In the Heart of Hollywood
Founders of the Los Angeles Film School prove that keeping up with their diverse business interests is truly a labor of love
By Jason Dean, Photos by Omar Marquez
In business, as in life, balance is not a static condition. Though it may occasionally seem that way to the casual observer, further inspection reveals balance to be a continual interplay of compensating forces. For Paul Kessler and Diana Derycz-Kessler, those compensating forces create an equilibrium that serves their respective management styles well. Paul's "shoot-from-the-hip" instincts and Diana's more measured, contemplative nature are equitable assets that contribute to their individual, yet highly synchronized, paths.
A self-made financier, Paul Kessler has served as lead, co-lead, or syndicate investor on 500+ investment transactions, including Allis Chalmers, Cheniere Energy, Genesis Biopharma, Miller Energy, and Rodman and Renshaw, and is principal and founder of Bristol Capital Advisors, LLC. In 2011, he and Activision founder Howard Marks formed Start Engine, a rapid accelerator designed to help connect tech start-ups with highly educated entrepreneurs and launch a successful business in 90 days. Their goal is to create 500 new companies over the next five years.
While Paul's unaccredited status is proof that business success is not contingent on having a college degree, Diana's journey proves that higher learning continues to hold its value. A self-described serial achiever born to Mexican and Ukrainian parents who had little formal education, Diana saw education as a way to rise above the lack of ambition she saw in her high school peers. After double-majoring in history and Latin American studies at UCLA, she earned her master's at Stanford and her law degree from Harvard before graduating to the business world.
The husband-and-wife entrepreneurial team took a calculated risk in 1998 when they launched The Los Angeles Film School, the first fully integrated, hands-on instructional institution with the resources and financial backing to revolutionize the learning platform for the creative arts. The surrounding cityscape of the storied RCA Building at 6363 Sunset Blvd., where Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and Henry Mancini once laid down tracks, had gone through a rough patch of late; it would be another few years before Hollywood Proper would undergo some much-needed cosmetic work and recapture its legendary iridescent glow. Today, the Kesslers and their business partners own virtually the entire block near Sunset and Vine, where their holdings include The Los Angeles Recording School, the Ivar Theater, and the quarter-million square feet occupied by The Los Angeles Film School.
"Our expectation was that the investment would be several million and that investment grew to be multiples of that due to obtaining world class equipment and facilities," Paul admits. "Looking back over 15 years, we've accomplished a lot and continue to do so every day. But it was a challenge in the beginning. What really kept me in the game, impassioned, and continuing to invest, were the outcomes we were getting from the students."
Diana echoes her husband's sentiments. "It totally energizes me to see young versions of myself being starry-eyed, hungry, and willing to work very hard to get somewhere," she says. "Education gave me a chance, and I am impassioned by giving others a chance."
Without knowing better, you might assume the monumental endeavor of building such an institution -- not to mention the myriad public and private holdings both maintain apart from The Los Angeles Film School – may have redirected all their passion into balance sheets and bottom lines. But sitting thigh-by-thigh on the cream leather divan in their office, Paul, 51, and Diana, 46, are clearly in love. With each other as well as their careers. Comfortably shifting the conversation between business and personal life, the pair wear glowing grins when recounting their first meeting, which did involve business, at least initially. The two might never have met in the first place if not for the persistence of a business associate committed to securing a meeting on behalf of his client. Diana Derycz, the ambitious young lawyer representing said client, was expecting to meet an "old man" when she showed up at the office of a Mr. Paul Kessler, taking her cues from the expansive CV she had perused in preparation for their meeting.
"I thought she was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen," Paul earnestly says when recalling that day. "When I met Paul," counters Diana, "I thought, 'Oh, he's so cute and handsome, I can't believe he would like me.'" After a few meetings, the truth came out. "I'm not interested in the business," Paul said flatly over lunch at the Bel Air Hotel. "I'm interested in you." His candid directness, a characteristic that had gotten him far in business, was well received.
Since then, business, pleasure, and family have coalesced into a shared vision for the Kesslers. Paul has four kids from a previous marriage and a seven-year-old son with Diana, and they all live together on the westside of Los Angeles. "We make it a point to have dinner together four or five times a week," says Diana. This weekend, they all have tickets to see Cirque du Soleil in Santa Monica. Outdoor physical activities, such as hiking and going to the beach, bring the family together as well. A recent tradition, says Diana, is a trip to the UCLA track every other weekend to run the stairs. "We try to create an atmosphere recognizing that everyone has different needs," says Paul, acknowledging the age range of their collective offspring.
Growing up in "the poor part of Beverly Hills," Paul used to drive through the upscale neighborhoods, envisioning his ascension to similar status. Yet his childhood was anything but charmed. The product of a broken home, he recalls being taken in by "many families and individuals along the way" who helped him navigate a precarious upbringing. His drive and determination, from an early age, were prolific. "Every time I saw an opportunity that looked somewhat interesting, I would literally drive a truck through it," he said, using what this writer hopes was inadvertent hyperbole. "I was going to work harder than anybody, put more hours into what I did, and immerse myself into learning about what I'm doing, always have a good sense and good foundation, and never look back. I had no safety net."
Diana's family connections growing up were equally tenuous. She didn't live with her father early on; her parents divorced, and she lived in Mexico with her mother and her family from the age of 9 to 13. Aside from becoming fluent in Spanish, the experience instilled in her an informed world view, which she continues to expand and draw upon to this day. Between getting degrees, she worked as a model, first in LA, then in New York, a fact that does not betray her flawless skin and sinewy frame. "I have always gravitated toward helping those kids that had a hunger and fire in their belly to improve themselves," she says. "I started this mission by going back to my own high school and mentoring the debate team, followed by executive producing some films and hiring young talent in the key roles. Recently, I spoke at inner-city magnet schools where the vast majority of kids come from really tough backgrounds. I wanted them to know that we live in a country where we can achieve our dreams with hard work. It was inspiring to share that message and to see it resonate with them."
While the institution has evolved from offering just film certificates to associate degrees in film, recording, animation, and game design, Paul says the goal is for The Los Angeles Film School to begin offering bachelor degrees, online education, and additional dynamic programming. "Our graduates are consistently scaling the media ladder, and it's not uncommon for us to see their names in lights these days," says Diana.
Aside from The Los Angeles Film School, the Kesslers are involved in biotechnology companies doing research on extending life as well as traditional energy projects. Pioneers on Wall Street in the area of 'PIPE Financing' (private investment in public equity), the couple has been involved in hundreds of financing deals over the past two decades. They are currently involved in Wizard World, an especially hot commodity that produces ComicCon conventions throughout the United States and Canada.
"Most entrepreneurs and CEOs often feel somewhat isolated, whereas we can get feedback from, and bounce ideas off of, each other," says Diana. Paul puts it this way: "I am the hands-on type and learn by doing. Diana balances out the equation with her insight, wisdom, and steadfast calm." She responds, "It's the lawyer training in me. I have the ability to see more than one angle and stand in the shoes of others when facing a dispute."
Having recently passed his 50th year, the theme of balance has been weighing on Paul as of late. "I have thought much about life's next phase," he says. "Remaining focused on the depth and quality of my relationship with Diana, being actively involved in our children's lives and their personal development, our physical health and emotional well-being, travel, and a continued commitment to working with quality people in building positive outcomes."
You can't get much more balanced than that.