Yale’s Big Break

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// WEEKEND

Los Angeles, CA. – Seth Rogen and Zac Efron are on the set of a mock university town shooting Townies, a Judd Apatow feature about a fraternity that moves in next door to a suburban couple and the ensuing turf war between them (also starring Rose Byrnes and Dave Franco). Strains of the film’s college-town humor are rooted in the Yale, New Haven experience of the film’s co-writer and co-producer, Andrew J. Cohen ’99 (Funny People, The 40-Year Old Virgin). The comedy will be Cohen’s first ‘executive producer’ credit, the summation of thirteen years working his way up in ‘The Industry’.

“That’s considered fast for this industry, but that’s not how fast I thought it would happen as a fresh-faced Yale kid. First moving out here, I was ready for a kingdom and I couldn’t find the keys at all,” Cohen laughs. “Couldn’t find them at all.”

Cohen imparts his narrative of struggle to an expanding club of students every year, recent graduates who reach out to him upon starting out in Los Angeles, hoping to glean the tidbits of insider information that will help them ‘make it’ in show business. The last decade or so has seen a preponderance of Ivy League graduates heading out to Hollywood, observes entertainment veteran Walter Parkes, former head of DreamWorks.

Parkes is schocked by the education levels of applicants to today’s entry-level positions, as mailroom interns and desk assistants. The search for a Big Break has become as competitive as college admissions, said long-time talent agent Bob Bookman LAW ’72 (Paradigm, CAA). Around two thousand applicants competed for forty summer internship spots at the Creative Artists Agency this year, Bookman said, an acceptance rate lower than Yale’s.

The newest generation of Ivy League-educated Hollywood hopefuls is a more ambitious, more prepared lot than in the past. Bookman recalls he took his first agency position without understanding “what an agent was,” but the younger set today has access to alumni mixers and educational panels that grew out of the struggles of their predecessors. This year marks the decade anniversary of both Yale in Hollywood and Bulldog Productions — Yale’s undergraduate filmmaking group — and the 30th anniversary of the Yale Film Studies Center.

But Parkes wonders how much these resources can really add to the prospects of those Yale hopefuls trying to break in to the entertainment industry.

“What is both tantalizing and exciting about our business, and so frustrating, is this is not a clear-cut meritocracy,” Parkes said. “Therefore, those resources can be there, but I do believe they’re slightly less effectively than for other businesses.”

WELCOME TO THE CLUB

Less than a day after actor Jeffrey Locker ’93 arrived in town in 2009, he sat at a club on La Cienega, “one of those you see on TMZ”, talking job prospects with a fellow Yale graduate as blurs of partygoers and Playboy models breezed by in the background. The mixer was one of over 50 socials, parties and mock Master’s Tea talks hosted annually by Yale in Hollywood, a networking group for alumni in the entertainment industry.

Three years later, Locker has settled into a board membership with Yale in Hollywood and is part of a crowd of over 300, enjoying a March 9 lunchtime banquet and top-floor view of the Universal Studios lot at Yale in Hollywood’s 10th anniversary celebration. The table to his left, marked “Reserved,” hosts producer Bruce Cohen ’83 (Silver Linings Playbook, American Beauty), executive Gary Newman ’76 of 20th Century Fox TV, producer Howard Gordon (Homeland), as well as Mark Dollhopf ’77, director of the Association of Yale Alumni.

“These are big, big Hollywood names,” Dollhopf emphasizes. “Our Yale alumni are movers and shakers in this industry — the access that we provide here is provided by nobody else.”

A Yale graduate expects to enter the job market having amassed a strong professional network, said David Steinberg ’05, one of Yale in Hollywood’s founding members. Such an advantage is “not unfair,” he stresses, but only reasonable in a town where competition is heavy, socialization is business and trade knowledge comes at a high premium.

The upsurge of online communication can take the majority of credit for the boom in alumni groups in Hollywood, starting with Harvardwood in 1999, which offer the likes of holiday parties at The W, Oscar galas at The Smith House and poolside mixers in the Hollywood Hills, each attended by hundreds of actors, agents, and aspiring entertainment moguls.

