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Tough Money: Technology

Is There Gold in Them Thar Multimedia Hills?

Career opportunities abound in interactive industry, especially in games. But the hours can be long, and the starting pay is notoriously low.


Tumbleweeds are blowing past many boarded-up storefronts these days in Sillywood, the virtual boomtown created by the intersection of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Fueled by a gold-rush mentality, many companies looked to make a quick buck by creating video games that would go on to be books, movies and live shows; after their first couple of failed attempts, many folded.

But don't let that fool you: There's actually more opportunity than ever in interactive media for talented people just out of school, much more so than in the traditional media of film and television.

Games are still big business. For someone starting out, the upside of the industry is that it's the Wild West. It's still inventing itself and can afford opportunities to people in their 20s that are unmatched. The downside: It's still the Wild West. That means having to forge your own trail while working insane hours and often taking lower pay.

You're more likely to get work and actually see it produced than if you were writing a screenplay, but it's essentially nonunion work for now. A number of game companies have agreed to pay into the Writers Guild pension and health fund when employing a guild writer, but they're not obligated to pay any set amount to the writer. Agents in general aren't very active in setting up such deals for their clients, as there's relatively little money to be made.

But for the ambitious and hungry, the work is plentiful--and the pay will follow success. "We have negative unemployment. It's very hard to find good people; we're always looking for talented producers, designers and writers," said Alan Gershenfeld, vice president of creative affairs and production at Activision, one of the industry's more solid companies and a leading maker of "cinematic" games for CD-ROM, Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn platforms. Activision moved to West L.A. from the San Francisco Bay Area several years ago for the express purpose of being closer to Hollywood.

Gershenfeld himself worked as a documentary filmmaker and as a development executive with Edward R. Pressman Film Corp. before going to Activision four years ago. Like many other game companies, Activision has hired a number of people with film backgrounds partly because of their parallel experience and partly because, in a new industry, it's necessary to hire people from the outside.

There have already been many examples of people like Gershenfeld moving from traditional to new media. And "below-the-line" crews--who work in lighting, sound, etc.--and digital effects specialists already move easily among working on interactive projects, commercials and music videos. But what is still developing is a clear route for writers, designers and directors of interactive games to move into film and TV.

Gary Goldsmith, an artist-in-residence teaching multimedia offerings at the USC School of Cinema-Television, said USC, like every other university, is still trying to figure out how to best prepare its students for interactive careers. The film school two years ago realized that it "had to prepare students for the Digital Age, not just retain the traditional emphasis on film as a career path," he said. It added classes specifically tailored to that purpose.

The program is still in its infancy; the film school currently offers only an introduction to interactive media and a class in interactive game design. (Classes are open to other USC students, not just film majors.) The department's six Macintosh computers are just now being supplemented with PCs.

USC is conducting a search for a full-time professor to take over and extend the interactive program. After that happens, the university expects to start awarding film school degrees to students who complete an interactive project, rather than a film, to fulfill their master's degree requirement.

UCLA is just slightly ahead. The school's Lab for New Media has about a dozen machines, both Macs and PCs, and expects to graduate two students this year with multimedia thesis projects. Sheldon Schiffer, the lab's technical director and himself a UCLA grad, estimates that at least a dozen UCLA filmmaking graduates from the last couple of years are now working in multimedia. Brian Boyl, professor of interactive animation, estimates that easily two-thirds of animation grads from UCLA now go into the interactive/multimedia field.

Meanwhile, most people entering the interactive field as writers, directors and designers don't have a degree in it. Margie Stohl, for example, was an unproduced screenwriter with an affinity for interactive subjects. While many film types were intrigued by a script she'd written that involved the Internet, few understood it.

"I'd find myself sitting in the office of a top director, watching him struggle with how to use e-mail," she recalled. "One executive seemed excited about my script; he said, 'OK, so it's opening day on the Internet'--not realizing that that was a ridiculous statement."

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