Mike Miller, international vice president of the entertainment union IATSE and director of the union’s film and television division, is a guy behind the scenes. He admits it’s unusual for him to speak to the Hollywood trade press — about anything. But Miller is happy to step out of his comfort zone to talk about IATSE’s role in the Roybal School of Film and Television Production, which opened a high school campus in downtown Los Angeles in August with 150 students
The magnet program — a partnership between Hollywood stars like George Clooney and Mindy Kaling, as well as top media companies and the Los Angeles Unified School District — is little like a scene from “Fame,” where talented high schoolers dance, sing, and perform in their own way in the entertainment industry . Instead, the program has a more practical goal: preparing high school students from underserved communities to take on the more affluent — and often lucrative — union jobs as cinematographers, makeup artists, set designers and other bottom-line workers.
The celebrities involved have no say in which students are accepted into the program, and as with other magnet programs, any student who qualifies to attend a LAUSD high school is eligible to apply. But the district’s diverse student population naturally meets the goals of the entertainment industry’s bottom-line employment effort, Principal Blanca Cruz said. According to US News and World Report, 782 of the city’s 782 public schools are 90% minority and 60% economically disadvantaged.
And while students in the magnet program often come from outside the school area, the downtown location will naturally attract the interest of students who live in the area. “It had to be a school that would be accessible to the community and students that aren’t typically represented[in the entertainment industry],” Cruz told TheWrap.
IATSE has been involved in diversity outreach for years, but the magnet school is the first time the union has engaged at the high school level. “Not everyone can be the next movie star or director, but there are tens of thousands of technicians and artisans behind the camera who are making really good money in our industry,” Miller said.
He described the industry’s tendency to blame the lack of diversity behind the cameras on complex union contracts as a “cop out.” “Sometimes it’s easy to look back and say, well, we can’t do this because we haven’t always done it that way,” Miller said. “And that’s just not acceptable anymore.”
The school had previously developed a magnet program in recent years that focused on bottom line jobs; Now the program has funding, a new curriculum, and a board that includes Kerry Washington, Eva Longoria, Working Title Co-Chairman Eric Fellner, and CAA Co-Chair Bryan Lourd. Like other LAUSD magnet programs, the magnet is housed in its own building on the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center campus, and its students also take classes in other buildings.
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“George Clooney put it best — you can study to be an actor, you can study to be a writer, you can study to be a dancer or a composer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a job,” said Deborah Marcus , executive director of the CAA Foundation, the agency’s philanthropic arm that is the organizational entity for the Hollywood effort (LAUSD has been a pro bono client of CAA since 2018).
The list of Hollywood backers seems to be about as long as the special effects credits for “Dune”: Amazon Studios, Disney, Fox Corporation, NBCUniversal/Telemundo Enterprises, Paramount and Warner Bros. Discovery have signed on as founding partners of the fund .
Charlie Collier, CEO of Fox Entertainment; NBCUniversal EVP and Chief Diversity Officer Craig Robinson and Marva Smalls, EVP and Global Head of Inclusion at Paramount, have joined the Roybal Advisory Board, which also includes Clooney, Heslov, Lourd, Washington, Nicole Avant, Longoria, Kaling, Don Cheadle, Working Title Founders Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, Jim Gianopulos and Paul Buccieri, President and Chairman of A+E Networks Group. Some of these heavyweights donate money, while others connect students with experts in below-the-line areas or provide in-kind donations of equipment and tuition.
Expert advice comes from celebrated Hollywood veterans like costume designers Ruth Carter and Emilio Sosa; production designers Wynn Thomas and Korey Washington; hair and makeup artist Howard Berger; cameraman Erik Messerschmidt; lighting director Danny Gonzalez; Supervision of sound editors Bobbi Banks and Glenfield Payne; film editor Michael Tronick; animation artist Vicky Pui; and visual effects producer Brooke Breton, all to serve as founding members of the Roybal Industry Council.
The entertainment industry’s support for public schools has recently been due to the popularity of Abbott Elementary, the ABC comedy set in an underserved Philadelphia public school, which this year received a Writing Emmy for its creator and star Quinta Brunson , on the radar. The show’s producers have been involved in numerous marketing giveaways targeting underserved public schools, including hosting a “gift suite”-style awards show for LA teachers in West Century City in mid-September. But Cruz said she believes the focus on teachers as frontline workers during the pandemic in recent years has done more to raise the profile of the plight of underserved public schools across the country.
“During COVID, there’s been an increased awareness of what public school teachers are doing, just as we’ve seen our nurses, doctors and heroes do,” Cruz said. “It’s not just a school, there’s a lot going on in this building.”
While diversity progress may be less visible on the bottom line than on screen, in writers’ rooms, or in boardrooms, Miller said the efforts are equally critical to the industry.
“You[need]people behind the camera who have the experience of what’s happening on camera,” he said. “The idea that these people have the cultural and life experiences of the people they work with is incredibly important. You know, the idea that we have people who can handle natural hair – we’ve been working diligently with our makeup and hair stores to provide training and access for people of color into the industry. Such things are very important. And if you have a diverse workforce, that will be reflected in the product you make.”
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