With over 2,500 names signed on, Yale in Hollywood rapidly outpaced other Ivy League groups to become among the most active in the industry, as well as one of the most prolific Yale shared-interest alumni networks. The organization has most recently gone global, establishing chapters in Toronto, Hong Kong and London and is even eyeing entertainment sub-industries abroad, such as Bollywood.

There is no business like show business, muses the notorious president of Yale in Hollywood, Kevin Winston, who requested his class year not be printed because it would reveal his age, which could hurt his employment opportunities in ‘The Industry.’ Winston makes it a point to be somewhere, meeting someone, at every moment, constantly “in circulation.” Lounged at a café on the Sunset Strip, dressed in his trademark “brand” of neon red, Winston is freshly recovering from a weekend of mixers at South by Southwest in Austin. The perception that LA’s party scene is excessive, he explains, is a tired notion of the East Coast, Ivy League mentality towards networking.

“I wish I could teach a course for Yalies on how to network because they’re not good at it and it’s not taught at Yale — how to network LA-style,” he said.

In New York, it might be popular to brag about how many hours you worked, he said. But in Los Angeles, one has to do “doubletime” — what impresses the office is a story about partying at the beach that weekend, he said, gesturing to the perpetually sunny scenery on Sunset Boulevard, while still getting all your work done.

Director James Ponsoldt ’01 (Smashed) compared Hollywood-style networking to hitting on people at a bar. In an industry that trades in relationships, going out for lunches and dinners four days a week is part of the job description for executives and producers, he said.

A filmmaker’s big break could come from anybody, Winston said. That is part of the reason attendees are never turned down from Yale in Hollywood or Ivy Entertainment events because they do not have an Ivy League degree. “Who you know” often has more sway than what you know, he said.

Winston currently has 1,200 friend requests on Facebook.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

Graduates with phenomenal degrees work minimum wage jobs in Hollywood, said Jodie Foster ’85.

“The thing about the film business is no one really cares where you came from,” Foster said. “It wasn’t founded by a bunch of rich kids. They’re scrappers, people in the film business.”

Bookman said Hollywood’s empire builders — Goldwyn, Mayer, Warner — were working-class, so the industry has historically attracted rejects from other fields or educational institutions. Mid-century producer Walter Wanger was one of the first Ivy League graduates to make a name for himself, Bookman added, and it is a commonly-repeated trope that “his Dartmouth degree is what held him back.”

Part of the beauty of ‘making it’ in Hollywood, Foster suggested, is precisely that Yale graduates have to take the hard way in, stripped of any sense of entitlement. The majority of all alumni interviewed said their Yale degree has not been much of an asset.

At a Korea-town wine bar on Mar. 12, five-time Emmy winner and Princeton graduate Rob Kutner (The Daily Show, Conan) fields questions from fellow Princeton alums, the first of which is — how much of a difference do our Princeton degrees make in this business?

Kutner laughs.

“No effect. Yeah, they really need a Princeton anthropology major [in Hollywood],” he joked sarcastically. “Summa cum laude to write the next Smurfs movie.”

After the talk, former director’s assistant Ethan Clarke admits that he stopped wearing his Princeton shirt to work, after realizing the school name wasn’t always received positively by his co-workers.

Having ‘Yale’ on your resume is only a major asset if the person interviewing you is from an Ivy League, Bookman said, and when he or she isn’t, there’s a possible assumption that you’re pretentious.

“I was a studio executive for six years and people would say behind my back — Bob, he’s an intellectual. He won’t know what will succeed,” Bookman recalls. “And Yale Law School made it hard to get a job, because people said I should go to the business side.”

Writer Jade Haviland ’04 said the typical reaction to hearing she has a Yale degree is, Why aren’t you on Wall Street? What are you doing here?

Although “there certainly are a lot of Yale graduates working in the legal side of Hollywood, where ‘Yale’ has a lot of cache,” jokes entertainment attorney Lois Fishman ’72.

