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Southern California Job Market : A Special Report On Employment Trends : Industries & Occupations : Entertainment : Everybody Would Still Like To Get Into The Act

September 20, 1987|JAMES BATES | Times Staff Writer

It used to be that everyone came to Hollywood trying to get into pictures. Now it seems that everyone wants to write them.

No other town boasts more waiters and salesclerks who are writing screenplays on the side. Last year, 25,000 screenplays, treatments and television movies were registered just by the West Coast office of the Writers Guild of America. Less than 1% ever get produced, the guild estimates.

Admittedly, screenwriting is a small area of the entertainment field. Yet the plethora of working and would-be screenwriters illustrates well the glut of job seekers throughout the entertainment business. As comedian Jimmy Durante used to say, "Everybody wants to get into the act."

The state Employment Development Department estimates that 63,000 people work in the motion picture business in Los Angeles County, a number that has remained constant throughout the 1980s.

Although the numbers don't show it, there is more non-film work now than in the past because of the explosive growth in cable television, video and first-run television syndication, in which producers bypass the networks in debuting their programs. Some entertainment work, however, is being done in areas such as North Carolina, Florida and Toronto instead of Southern California.

The bad news is that while there is more work, there are far more applicants, and always will be, for every available job.

Take the Screen Actors Guild as an example. Its ranks have doubled every 10 years since the union was founded in 1933. Yet SAG estimates that, on a typical day, 85% of its 70,000 members--including 35,000 in Southern California--are unemployed. Last year, SAG says, only 20% made a living by acting, and 30% earned nothing from acting.

Life is even tougher for women and minorities. One study released last month by the private National Commission on Working Women found that men still write, direct and produce most of the top television shows. Women mainly work in lower-ranking jobs, where they have little say over hiring and program content, according to the study.

Likewise, a study commissioned by the Writers Guild's Western office in Los Angeles and released in June found that only 20% of working guild members were women and only 2% were members of minority groups. Furthermore, the study concluded, women and minorities make 60 cents to 70 cents for every $1 earned by their white male counterparts.

Still, some people do make it in the business. But much of the advice they offer is vague: develop trust, get to know people, be persistent and be willing to start at the bottom.

Michael Swerdlick, who wrote Touchstone Pictures' current hit, "Can't Buy Me Love," started in a training program at the William Morris talent agency a week after graduating from Pepperdine Law School in 1981. Swerdlick first worked in the mail room and as a messenger.

"You really have to swallow a lot of pride to become a gofer. My law school buddies were getting hot-shot jobs, and here's Michael delivering packages all over town," Swerdlick recalled.

Swerdlick eventually became an assistant agent, where he learned about screenwriting by reading scripts--ranging from some that eventually became hits, like "Splash" and "The Verdict," to some that never made it past his desk, like one about a glass paperweight with a universe inside of it.

Likewise, Edward Neumeier, co-author of Orion Pictures' hit movie "RoboCop," started as a story analyst reading scripts for studios to determine their potential. "I had to learn how to get a script by someone like me," he said.

That eventually led to studio jobs at Columbia and Universal, where Neumeier cultivated contacts in the business that he said helped him when it came time to write and sell his script.

"It's impossible to slam dunk over the top," he said. "If you are on the outside of the business, and don't have friends or relatives in it, it's almost impossible to go straight up the middle."

Some executives suggest internships and training programs in such areas as directing and camera work. Another route is film school, particularly those at UCLA and USC. Both schools sponsor contests that showcase writing talents.

Christian Rehr, an executive assistant in production at Orion who received a master's degree in film and television production at UCLA in 1982, said that he and other members of an alumni group want to establish a "mentor" program in which students would be matched with industry professionals.

Rehr suggests that people apply for temporary work at studios, production companies and other firms as a way to get in the door. This, he said, helps a person decide if they like the work, gives access to job postings and may lead to contacts that could develop into a permanent job.

"When people see you in action, they can tell if you have it or not," Rehr said.

Some temporary agencies, such as London Temporary Services in Los Angeles and Friedman Personnel Agency in West Hollywood, specialize in placing people in the entertainment business.

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