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In Hollywood’s relationship-based economy, the barriers to entry for people of color start at an early age, experts say.
Film and television crews provide solid, high-paying jobs, often protected by unions. But they’re persistently lacking in nonwhite workers, who often have little exposure to entertainment industry jobs during high school and earlier.
What if there was a high school that recruited industry professionals — including Oscar-winning production cinematographers and composers — to give students that early training?
George Clooney and a group of A-listers, including Don Cheadle and Kerry Washington, are working with the Los Angeles Unified School District to fill that gap by launching an academy that promises to provide education and practical training in the arts and sciences of filmmaking to marginalized communities. The planned school will be a magnet, meaning that students can apply from across the district.
The founders hope the effort, which will include internships at studios and production companies, will create better pathways to entertainment business jobs by training future set designers, costume designers and camera workers.
Clooney, who first discussed the idea with his agent Bryan Lourd and producing partner Grant Heslov less than a month ago, said the industry has an unprecedented opportunity to act after years of taking heat for its lack of racial representation behind the scenes.
“Right now is a perfect time to get people to participate, because right now their eye is on the ball,” Clooney said in an interview Sunday. “It doesn’t make sense that Los Angeles of all places, ground zero for Hollywood, isn’t more of a part of this movement to get more underrepresented people into the pipeline.”
The new school, dubbed the Roybal School of Film and Television Production, will debut in fall 2022 as a pilot program with ninth- and 10th-grade students and will be housed within the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, just west of the 110 Freeway downtown.
The program is expected to expand to grades 11 and 12 during the next two years, and if all goes well, the program may grow to include more Los Angeles-area schools.
The curriculum, which will be created by L.A. Unified educators in collaboration with industry players, is still in early development. Clooney and the industry players are now tasked with reaching out to studios, talent and other partners to get involved and supply volunteers, internships, funding and equipment such as camera lenses, visual effects and editing software.
The focus of the program is the "below the line" jobs on film and television productions, which have historically been dominated by white people.
According to a study by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, there were no women of color as directors of photography in the top 300 movies from 2016 to 2018. White men accounted for 80% of film editor positions. Only 6% of production designers were people of color.
Some industry leaders have tried creative ways to improve hiring. Ava DuVernay and her team launched a searchable platform, called Array Crew, for diverse crews that is free to anyone with one verifiable industry credit.
Filmmakers and entertainment companies have worked with L.A. schools before. Warner Bros. in 2018 launched two programs to encourage middle and high school students at L.A. Unified locations to consider careers in the film business, in partnership with nonprofit group Ghetto Film School and mentorship program Young Storytellers.
The Roybal academy's founding comes just one week after rapper Dr. Dre and music mogul Jimmy Iovine announced a new magnet at Audubon Middle School in Leimert Park.
District Supt. Austin Beutner said the Roybal school’s advantage will be its melding of industry training with standard education, with working film and TV pros teaching alongside math and science educators. Teaching about the physics of light will cross over with learning about the uses of camera lenses, for example.
“In simplest terms, we have makeup artists and costume designers in our schools every day; we just call them ninth-graders,” said Beutner, who will step down this month. “And what we’re trying to do is find a way to connect all these great careers with students in our schools, and we needed a set of industry leaders to make that possible.”
Eighty percent of the population served by L.A. Unified is living in poverty. Eighty-three percent of the district’s students are Latino or Black.
The new, application-only school is expected to serve 125 to 150 students in its first year and grow to as many as 250 as it expands to additional grades.
The Roybal magnet will be 20% to 25% more expensive to run than other schools of its size, which would typically cost $5 million a year, said Beutner, who also served about a year as publisher of The Times. The school's annual budget is expected to be about $7 million, of which $2 million to $3 million will come from the project's Hollywood partners.
The key, though, will be the “human capital” from the industry, the professionals who will work with the students.
“At the end, kids will be coming out learning the skills they can use to get into the industry or go into college if they want to pursue further coursework,” said Heslov, who won an Oscar for producing “Argo.” “It’s a cool thing, but at the end, selfishly, when George and I [produce a film] in five years, we want there to be a real talent pool of young, diversified kids to choose from.”
The seed of the idea came when Clooney spoke to his friend and "Les Miserables" producer Eric Fellner of Working Title Films about the London Screen Academy, which Fellner co-founded in 2018.
Inspired by his friend’s work in Britain, Clooney called Lourd, the co-chairman of Creative Artists Agency, who made the pitch to Beutner. Now, the industry coalition supporting the project includes household names such as Mindy Kaling and Eva Longoria, along with Nicole Avant, former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas.
Lourd said the organizers hope their program can inspire similar initiatives at other schools and districts.
Before the pandemic, the motion picture and sound recording industry employed 152,500 people in Los Angeles County, according to the state. But the business also has hubs throughout the nation, including in Georgia, Louisiana and New York.
“We realize it’s one school, and I think everyone’s hope is that it’s modelable and scalable,” Lourd said. “Our intent is to be the example…. This is not about us; this is about us as an organizing force around what we hope can be a community effort.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.