Credits, not education, is the crux of a Hollywood resume, said production designer Alan Muraoka ’80 (Sesame Street), and a liberal arts degree is hardly a relevant measurement of artistic potential.

Aspiring actress Kristina Romaine transferred from Yale to the University of Southern California before her junior year in order to start taking auditions while in college. Most actors her age have not gone to college, she said, echoing multiple alumni who said college puts actors at a disadvantage by swallowing up four years of their youth.

Four alumni interviewed said actors typically only act part-time while paying the rent through SAT and academic tutoring jobs, using their Yale degree to land positions at Beverly Hills private schools rather than on studio lots.

The large majority of Yale alumni interviewed spent time in low-paying, menial labor positions. Nearly all alumni interviewed said they began their careers in Hollywood with a period of unemployment.

Producer Jeffrey Clifford ’91 (Up in the Air, No Strings Attached) recalls moving to Los Angeles with around $1,000 and spending his first month sleeping on a friend’s couch, “networking around” for a job.

Hollywood is not like investment banking where undergraduates can participate in a scheduled interview process prior to graduating and line up a job before May, said producer Jared LeBoff ’03 (Charlie St. Cloud, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). Almost all alumni interviewed said they moved to Los Angeles or New York before being offered their first job.

Film Studies professor Ron Gregg said when he puts undergraduates in touch with successful industry insiders such as Bruce Cohen or Ira Sachs, he emails Cohen and Sachs to say — give these kids the real story.

“I say to them, tell [students] the brutal honesty, that there is struggle involved here,” Gregg said. “There is possibly working at Starbucks along with working on your screenplay. Almost everyone in the industry would say [they] started in the mailroom.”

Screenwriter John Badham ’61 DRA ’63 (Nikita, Psych, Criminal Minds, Heroes) said the main task for interns in the mailroom, other than delivering mail, is “finding your own way out.”

NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS

3 a.m., knee-deep in a cemetery near Pasadena, Melissa Merritt ’03 (Parenthood), who works in props, accidentally falls into a freshly-dug grave. Reflecting on gigs in graveyards and condemned hospitals, Merritt says productions, particularly the low-budget horror films where she began her career, throw filmmakers into strenuous schedules of long, tedious hours in doing absurd assignments.

“I have seen so much crazy stuff — it never fails to entertain, that’s for sure,” Haviland said. “But it’s also depressing, to see how low people will stoop or how much flack they will put up with.”

The attempt to mass-produce Art has created an industry fraught with more emotion, and more immaturity, than any other, said producer Aaron Kogan ’00. Top-level creatives can get away with having temper tantrums and throwing things by claiming the stereotype of the “crazy Hollywood executive,” said Maria Burton ’85, recalling her brief stint as an assitant at Paramount.

A few alumni described their time as assistants at studios and agencies “the worst thing ever.” Andrew Cohen recalls being paid around five dollars an hour by Creative Artists Agency to anticipate his boss’s every whim, at any minute juggling constant phone calls while texting her forgotten documents. Now a CAA client himself, Cohen jokes that he is well aware of  “exactly how needy clients can be.”

“Swimming with sharks is a pretty good example of what working at an agency is like,” Cohen said. “And there’s a lot of mind games,” he added.

Almost all alumni described the industry as intensely competitive.

The access point to The Industry is clotted because barriers to entry — educational degrees and standardized exams — do not exist, said actress Jill Gray Savarese ’03, fostering in its place cutthroat deal-making and survival of the fittest.

“You hear some things — one of my teachers at iO West was a Saturday Night Live writer. From anyone you hear, working at SNL is like daily trying not to slit your wrists,” Haviland said. “It’s backstabbing, competitive and if you don’t get three jokes up in a month, you’re fired.”

Her former io West teacher lost forty pounds on the job, Haviland added.

Every job could be your last job, said producer Alan Poul ’76 (The Newsroom, Six Feet Under). In an industry that is predominantly freelance, even the current president of a network could be out of a job in three months, said former television writer Laura Brennan ’88 (The Lost World), who left the business because the competition became “too much.”

