Six Degrees of Pittsburgh
This Sunday, February 21st from 10-2 p.m. at the Warhol Museum, Steeltown Entertainment Project will once again host the free Teen Pre-Oscar Silver Screen Workshop. Young people of all ages in attendance will get to meet people working in the entertainment industry and participate in hands-on filmmaking activities. The event kicks off this year’s “Take A Shot At Changing The World”, a competition for teens to create short videos that showcase their creative talents. Steeltown will be giving away over $5,000 in prizes to emerging student filmmakers. Plus, the winning students will get an opportunity to have both themselves and their work appear on a new TV show“The Reel Teens”, produced in front of and behind the camera by teens, on Fox 53 in April.
I wanted to share some thoughts about why this is such an important event for young people (and their parents) to attend. Over the years, I have heard the following:
"My son has wanted to do this since he was a kid." "This is all my daughter talks about." "He is so talented." "She was born to do this."
"But I know that all is a crap shoot." "It's a nice hobby, but..." "Seems too risky." "How soon do you think they should move to New York or L.A.?"
If we we're talking about medicine or engineering, parents would be encouraging their kids to learn all they can about the profession they are considering and volunteer at a hospital or spending the summer interning in an engineering firm.
But for some reason when the dream is working in film, television, video games or other “creative industries", too often parents think either that dream is impossible or that it happens by magic, by sheer talent or luck. The problem is that we watch movies and TV shows and don’t see the 18 hour days that make them happen, and award shows make things seem often that they are about a few actors and directors who are solely responsible for products made in this business.
Ten Things About the Entertainment Industry You Should Know to Support Your Kid's Dream
1) Each film or TV show you watch has roughly 150 people behind the scenes making movie magic happen. Just ask the local IATSE union, which has tripled its membership in the past decade, and continues to be one of the best crews in the country. All those names you see in the credits are trained professionals who make good wages for doing challenging yet rewarding work.
2) The entertainment industry is largely an apprentice industry. The earlier one understands the jobs in the business, the easier it is to find a pathway to get there. Whether you have a PHD or a two year degree, most people working on a film set started as a production assistant or an assistant of some sort. You don’t send you resume to apply on the next Denzel Washington or Tom Cruise movie shooting in town. Plenty of local independent films shoot in Pittsburgh and are an ideal place for young people to get their first on-set experiences. Steeltown connects these films with young people just starting out.
3) The entertainment industry is just like many other American industries. In fact, entertainment is ranked as one of the top exports in this country alongside agriculture and energy. Plus, the entertainment industry is one of America's best. Though risk and uncertainty exist, other American industries like tech and once stable corporate industries present similar risks. Experts predict that today’s kids are growing up in a gig-based economy like the movie business, where the average worker will have seven jobs, many of which are in companies that have not been created yet. You should read this New York Times article on "What Hollywood Can Teach Us About The Future Of Work" to learn more about why this is so important.
4) Even if your kid does not go into entertainment, the creative problem solving skills and teamwork they learn through making videos for fun and school can translate to many areas in this digital age. Google is a media company, and Facebook moved to Pittsburgh with their Oculus branch, which focuses on virtual reality--another part of the entertainment industry. As much as technical expertise, these companies value how resourceful potential employees are and how well they can work in a group to get the job done.
5) Speaking of virtual reality, entertainment's current trend, did you know that locally based Schell Games, started by CMU Entertainment Technology Center professor and former Disney Imagineer, Jesse Schell, produced one of the most award-winning and talked about VR games this year, “I Expect You to Die?” Schell Games has led the way in innovative games, like “Lexica” which encourages middle school students to read books as part of a video game. The company has gone from 5 to over 100 employees in the past decade with backgrounds in everything from graphic design to computer science. Students can sign up to test some of these games at www.schellgames.com
6) Entertainment, education, and technology are intersecting in exponential ways. Pittsburgh has been leading the way with Remake Learning Network, which has won the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award and been acclaimed by the White House. Today’s young people are digital natives who thrive in a connected world and learn differently than previous generations. Steeltown's first Take a Shot contest showed us that when students are asked to make videos about any particular topic they will spend hours researching and teaching themselves. In today’s classroom, students will read about the a subject, watch a film about it, and then make their own video synthesizing what they have learned.
7) The traditional“entertainment” industry is going through tremendous disruption with kids watching movies and TV shows on their phones and distribution like Youtube making it possible to make content anywhere. (Just ask Chris Preksta and Chris Wooten whose "Pittsburgh Dad" is made on an Iphone and has garnered tens of millions of views!)
8) Today's economy has moved moviemaking outside of Hollywood and New York. Pittsburgh's great crews and film friendly community is consistently ranked as one of the top ten regional production centers. But, we don't just do production. We also have incredible post-production facilities in our city. While headlines have noted that David Fincher’s new Netflix show is coming here, many of the visual effects for Fincher’s “House of Cards” and Gone Girl were done right here by Savage Visual Effects in the Hill District, whose co-founder is South Hills native James Pastorius, a CMU graduate. James learned his craft while in L.A., but moved back to Pittsburgh and his business is now thriving and expanding to the North Side. To increase the local workforce, we must train our young people and create pathways for those who want to work in this field.
9) The first rule of this or any business is “showing up.” A couple of years ago, one of the students Steeltown was working through our Youth and Media program at Westinghouse, met special effects artists Steve Tolin at the very Warhol Teen Oscar event we are hosting this Sunday. Jazmin watched Steve talk about the process if making monster masks and demonstrate the new technology in special effects. Afterwards, Jazmin showed him the portfolio she had been working on. Today, she works for Tolin Fx which continues to grow in its offices on the East End doing work for the movies and TV shows coming town as well as projects being done around the world.
10) With this new digital generation, anything is possible. For the past two years, Steeltown has been working with students from around the region as part of our Teen Film Crew. These young people have shown dedication and commitment to their work and have been paid to make videos for various non-profits including Amachi Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette's Off the Record, and a Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board's Learn & Earn program. Their work gained the attention of a local Fox affiliate, and now those students are making their own television show, “The Reel Teens," where they document themselves exploring the world and learning to make a TV show. The show will premiere on Saturday mornings on Fox 53 in April. I spent much of the 90’s as a writer/producer on NBC’s “Saved By the Bell” franchise, making content for teens like these students. Now, they are making their own program, and I am humbled by their talent, curiosity, and work ethic.
Steeltown’s mission over the past 12 years has been to work with many partners to build a viable and sustainable entertainment industry in SWPA. Much progress has been made, but we have much more to do to make sure that young people growing up in this region, don’t have to leave this area in order to make their dreams of working in the entertainment industry come true.
I, like many of our Steeltown advisers who have gone on to great success in film and TV, had no clue that you could make a living in this industry growing up here and had to go elsewhere to find out how the entertainment business works. We hope every student who is curious and every parent who has a student passionate about media will come on Sunday to meet with a variety of entertainment professionals including special effects artist Steve Tolin, award-winning casting director, Nancy Mosser (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) and sound designer Jack Bailey to learn more.
Go to www.steeltown.org/takeashot to find out more about Sunday Feb. 21st at the Warhol and to register.