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Filmanthropic Tackles Hollywood's Catch-22

April 05, 1998|Brett Johnson | Brett Johnson is a Times staff writer

For many aspiring actors, fame and success in Hollywood remain elusive, tantalizing dreams. Even those interested in the craft of filmmaking, working behind the camera, often find it a struggle to break into the business.

Won Woo, 26, of West Los Angeles had dreams of becoming a director of photography, but found only frustration in his job search since graduation from UCLA nearly two years ago. Then, last fall, while surfing the Internet, he stumbled upon an advertisement for a nonprofit organization whose mission was to provide on-the-job film production training to traditionally under-represented groups in the film industry: women, people over 40, disabled, minorities and economically disadvantaged persons.

The Hollywood-based group, Filmanthropic Inc., seemed ideal for Woo, whose job search since graduation had been disheartening, running into the quintessential entry-level job-seeker conundrum: how do you build skills when you can't get that initial opportunity?

Though he had four years of photographic experience taking pictures for his college newspaper and had interned at Los Angeles post-production facilities learning the basics of film editing, employers weren't prepared to hire such a green prospect, said Woo.

Jumping from job to odd job, from selling cars to serving cups of java at a local cafe, Woo thought returning to school would better his chances.

"I even thought about getting into teaching," he said.

But today, Woo and other Filmanthropic trainees are working in various capacities such as camera work, editing, costumes, props, sound, electrical--even catering--alongside professionals as part of a 60-member production crew on an independent film which began shooting last month in South-Central Los Angeles.

"It's much better to get this hands-on experience than watching films in a classroom," Woo said.

Founded in 1994 by Nanci Rossov, a veteran television and theater director whose credits include the Family Channel's "Adventures of the Black Stallion," the training program allows minorities and other under-represented people to diversify the industry's talent pool as well as remove a layer from the bubble that appears to be impenetrable to so many.

"Unfortunately, the reality is that the best way to make it in this industry is through experience," said Rossov, 53. "But to get experience, you must have the access. It is a Catch-22. For people who don't have access, either financially or not having the human or personal contacts, it's difficult."

Filmanthropic is supported by a host of others including actor Edward James Olmos and director Charles Burnett who serve on the board of advisors.

By building quality craftsman and providing filmic alternatives that include the talents of women, people of color, and other under-represented groups, Filmanthropic is as important as the Sundance Institute, American Film Institute and other supporters of independent film, Olmos said.

"This is one more asset to help understand this art form," Olmos said. "It opens up another avenue. To get hands-on experience, we can't have too many of these programs."

Last month, after a long struggle for financial backing and to find a suitable script, the group finally was able to begin its first feature-length film production.

"Unbowed," produced by Brenda Miao, a former literary agent at International Creative Management, and based on a screenplay by Mildred Inez-Lewis, a graduate of UCLA's Film and Television program and a former member of Home Box Office's New Writer's Program, tells the interracial love story of a Lakota warrior and African American woman who meet at a black university in the 1890s. It stars Jay Tavare, Tembi Locke and Orson Bean.

The $1-million-budget film still has no distributor but is currently in negotiation, Rossov said.

The production, Rossov said, has been greeted with support from corporations and other foundations who have provided discounted or free goods and services or donated cash gifts. Fuji, for example, has given the project a discount of film stock and K Mart Corp. has provided free paint for the film's art department, Rossov said.

Even Gov. Pete Wilson awarded the organization a state grant of more than $300,000 for production costs last December as part of some $3 million in job-training and education funds set aside for media and entertainment.

The grant is targeted to help train laid-off workers in film production areas as part of Wilson's discretionary fund, a provision of the federal Job Training Partnership Act. The Los Angeles County Department of Community and Senior Services administers the funds and the Labor Employment and Training Corporation, a nonprofit, Long Beach-based agency oversees the human resources component.

Through a separate agreement between the state's Employment Development Department and Filmanthropic, those who qualify for unemployment compensation receive monthly benefits as long as they remain in good standing in the job training program.

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