Postcard from Hollywood

After swearing off recruiting and folding my law school applications into paper airplanes last October, I began to seriously start thinking about my future. A lifelong film junkie, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to work “in the movies.” After all, every year we hear about those seniors who drop all their plans and book it to Hollywood.  Why couldn’t I be one of them?

Thus, much to the consternation of my thesis advisor, I decided to spend my intersession in sunny Los Angeles, where I participated in the career exploratory program Harvardwood 101.

The brainchild of Mia Riverton ’99, Harvardwood 101 is an extension of Harvardwood, a professional network of Harvard alumni and current students interested in art and entertainment. Having turned down job offers from both Goldman Sachs and the Boston Consulting Group to pursue her passion for acting, Riverton unofficially created the organization when she decided to compile an e-mail list of all the people she knew in Hollywood.

Word about the list quickly grew, and with the help of Stacy Cohen ’89 and Adam J. Fratto ’90, Harvardwood was born. With over 1,200 members, some of whom date back to the class of 1960, the organization now sponsors monthly social mixers, talent showcases, speaker’s series and other alumni career counseling programs, such as the new Harvardwood 101.

Eager to be a guinea pig in the inaugural program, I sent in my application in early December and was informed about two weeks later that I was to be one of 14 lucky undergraduates selected to participate in the program. Hence on the last day of exams, I packed my bags and got on a plane to Los Angeles, where I was greeted by gorgeous 85-degree weather.

My first stop was Universal Studios, where I was to meet my host for the weekend, as well as another participant in the program. With blue guest passes in hand, we promptly began to explore the lot. Noting that it was heavily guarded, we peeped our heads into the security booth, only to find a large photograph of the actor Alec Baldwin, with the words, “Do not ID!” emblazoned across the bottom. The security guard on duty also confided to us that Ethan Embry, co-star of the recently revived television show Dragnet, had paid for a special VIP pass that allowed him special treatment. I suppose, with his new sideburns, he was sick of being mistaken for the poor man’s Luke Perry.

On Friday, our introduction to Hollywood officially began. Piling into a fifteen passenger van, my fellow students and I were led by our fearless leader, Riverton, who nimbly navigated the crowded freeways of L.A. with the skill of a woman who had spent countless hours in a PBHA after-school van.

Our first stop was Warner Bros. Studios, where we took a tour of the lot, stopping to check out the Harry Potter paraphernalia in the Warner Bros. Museum, traipse through the sets of “Gilmore Girls” and “ER,” and even spot a speeding Mekhi Pfeiffer zooming by on a golf cart.

Following an informative lunch with alums at the Sony Plaza Café, we next visited the production company Mostow-Lieberman, located in bungalows on the Universal Studios lot.  Greeted by Mike S. Converse ’99, we were given a crash course in film development, as well as told the trials and tribulations of being a lowly production assistant-a bottom rung job necessary for paying one’s dues.  

Our final event for the day was a trip to Universal Music, where Roy Kosuge ’99 broke down the music industry for us in a fascinating PowerPoint presentation.

After a relaxing weekend, we resumed our tour early on Monday morning with a trip to the University of Southern California’s Graduate School of Cinema and Television. After being introduced to the Stark Producing Program, we were shown around the Zemeckis Digital Studio Building, where we were allowed to look at the Avid editing systems and other multimillion dollar toys.

Over lunch with current and past students, I was surprised by the various goals of people attending film school; while some attended to round out their directing skills, others enrolled simply to learn a trade, such as editing, in order to support themselves financially as they churned out their great American screenplay.

In the afternoon, we visited the Culver City set of Surviving Christmas, a drama starring Ben Affleck and James Gandolfini set to be released next year.

Tragically, J.Lo’s paramour was shooting principal photography in Chicago, but we were given the treat of meeting art director Sue K. Chan ’92, who guided us through the film’s construction and set design.

Our final destination was to two agencies, Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and the Gersh Agency. An actor friend had mentioned to me that CAA was designed to look intimidating, and with its overwhelmingly white lobby, towering Liechtenstein canvas, and severe I.M. Pei design. I had no choice but to agree.

Once inside the building’s marble belly, we learned about the grueling three-year process of becoming an agent, as well as the limitations of being an agent rather than a manager. A panel on television writing greeted us at the Gersh Agency, where we were able to question both sitcom and drama writers about their craft.  

For me, the panel reinforced the underlying message of our entire trip: In an industry where newcomers crowd entry level positions, the relationships you cultivate and maintain are the key to subsistence—and hopefully success.

The next morning, as I sadly prepared for my return to cold Cambridge, I cheered up after realizing that I would be back in California soon. Above all, my trip has reaffirmed my belief that entertainment is a bizarre industry, and while there seem to be few easy “in”s, a rewarding experiences lies ahead for those who possess the dedication and passion for their craft-and have networks as devoted to helping them as Harvardwood. So meet me in California? You know you want to.

—Arts Chair Emerita Michelle F. Kung can be reached at mkung@fas.harvard.edu.

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