Scenes From Harvardwood
We’re sitting around a black veneered conference table at William Morris, the oldest of the Tinseltown talent agencies, watching no less than three promotional videos steeped in virtuous self-aggrandizement. The recruiting manager in the corner is adjusting his tie yet again, and the head agent is talking too fast to pause for breath between sentences.
We’re tired and hungry, but we’re all jotting notes and nodding politely as the next agent in training extols the virtues of a job that lets you hang with Snoop at a release party one night and scout LA clubs for the next big music act. We’re rapt with attention. The point is not that we’re trying to hustle a few Hollywood agents for upcoming jobs. No, the point is they’re hustling us.
But the town originally famous for rag-time entertainers still glorifies the high school dropout and the struggling artist. At both William Morris and ICM (International Creative Management), we are told, “A degree from Harvard is nice. But here, it’s all about the elbow grease and the hustle—you won’t get paid much the first three years.”
Yes, that’s what any college senior craving job stability wants to hear. That it’s all about the uncertainty. And the hustle. As if our time at Harvard hasn’t already convinced us we need to make money, and how. As if the hustle of the past four years can’t compare to the rigor of networking at a Def Jam cocktail hour.
The Many Faces of Hollywood
But that’s what we were there for as undergraduate participants of “Harvardwood 101.” We wanted to learn the nuances of the entertainment industry and then rule the joint. The “Harvardwood 101” intersession program was created by the Harvardwood organization, an LA-based group that seeks to connect current undergraduates to an estimated several thousand Harvard alumni in the entertainment industry. It was founded by Harvard alumni Mia Riverton ’99, Adam Fratto ’90 and Stacy Cohen ’89, who felt that Harvard lacks the resources for students wishing to explore the arts and entertainment industry.
They created the week-long “Harvardwood 101” course to demystify Hollywood by plugging their own contacts and having them meet us, talk with us and give us tours of industry hotspots. Some 24 undergrads, mostly seniors, spent three longs days examining the gears of the machine, traveling to places such as the Disney/ABC Company, Fox Studios, Entity FX, Univision and the graduate Film School at USC. We also attended panels in which Harvard alumni discussed topics ranging from TV writing to music litigation.
Much like investment banking and consulting firms that target Ivy League campuses for the work ethic of the students, the powers that be in Hollywood sought us out to fill highly competitive job slots. At the Disney/ABC Company, we met with representatives of Strategic Planning, Window Producing (marketing) and Creative Development. We watched point-by-point PowerPoint presentations that educated us on the structural components of the conglomerate merger, emphasizing the “wholesome and honest” image Disney strives to uphold in order to maintain its mass appeal.
Interestingly, Disney’s recent acquisition of Miramax, the edgier, New York-based production company known for flicks like Kill Bill and Chicago, was downplayed as belonging to ABC, “that part of the company,” while their own brand, Walt Disney films, was glorified as the sanctuary of family entertainment. I wondered how that might relate to the minister’s erection in The Little Mermaid, but I doubted Strategic Planning would answer that question.
The folks at Disney were also mum about the potential negative effects of aggressive expansion into foreign markets. “It took us a while to figure out that Euro Disney wasn’t doing so well in France because people drink wine in that country, and we didn’t allow any alcohol in the park,” said Mia Rondinella, a Disney representative.
Univision offered us an alternative strategy of economic growth: community outreach. Univision, which is the largest Spanish-language broadcast television network (rated #3 in New York and #2 in LA), emphasized the importance of staying in touch with their demographic. Their LA-based hotline, “A Su Lado” (By Your Side), allows viewers to call in with questions and suggestions about topics like politics and health. One woman called the station after her car had been stolen while she was at the hospital, asking them what she should do. Not having an answer, the company ran a story on the theft and Nissan, having heard via the media conduit, had a car for her by that evening.
For the artistically inclined, we journeyed to visual effects studio Entity FX, whose projects have included the Spiderman movies, The X-Files, and currently Smallville. The owner, Harvard alum Mat Beck ’70 said that he became interested in the field because of technology and art.
“You’re using the left and right sides of your brain,” Beck said. “You’re blending physics and drawing and sometimes making something more than real. A real bullet going through the air in slow motion looks fake; the way we create the special effect, it has to be almost hyper-real to look believable.”
We took some time out for lunch with actors, producers, and directors who shared their craft. Mia Riverton ’99, an actress and singer, took some time out to talk about the roles of women in Hollywood and challenges to artistic integrity. Her mixed ethnic heritage—she is part Chinese, part Spanish and part Irish—allows for versatility in both commercials and film, but she has also been offered token roles reflecting popular stereotypes.
“There’s always the Chinese prostitute role in some movie, and I refuse to play it,” said Riverton. “There are already so many stereotypes of women out there that I don’t need to add to them…You want to uphold certain principles, and you have to decide your boundaries. But it’s hard also when you think, when’s my next job coming?”
Becoming the Next Big Thing
The party line we heard in L.A. was otherwise unerringly capitalistic. At the end of the day, as both creative and business minds repeatedly emphasized, companies are interested in making money. Agents and execs move assets, and those assets happen to be people. They’re packaging products and the product is an image. Anti-trust laws in Hollywood are now dead. Large companies are swallowing up independent studios and with them the autonomy of creative voice.
But then, we attended a TV panel from writers of The Simpsons, Chicago Hope and The Young and the Restless. As Harvard alumni, they offered us advice on how to find opportunity in a seemingly endless deluge of scripts and pitches.
“Sure, everyone has two or three screenplays in their trunk,” West Wing writer Mark Goffman said at a different venue, “but they might as well be toilet paper.” Point being that most people don’t aggressively pursue selling a script or seeking representation.
Disney Creative Development member Josh Simon ’00 echoed Goffman’s sentiments, saying, “I read about two or three screenplays a night, including weekends. But about 80% is just not good.” Bad scripts, he added, are often either too unrealistic to shoot (endless different locations) or too generic.
So I banished the image of myself sliding scripts under bathroom stalls and began thinking maybe there was a legitimate chance of survival. Even the talent agencies showed an amount of openness as well, emphasizing that talent and perseverance are key components of success.
“I’m interested in career-building,” ICM TV talent agent Tom Burke said. “If you have talent and stick with it, I’m going to want to keep you; even if one project isn’t right for you, there’s a director and producer out there that you will fit with, and we want to stick with you.”
The trip was exhausting, but helped make up for Harvard’s notorious neglect of career preparation. For those who wanted to write, illustrate, direct, produce, compose, sing, and act, Harvardwood provided the ultimate crash course in intimidation and invincibility. Robert Kraft, president of Fox Music, summed up the paradox well.
Perched atop the conductor’s chair in one of the film scoring rooms of Century City, he said, “Let me tell you a secret. It’s hard to take your work to people who are—quite frankly, not as smart as you—and have them tell you your work is bad, that they can’t understand it, that it’s not marketable. But let me tell you another secret that execs like me will never confess. Just as hard as you’re looking to get to us, we’re trying to find you; we’re always looking for the next big thing.”