Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2003
By Robert W. Welkos, Times Staff Writer
At first glance, no one would mistake the converted airplane hangar that sits under the flight path into Los Angeles International Airport for a Hollywood Dream Factory, but in a sense it is.
On a recent afternoon, dozens of students -- many of them African Americans or Latinos from low-income, inner-city families -- were busy with final exams, a step toward becoming prop makers, grips, set dressers, scenic painters, cinematographers and other union craftspeople serving the movie and television industries.
There was 20-year-old William Fuller of Culver City, in teacher Marcus Brandly's art and 3-D design class, putting the finishing touches on a scale-model basketball court he had designed on a blueprint and then constructed out of coffee stirrers he got at a Starbucks.
Overseen by program director George Ettenheim, Alec Coleman, 19, of Los Angeles, maneuvered a 35-millimeter movie camera on the makeshift set of a student film called "Secret Admirer" -- just as he would if working as a "dolly grip" on a full-fledged production.
And there was 23-year-old Edwin Mejia of Los Angeles carefully applying strokes of paint to a colorful mural designed as a movie backdrop while Evans Webb of set painters Local 729 and scenic painters Local 816 oversaw the work.
These students are here as a result of Workplace Hollywood, an ambitious, broad-based effort to expand the skilled labor force serving L.A.'s huge movie and TV industry, which has been notorious for its underrepresentation of women and minorities.
With classes taught by union professionals, the 18-month airport-area apprenticeship program is a partnership between Workplace Hollywood and the nonprofit training and support facility Hollywood CPR (Cinema Production Resources).
With the clout to open doors for these young people, Workplace Hollywood is backed by heads of all the major studios and TV networks, the guilds representing producers, directors and writers and the giant entertainment crafts union IATSE.
Workplace Hollywood also funds programs to train production assistants for work on TV and movie productions, and administrative assistants at the studios, networks or other entertainment-related companies. At the same time, the organization seeks to recruit minority mid-level managers from industries outside entertainment to work in such areas as marketing, sales, legal and finance.
The program, incorporated as a nonprofit in May of 2000, does not guarantee every graduate a job, but as DreamWorks executive Andy Spahn, who co-chairs Workplace's board of directors, explained: "We can certainly provide access that wouldn't otherwise be there to give these kids the realistic hope and dream that they can work in this industry. We can get them in the door."
"Basically, the entertainment industry kind of runs on an 'old boy' system," said Calysta Watson, 26, of Los Angeles, who was taking her final exam in cinematography on the set of "Secret Admirer," hoping to land an entry-level job as a camera loader.
"A lot of people are underrepresented. My father wasn't a cameraman so I didn't know how to jump in to it, so this program has given me the opportunity to learn everything I need to know to work within this industry."
With $3 million in seed money from DreamWorks founders Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the program expanded with $2.5 million from the charitable Entertainment Industry Foundation, which the state of California then matched with a grant, and other donations came from the Irvine and Ford foundations.
In addition to Hollywood CPR, Workplace Hollywood funds community-based organizations like the Emma Bowen Foundation, Streetlights and Y.E.S. to Jobs, along with high school and community college job training programs.
"These people were already doing great work," explained Jaleesa Hazzard, executive director of Workplace Hollywood. "But we wanted to increase their capacity, get the programs up to industry standards and become industry specific." "I think [Workplace Hollywood] evolved out of an interest by a number of us who were involved in various other organizations who were all attempting to do somewhat similar things to increase diversity in the ranks of the Hollywood entertainment industry," said Kathleen Kennedy, president of the Producers Guild of America and chair of Workplace Hollywood's honorary board.
"I hire [production assistants] on every movie I do," she said. "Everybody does -- movies, television, commercials, music videos. If you knew there was this organization where you could not only access diversity but also qualified, entry-level people, then why wouldn't you go there?"
Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers -- the collective bargaining arm for studios, networks and independent production companies -- said employers will now have a one-stop place to find skilled workers.
"The way the system works," Counter said, "is you have a [union] roster of people you have to hire from. However, what if there aren't enough qualified people available on the roster? Then the producer can hire from other sources. The gain here is, we have a source that the producer can go to to find qualified people."
So far, eight locals have come on board, including makeup and hairstylists Local 706, cinematographers Local 600, editors Local 700, set dressers Local 44 and costumers Local 705.
Because it offers only entry-level training, "this is not in any way a program to take jobs away from people" in unions, Kennedy said, "but I think they share, along with us, the feeling that the industry as a whole could use some diversification and allow opportunities for everyone in our community."
The students' enthusiasm is palpable.
At Hollywood CPR, Kevin Considine, founder and president, and Laura Peterson, chief operating officer, leads a visitor on a tour, proudly showing off the old airplane hangar he and his staff have converted into a movie prop house. He points to the shell of a car used in the Tom Cruise sci-fi movie "Minority Report." In another spot is the prop used as a casino bar in the George Clooney caper film "Ocean's Eleven."
Hollywood CPR, which was formed in 1997, is a full-service prop house. Studios donate props, which are then rented out. Proceeds go to support the free training program.
In Brandly's design and model-making class, 21-year-old Arian Castillo of Montclair said he hopes to draw storyboards for movies. "I checked out some DVDs and they showed a storyboard being made and I go, 'Wow, that looks so cool! I want to do that!' "
Joseph "Tony" Moran of Local 80, the Grip/Craftservice local, who has worked for years at Universal and 20th Century Fox, has no doubt that many of his students will land jobs, but he cautions them that it's not an easy business.
"I don't think anybody realizes what we do and the fact that you've got to go to work sometimes at 1 o'clock in the morning or you work two days and you're off a week," Moran said. "Most people have the frame of mind that 'once I get hired, I can go buy the boat because I'm going to get paid every week.' That's not the way it happens at all."
Hazzard noted that Workplace Hollywood has already seen 34 job placements since November for such companies as E! Entertainment, Fox and Warner Bros., including Cleveland High School graduate Lamont Snipes, 19, of Panorama City, who became a union member after a 30-day stint at J.C. Backing, a backdrop-painting firm based at Sony Pictures.
Although participation doesn't guarantee jobs or union membership, the programs are designed to help new recruits break into the union labor force, which has not always been easy.
Today, Hollywood CPR is holding an open house for prospective applicants to their union training program at their headquarters near LAX at 98th Street and Sepulveda Boulevard.
Applicants must be 18 to 25. Tuition is free and classes -- which earn college credits from West Los Angeles College -- are held Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 7 p.m. Hazzard noted that about 80% of the class is made up of minorities and economically disadvantaged people, while the remaining 20% of the class is open to anyone in the community who meets the age requirements.
For students like would-be movie grip Coleman, the key to success is staying disciplined and determined.
"I plan to be a movie producer later on," he said with confidence. "This is round one for me.
Cameraman Taggart Lee instructing Workplace Hollywood students Amatuallah Bradshaw and Anton Glass at Cinema Production Resources in Los Angeles.
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