“Television is an industry that spits people out,” Brennan said. “You will get fired. In fact, your contract is in weeks because every show gets cancelled.”

Two weeks after directing one of the final episodes of Breaking Bad in New Mexico, George Mastras ’88 said that he cannot feel entirely secure in terms of job stability. Though he now makes as much as he did as a lawyer, Mastras knows that scriptwriting is inherently volatile, he said, “always a crapshoot.” With the end of the AMC series, Mastras will now be working to get a pilot on the air.

Making one’s second project is even harder than making the first, Bookman admits. The ironic truth is that the career only gets harder, he explains. People idealize the possibilities of working in show business, Bookman said, without understanding “as a producer, you can make a fortune, but you can’t make a living.”

Multiple alumni interviewed reported sleeping in their offices and working seven days a week, pulling strings of all-nighters rivaling their most consuming reading periods at Yale.

Relationships have been destroyed over the intensity of production schedules, Haviland said, adding that her friends disappear for months on end during production season, re-emerging only after a project has wrapped.

“When I go to work on something — I just finished an episode of Nikita — I virtually turn into a monk because [writing is] all I’m doing for six weeks or so,” Badham said.

Even unemployment is a full-time job in Hollywood. Andrew Wagner ’09 recalls his first months out of college — living in a $600, cockroach-infested flat in Chinatown, getting up at 6 a.m. daily for auditions and checking Backstage casting notices every single day. Wagner recently landed a recurring role as an extra on The Newsroom, he said proudly. The sad parable of Hollywood is that most actors will spend far more trying to be an actor than they will ever make from acting, Locker said, who still browses actor’s gig listings online each day.

Less than half of alumni interviewed said they felt Hollywood was a meritocracy.

GOING IT ALONE

“You know when you’re traveling far away, and you meet someone from the U.S., and you’re like ‘Oh! You’re from the U.S.!’ That’s what having a Yale degree [in the entertainment industry] is like,” said writer and actress Zoe Kazan ’05 (Ruby Sparks).

The alumni network in Hollywood has historically been fragmented, said Gary Newman ’76, chairman of 20th-Century Fox Television, and the geographic separation between New Haven and Los Angeles alone is distancing.

Entertainment attorney Fishman recalls trying to get in touch with industry alumni in the 1970s by laboriously drafting letters, soliciting lunch dates. Nearly half a century later, actress Christine Garver ’08 (Criminal Minds) is sending out those same inquiries, requesting the same elusive sit-down lunch dates, via e-mail.

Poul admits that he receives a barrage of emails from Yale grads asking for meetings and advice. He inevitably does not have time to accommodate the requests of every writer asking for him to read their script, every filmmaker handing him a DVD.

“But if it were structured so it wasn’t individual people fielding requests, if it weren’t a barrage of emails, and there was a set system, maybe splitting up mentees…” Poul considered. “It could work.”

Perhaps historically, the critical mass necessary to sustain a viable alumni network has not been present, suggest alumni. For decades, the occasional graduate who packed his or her bags for Los Angeles was an outlier. The ones that came out in the 50s and 60s probably hid their degrees, Bookman said.

Yale’s English Department once informed a young Brandon Tartikoff ’70 he would be wasting his time in television, Fishman said. The one film course offered in the 60s was easily a gut, screenwriter Badham said, and movies were seen as just “the stuff you went to when avoiding studying.”

Tartikoff went on to run Paramount Studios, but it was not until the success of him and others like him found in the 60s and 70s that ideas about the value of television and film as a career began changing on campus, Fishman said.

An increasing stream of graduates have been finding their way into show business as of late, said alumni interviewed, and the overall awareness of entertainment as a tangible career has grown.

Perhaps it’s Entourage, muses Parkes, former head of DreamWorks — or at least, he explains, shows like Entourage that have glamourized Hollywood’s inner workings and motivated students to pursue a career like Vincent Chase’s.

