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Movies as a Job Engine

A rising demand calls for related courses in the schools

January 25, 1998

For more than half a century Hollywood has largely defined the Los Angeles image, but only in this decade has it become dominant in the regional economy. As reporter James Bates detailed in a recent Times series, the entertainment boom of the 1990s has created so many industry jobs that by early next decade more Southern Californians are expected to be employed in that sector than in electronics and aerospace combined.

Given the insatiable human appetite for entertainment, Hollywood is unlikely to suffer the kind of downturn that hammered the aerospace industry after the end of the Cold War. But neither should local entertainment industry growth be taken for granted, for that depends on a resource that many Hollywood executives say is increasingly scarce: a highly skilled entertainment labor pool.

The dearth of regional talent has led many Hollywood executives to look far afield for employees. For instance, Frank Foster, president of multimedia for Sony Pictures, says he's gone as far as Bombay to recruit digital artists, and more than a quarter of the animators and digital effects artists now working for major Hollywood companies like DreamWorks, Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues came from abroad.

Last year, the Wilson administration allocated $6.5 million in state funds for what it termed an effort to nurture regional talent, but those dollars were distributed without much rhyme or reason. More than $5 million, for instance, went to the Hollywood Entertainment Museum and to well-heeled companies like Technicolor, which used the funds to upgrade the skills of their workers.

The remaining $1.25 million went to a worthier cause, Santa Monica College's cutting-edge Academy of Entertainment and Technology. But as the program's dean, Katherine Muller, concedes, funding her program alone will hardly prepare the state for what lies ahead.

"What's critical is a state program that provides support for ongoing training and analysis," Muller says. "With industries involving technology, like biomedicine and entertainment, it's impossible for colleges to keep up. The state could help by identifying emerging needs and then providing categorical funding to help colleges meet them."

California's Community College Economic Development Network, or Ednet, was formed by the state to forge partnerships between industry and community colleges, but college officials question its effectiveness. Wilson could reinvigorate Ednet by giving it an important task: bringing faculties together with representatives from entertainment companies, unions and guilds to develop curricula that teach skills that are in demand. In particular, the state should give community colleges regular funding to retrain faculty members through internships in the entertainment industry, and the famously tight-lipped entertainment industry and its guilds should help colleges anticipate which skills will be in demand.

As Kathleen Milnes, an official of the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., a nonprofit liaison office for movie making, says, "the biggest problem is trying to make sure schools target the areas where there are jobs." Right now, that would be animation and digital effects.

When the aerospace industry reigned in Southern California, engineers worked closely with regional colleges to design courses. Engineers at Northrop, for instance, helped professors at Cerritos College open one of the nation's leading centers for studying and building the kind of reinforced plastics that were essential to constructing aircraft like the stealth bomber.

With more artists than artisans, the entertainment industry may not be able to plan as deliberately and practically as aerospace. But given the increasingly sophisticated technologies that Hollywood relies upon today, it may have a thing or two to learn from the industries it has come to eclipse.

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