Hooray for Hollywood’s hand-me-downs: LAUSD taps industry resources

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159227 full

The drama class at James Monroe High School stood in the parking lot anxiously awaiting a special delivery. A big truck backed in, its trailer stacked with television flats – 10-foot tall, wooden set walls from Nickelodeon Studios.

Previously used on the sets of shows on the kids' network, headquartered about 15 miles from the school, they now have a home in Monroe's theater department. 

"I can use them for years to come for different sets for the plays and musicals," said Jason Hayes, the theater director at Monroe. The school puts on a lot of productions, but normally students perform without much on the stage. 

"We use posters and everything on the stage, but now we have all this, that's more professional," said junior Carla Lomeli. She was giddy, snapping photos as her classmates loaded the gear off the truck and wheeled it toward the school. 

The self-described "theater kid" said seeing the flats, which have been used on a network she watches, gave her chills.

"We're gonna feel like we are a part of [this industry] more than we do now," said Lomeli.

Nickelodeon donated set pieces to nine schools around the district through the program this school year.
Nickelodeon donated set pieces to nine schools around the district through the program this school year. Jill Beale/LAUSD

For the past two years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has been investing in an initiative to provide more opportunities for students to make connections like this. The Creative Industry Coalition aims to harness the resources of studios, unions and production companies in the district's backyard, and bring them to students through equipment donations, classroom visits, field trips and more. 

"Schools and the industry are finding that they can benefit each other, and yes, we need each other in order to bring arts to every student," said Rory Pullens, head of the arts education branch at LAUSD. 

L.A. Unified has committed to giving all students access to quality arts education, but that's hard to accomplish in a district with more than 900 schools. 

"The kinds of relationships studios have had with schools in the past has really been based upon [situations like], 'well, there’s a parent who works at the studio down the street,'" said Pullens. "So there’s a really robust relationship for three, four years, but when that child graduates, that relationship died."

The arts branch is making an effort to be more strategic about spreading opportunities throughout the sprawling district. Teachers can apply to get their classes involved, but the district is also using the Arts Equity Index, a survey of the arts offerings at schools conducted in 2015, to determine how to spread out the goods to new schools.

Bad Robot Productions donated sound and lighting gear, the Musicians Union gave scanners and hard drives, Warner Brothers is providing tours. The arts branch has also cultivated a relationship with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is hosting the district's student film festival on May 25.

Of course, with so many of these companies in town, these opportunities have happened all along, but until recently there was no streamlined process for getting involved with schools.

"Sometimes breaking through that LA Unified bureaucracy proved too much," said Pullens. "And people got discouraged and said, 'Well never mind, we'll go to another district.' " 

Katie Buckland, executive director of the Writers Guild Foundation, can attest to that. She said it used to be "really frustrating to work with LA Unified." 

But, she said, there's a big difference now that there's more structure. 

In 2015, the district brought in long-time actress Alyson Reed as a liaison for the creative industry, a point-person to sort out logistics for studios and other groups with good or services to give. 

Seventeen middle and high schools have been involved this school year. The district estimates the goods and services equal about $1 million. 

"The district is amazing now," said Buckland. "They’re responsive and it’s just a great working partnership and we’re just figuring it out."

This school year, the Writers Guild Foundation sent eight screenwriters into high school film classes all around the district. Moises Zamora was the first.  In February, he addressed a class at Susan Dorsey High School, in the Crenshaw area, sharing his story of immigrating to Central California from Mexico, falling in love with writing in high school, and the ups and downs he faced before finally getting his big break as a writer on the third season of ABC's "American Crime."

Moises Zamora, a writer for the third season of ABC's "American Crime" speaks to a film class at Dorsey High School.
Moises Zamora, a writer for the third season of ABC's "American Crime" speaks to a film class at Dorsey High School. Myracle Ross/Dorsey High School

"When I got the phone call that I got that job for 'American Crime,' an Emmy-nominated show, as my first TV writing credit, working for an Oscar-winner," Zamora told the class, "all that work – it was all worth it." 

Zamora came to the class as the students were in the midst of producing web series and he gave them feedback on their ideas. 

"I have to push them through writing the script, so I’m really happy that he came right now," said teacher Robyn Charles. "I think it might be more of a motivating factor – contextualizing and understanding the big picture."

Jair Lindo, a junior at Dorsey, said Zamora's talk prompted him to plan "bigger things" with his web series. He doesn't have his eyes set on a career in film or television. (He signed up for the film class because of how much he likes Netflix). But Lindo said he appreciated the opportunity to hear from someone working in the industry. 

"A lot of time people are told to just focus on being doctors and lawyers," said Lindo, "but you want people to expand their thoughts."

This is part of the reason that unions, studios, and production companies want to plug into schools -- to inspire the next generation. 

"The mission of the Writers Guild Foundation is to both promote and protect the craft of writing for the screen and this is part of promoting it," said Buckland. 

This exposure is a big priority for Pullens, who has a few screenwriting credits himself on the '80s sitcom "A Different World" and the film "Stand and Deliver." In coming years, he hopes to expand the reach of the program to hundreds of schools.

"Studios are actually interested in scaling up that large," said Pullens, "but we as a district have to be able to receive that."

It takes staffing and time resources to plan visits or outings, space to store equipment before getting it out to schools and time to train teachers on how to use donated items. The television flats that were delivered to Monroe High, for example, were too big to wheel into the school and the theater teacher had to cut them down to get them inside. 

Patrick Garney, senior director of series production for Nickelodeon, said that even though it takes more effort to get equipment they no longer have use for out to schools, "if we have less of a footprint in waste, knowing that kids in the community can get professional sets and help them learn trades seems to be a win for us," he said in an email. 

Pullens says as part of the district’s strategic plan, L.A. Unified will continue to build up the internal supports to accept all that the creative industry is able to give. And he sees another big payoff for Hollywood: the chance to recruit from the nearly 90 percent-minority student body.

"How do we bring diversity into an industry that is being so widely criticized for that lack of diversity?" Pullens asked. "Well, that exposure starts now."

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