writer to the Marvel franchise. A member of the audience asked Orlando why some movies “flop”, which garnered particular interest from the crowd. Orlando explained that generally there are three reasons movies flop in Hollywood no matter how much money gets put into them. First, some movies fail because they simply came at the wrong time and become “cultural victims”. Another reason movies fail is because a director “goes rouge” and takes too many risks without production supervision. And lastly, some movies fail because of relationships. Orlando says Hollywood is built on relationships and sometimes they benefit the industry and sometimes not. 

Orlando ended his talk with some “helpful clichés” as he called them. Among them were “Hollywood is not a meritocracy”, “it’s not what you know it’s who you know” and “network like your career depends on it because it does”. Orlando’s talk left the audience discussing his words of advice and in awe of his achievements in a world that seems as fictional as the stories he brings to life.  

Orlando was selected by the English department as the speaker for the annual Cogan Alumni Fellowship. The Cogan event is an annual talk and reception hosted by the English department. The event was founded in 1999 to honor Eleanor Cogan who “after her retirement as a research chemist…, took 52 courses at Dickinson College, 32 in the English department,” according to the Dickinson College website. The English department honors “her extraordinary commitment to lifelong learning and to the study of English literature” with this event.