JMU in LA: Eight Weeks. Twenty students. One big city.

Posted by SMAD August 21, 2011
By Hillary Shea

This summer, I was one of twenty JMU students who spent eight weeks in Los Angeles as part of the first JMU in LA Program. We all did internships, visited famous landmarks, hung out at the beach, and enjoyed the beautiful summer weather. We drove through a sea of traffic, and survived "Carmageddon" when a long stretch of the 405 freeway was shut down.

We stayed in Oakwood Corporate apartments in LA – a resort style apartment complex with swimming pools, hot tubs, tennis courts and corporate rooms we used for classrooms. We all stayed in four-person apartments that were completely furnished. The Oakwood is in a bubble of major TV networks and film studios in the Hollywood Hills that include NBC-Universal, Disney, ABC, and Warner Brothers. Most importantly, all 20 of us gained experience in the entertainment industry at music, graphic design film production companies.

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LA Internships

LA Internship Locations

SMAD professor Tom O'Connor led the program with his wife WRTC professor Sarah O'Connor who helped with internships during the program. Tom O'Connor taught a class on The Entertainment Industry, focusing on the business aspects of feature films. The course's main theme was the balancing act of art and commerce in the film industry. In an essay we read for class, Fox Entertainment Chairman Tom Rothman said that it's as if there are two faults dividing LA: the San Andreas Fault and the fault dividing art and commerce. He added, "Every day my colleagues and I stand with one foot on either side of that line, trying to maintain a balance. Every single decision we make has both creative and economic implications, for it is the perpetual and unique nature of the motion picture business that every single decision is both an economic one and a creative one." The class discussed whether or not there is a middle ground between the art of human expression and profit in order to stay in business.

Each week, professionals visited as guest speakers to help us understand this balance, to tell their story about how they got into the industry and their experience in the industry. Indie producer Lee Clay (former DreamWorks staff member: Minority Report, producer: 96 Minutes) talked about his life from when he started through his latest movies, 96 Minutes and Beautiful Boy, and his transition from working for a well-known company to being an independent producer. He said the reason for the transition is independent films are "artistically driven project." This seems to have worked for him, because 96 Minutes and Beautiful Boy are award winning and critically acclaimed.

Erin Shulsinger (production manager at Edge West) explained her job and the logistics she works through for each project. She gave us advice by telling us to keep a positive attitude even if it's for appearance sake, never burn bridges and helping others helps you get ahead. What you do at the beginning gives you a foundation for your career and gives your reputation a foundation. Erin also said, "strengths are not always your interests. Interests are not always your strengths." You might be interested in something, but it may not advance your career. She encouraged us to keep searching for our strengths and to listening to others about those strengths.

Other guest speakers included writer/producer Zak Penn (The Incredible Hulk, Alphas, X-Men, The Last Action Hero) and his wife, producer Michelle Weiss (Time Traveler's Wife), L.A. entertainment attorney Lisa Callif and screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe (Going the Distance).

Zak talked about the increase of quality of writing for TV and that it is still a viable medium for storytelling. He also spoke of having a thick skin and not letting events hold you back. Michelle spoke about what it takes to be a film producer and gave us women advice about succeeding in a male-dominated industry. Geoff spoke about the importance of having an agent and a manager. "They help you land jobs and say whether or not a risk is worth taking." Geoff and Erin are both JMU alumni and had Tom O'Connor as a professor. We learned about how they made it into the industry and they gave us advice for when we start our careers.

We took another class about what it means to be a producer. Instructor Seth Kingsley, also a graduate of JMU and former student of Tom O'Connor's, taught the class. He works as a producer for E! News. We were taught what a producer does, the process of writing a television show pitch from creating it to presenting it, and how scripted a reality show is. I learned that being a producer is a possibility for a career. Seth Kingsley taught us skills to use when we start our careers in the industry. He took the group on a tour of the E! News offices and we watched Guiliana Rancic and Jason Kennedy film part of the show for that night. For many students, this tour was one of the highlights of the trip.

Even though we had classes and internships, we still found time to visit famous landmarks. These trips were highlights for us, because we visited landmarks in pop culture. Trips were anything from a tour of the Warner Brother's lot to watching It Happened One Night in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery where people from Cecil B. DeMille to Rudolph Valentino are buried. Students also visited places on their own like Venice Beach, the Santa Monica Pier and the Kodak Theater.

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The Tonight Show

SMAD Students on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

Not only did we see famous landmarks, we also saw famous people. Most of the time, celebrity sightings were at internships. During Amanda Kohr's internship at Bedford Falls, Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) came in for a meeting. While sitting at the front desk during his internship on the Paramount lot, Ben Lebeau saw Darren Aronofsky (director: Black Swan) walk into the office for his own meeting. Near the end of the trip, Jay Leno knocked on an apartment door of Josh Rayner, Andres Figueros, Brett Donohue and Ryan Copeland, and asked if they wanted to be on his show. They, of course, said yes. Josh was turned into Katy Perry and sang Firework in the shower, and Jay Leno shot an extinguisher at all four of them. If you're wondering which episode they were on, it's the one that aired on August 12, 2011. Take a look. http://www.nbc.com/the-tonight-show/video/you-be-the-nominee-part-1-81211/1346941

The JMU in LA program gave students the opportunity to find an internship for the summer in different parts of the entertainment industry. Students were spread around Los Angeles working in production companies on big studio lots to smaller boutique companies to music companies. For example, Ariel Bojeun was at Dangerbird Records (Ben Lee, Fitz and the Tantrums), Amanda Kohr was at Bedford Falls (Blood Diamonds, Love and Other Drugs), and Brett Donohue was at Chris Morgan Productions on the Universal lot (Fast and the Furious franchise) and Ben Lebeau and Katy Zeisler interned at different companies on the Paramount lot. We did more than run errands, grab coffee and organize bookshelves. Mason Alls said "I liked being able to pitch my own ideas, interact with different creative executives and develop relationships with the people." Jordan Abro said, "I'm doing real tasks – designing, conceptualizing and brainstorming." We gained the experience of working in the industry and now know what to expect when we start our careers. In addition to the experience, we all enjoyed where we interned. Molly Greenhood, who interned at Edge West said, "My bosses and coworkers are amazingly knowledgeable, helpful and supportive. They gave me real-world assignments and gave me creative freedom in a lot of the areas in which I worked." We were able to explore what we could do and were able to ask important questions. Ariel Bojeun said, "There was a very welcoming open-door policy with all of the employees and exec which made me feel comfortable to ask questions."

Not only did we gain experience from our internships, we made valuable friendships, as well. These people we met could help us find jobs in the future and help us network. We also became friends with each other. We went out on weekends, hung out at the pool and spent valuable time together. Many of us did not know our roommates well and by the end of the trip, we were good friends.

JMU in LA is an opportunity for students to gain experience in one of the entertainment hubs in the US. It's a time to learn from professionals in the industry. It's a summer that opens a door to the future.

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