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No business like show business, Stanford alums tell students

STANFORD -- The smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd - sometimes it seems that everybody - including Stanford students - wants to be in show biz.

Dillon Cohen, who just received his bachelor's degree in art history, would like to work in the art department of a feature film or television series.

Ray O'Neal, a doctoral student in physics who has been involved in 10 theatrical productions at Stanford, has ideas for science fiction movies.

Scott Starrett, who will be a senior in industrial engineering and plays viola in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, is interested in composing film scores.

Pearl Chen, who received her degree in environmental earth sciences in 1991 and works as an environmental planner for a traffic consulting firm, is thinking of doing "something in film" with an environmental message.

They were among the more than 80 Stanford students and recent graduates who took part June 19-20 in a Southern California symposium titled "A Stanford Student's Guide to Hollywood: Getting Started, Getting Work, Getting Along," sponsored by Stanford Alumni in Entertainment, together with Hollywood producer Gale Anne Hurd ('77, B.A. in communication) and the Stanford Drama Department.

The two-day event included tours of Warner Brothers and Paramount studios, and the opportunity to attend the long-running play Tamara or a taping of the Fox Network television comedy "Down the Shore."

One day was devoted to panel discussions held in the posh Beverly Hills offices of the Creative Artists Agency. Panelists - several of them Stanford graduates - included actors, directors, producers, writers, casting directors, a film editor, a production designer and a literary agent.

The professionals had advice, warnings and encouragement for the aspirants to Hollywood fame and fortune.

"Don't plan on giving this a year or two - you have to make a real commitment," said Ira Belgrade, a casting director for theatrical productions and feature films.

Belgrade and other panelists suggested investing at least 10 years before evaluating long-term prospects.

"If you don't really love it, get out," Belgrade said.

On the other hand, success can come fairly quickly. Sam Simon ('77, B.A. in psychology), who was a cartoonist for the Stanford Daily, started as a storyboard artist doing "forgettable Saturday morning cartoon shows." He wrote a script on speculation for the TV series "Taxi," and the script was bought and made into an episode. By the age of 23, Simon was a producer on "Taxi." He also has worked on "Cheers," "The Tracey Ullman Show" and "The Simpsons."

The difficulties facing Hollywood writers were outlined by Trey Ellis ('84, B.A. in English). Ellis is the author of one published novel, Platitudes, and has a second, Home Repairs, due out next year. He has written nine film scripts, eight of them on assignment, but none has yet been made into a movie.

"As a writer for hire, you really don't have any control," Ellis said.

He also has worked as a script doctor - a writer who is called in to improve someone else's material - on Eddie Murphy's soon-to-be- released Boomerang and on Love Field, starring Michelle Pfeiffer. He enjoys script doctoring, he said, since it gives him a chance to see his material on the screen.

Two actors, Lisa Darr ('85, B.A. in human biology) and Jack Heller, said that they are examples of making a good living as an actor without being a star.

"The fact that you don't know me," Darr said, "means you haven't spent a lot of time watching bad TV."

Only about two percent of the membership of the Screen Actors Guild is working at any given time, Heller said. Actors need an alternative means of support, he said, "and if you can get it from your parents, don't be proud."

Both Darr and Heller said that actors should study continuously, and become complete professionals in their craft. That is true, Heller said, even though someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger can become a huge star without knowing how to act at all.

Director Gregory Nava, whose best-known film is probably El Norte, said "it's not enough to want it, you have to have something to say."

"You will get an opportunity," he told the students. "Actors and directors obsess about getting that break, but so often when they do, they blow it."

He has sat through a lot of auditions, he said, and any evidence of humanity and life really stands out.

"Acting, directing, writing are all about emotion," he said. "This business runs on passion."

As for breaking into show business, Dona Cooper, director of current drama programs for NBC, advised beginners to get in at any level, even as gofers or personal assistants.

Companies that produce low-budget feature films often provide avenues for rapid advancement, said Mike Elliott, a producer for Concorde Pictures, run by low-budget king Roger Corman ('47, B.S. in engineering). Concorde makes about 25 movies a year, completing each one in an average of 18 days. These movies, Elliott said, "are more about strip dancing and car wrecks than about the subtlety of human emotions."

But, he told the students, "Take heart: you can make it, and often very quickly."

The business side of show business also has its satisfactions, said Steve Rothenberg ('80, B.A. in political science), who is senior vice president of theatrical distribution with the Samuel Goldwyn Co.

Deciding when and where to distribute a movie is more of an art than a science, Rothenberg said. Many movies have been buried by opening on the wrong date, he said, and others have been eclipsed by being booked into the wrong theater - a multiplex instead of an art house, for example.

The variety of majors and degrees represented among both the students and the professionals seemed clear evidence that there is no one path to a Hollywood career.

Film editor Bonnie Koehler ('72, B.A. in art history) said she very much valued what she learned at Stanford, where art Professor Al Elsen was her mentor.

But two years at West Point would also be great training, she said, "since it seems like every film is a war."

The Hollywood symposium had its genesis in Stanford's budget- cutting process, which considered reductions in many arts programs and possible closure of the Drama Department.

Stanford Alumni in Entertainment, a group formed about three years ago, generated a few hundred letters in support of the arts at Stanford, said Steve Ullman ('81, B.A. in psychology). Ullman is a producer, who in 1983 founded and ran a San Francisco-based theater company called American Stage Directions, and is now director of operations and production stage manager for Tamara.

Considering ways to strengthen ties between the alumni and the campus community, producer Hurd suggested a symposium for current students. Drama department Chairman Michael Ramsaur was enthusiastic about the idea, which proved very popular with students and recent graduates.

"If we'd had 400 seats, we could have filled them," said Ullman, who served as co-chair of the symposium with Hurd and Faryl Reingold ('80, B.A. in English), an independent producer of both feature films and television movies.

Ramsaur said the weekend "did exactly what it was supposed to do -give students insight into what working in the industry is all about."

Stanford does not offer classes in the business of entertainment, "but students need to know about it," he said.

In addition, Ramsaur said, the weekend offered students extensive opportunities to network with those in the business.

Or, as they say in Hollywood, let's do lunch.


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