“I do think something happened over the last 20 years or so with the preponderance of reality TV shows [about Hollywood] and reporting on the movie business,” Parkes said. “The Oscars race is becoming like the SuperBowl. There’s not a news business or local TV station that doesn’t report the box office winner of a given weekend.”

The awareness of entertainment as a feasible career path, however, has not budged Yale from its traditional theory-centric Film and Theater curriculums. The Yale education has approached the modern arts of acting and movie-making the same way it tackles English poets and Greek mythology, remaining based in paper-writing and seminar discussions, said actor Ron Livingston ’89 (Office Space, The Odd Life of Timothy Green).

Kazan, having recognized that Yale shirks any notion of “trade school reputation,” said it was necessary for her to take initiative and step outside the liberal arts curriculum while she was in college. She was “after bigger game” and got herself into training classes outside of her coursework and over the summers.

Allison Williams ’10 recalls being asked to improvise a full scene with Lena Dunham halfway through her audition for Girls. The improv skills she learned as a member of “Just Add Water” was the only formal acting training she had had.

Costume designer Melina Root ’83 DRA ’90 (That 70’s Show, Brothers and Sisters) said she filled the void in Yale’s theory-centric Theater Studies offerings through the Yale Dramat learning the ins and outs of running a show by doing so on her own.

Yet that’s how it should be, Root and Livingston insisted. Because of the lack of any formal structure for learning the entertainment trade on campus, Yalies were as much on their own while in college as they would be once they moved to LA, Livingston explained.

“I’ve seen conservatory graduates who’ve had a hard time in Hollywood, because they’re used to someone being in charge,” Livingston said. “At Yale, we didn’t have anybody in charge… Just grab a weekend and a dining hall and do the damn thing yourself.”

AN AGE OF AMBITION

Ten years ago, Steinberg, Winston and other soon-to-be founders of Yale in Hollywood met for lunch at Canter’s Deli, each wondering how to make Yale more like Harvard.

Harvard runs late night, according to multiple alumni interviewed.

The writing staffs of Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Simpsons are filled with Harvard boys, Haviland said, most of whom have known each other since being in the same sketch groups and on the editorial board of The Harvard Lampoon.

Comedy executives have grown accustomed to hiring fresh Harvard graduates, Haviland said, and therefore have an incentive to maintain strong ties to the school. The reciprocal nature of this relationship allows the alumni network to sustain itself, she said.

Now that Yale in Hollywood has established itself in town, its board members can tackle the task of reconnecting with their alma mater and cultivating this link with newer graduates, producer Kogan said.

Kogan suggests a “mini-graduate school” of classes about the structure of The Industry for undergraduate summer interns. There could be a BlueList for Yale graduates similar to the Hollywood Blacklist — a catalogue of the most “in” scripts circulated at major film companies annually, Haviland proposes. A streamlined system for matching mentors with mentees, Locker proposes.

But ask five hundred different successful Hollywood insiders how they made it, and they will tell five hundred different stories, Clifford said.

“It’s not only somewhat mysterious how to succeed … when you succeed, you can’t really tell other people what to do because you don’t know what you did right and there’s no incentive to tell other people what to do because it’s so competitive,” Steinberg said.

Yale’s most recent graduates appear to have caught on to these industry nuances. Director Seth Gordon ’99 (Horrible Bosses, Four Christmases) who has advised hundreds of new arrivals on navigating the murky waters of entertainment said he is surprised at how prematurely ambitious Yale’s new generation of Hollywood hopefuls are.

The questions posed by young graduates often carry a depth of sophistication that takes Gordon by surprise. Gordon, echoing Bookman, said he arrived in Los Angeles with “no idea what an agency was.” There was a learning curve, he recalls.

But ultimately, prior preparation wasn’t necessary, Gordon reflects.

“If you live your life, that’ll give you something worth saying,” Gordon said. “That’s what will make you a great filmmaker, not raw ambition.”

Kogan admits that though he envisions building up a powerful Yale in Hollywood, young people must realize that the business will never be formulaic.

Every year however, he said, people figure it out.

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