Office is upscale. Cubicles and desks are scattered outside plush window offices.
Young men and women are scurrying about. Phones are ringing. There is a hubbub of voices in the background. The camera follows one young man carrying a take-out coffee and small sack. He enters one office and places the items on the desk. The agent in the office is on the phone, his back turned to the camera. The young man exits the office and is several steps away as we hear a loud scream from the office. The young man stops in his tracks.
AGENT (loud and angry)
What the @#$% is this? I asked for a blueberry scone … there are cranberries in this scone! What does it take to get a blueberry scone around here? Where’s that intern???
The young man sighs and goes back into the office.
FADE TO BLACK.
Matt Shelton laughs as he recounts this story from his internship at The Gersh Agency in Beverly Hills, Calif. Shelton, a junior from Springfield, Ill., was a participant in Vandy-in-Hollywood, an internship program created by Chad Gervich, BA’96, to give Vanderbilt students aspiring to an entertainment career a leg up on their competition. Shelton’s goal after graduation is to become an agent himself.
“Little details make the difference in being a good agent and a great agent,” Shelton says. “The people there legitimately cared about teaching me; they just showed it in a different way. What’s worse than getting yelled at is having someone roll their eyes and walk away. Yelling is their way of saying, ‘We want to see you improve and do better.’”
The lure of Hollywood is just as strong today as it was a century ago when motion picture production companies from New York and New Jersey moved west to take advantage of the warm, sunny weather. Vanderbilt alumni have always had a presence in Hollywood, from actress/singer Dinah Shore, BA’38, to Oscar-winning director Delbert Mann, BA’41 (Marty), to Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Schulman, BA’72 (Dead Poets Society), to Fred Thompson, JD’67, who played the folksy district attorney on television’s Law and Order before making a run for the presidency in 2008.
In the early days movie-making was much simpler: Actors, writers, producers, directors, cameramen, editors, and muscle to move the equipment were just about all that was necessary to take a production from the back lot to the big screen. Today, with the advent of special effects, international distribution, and as many cable channels as there are stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, opportunities abound. Finding them, however, can be tricky, and in Hollywood it’s not always what you know, but rather who you know.
That’s where Vandy-in-Hollywood—and Chad Gervich—come in.
Gervich knew from an early age that he wanted to work in television and film and was surprised that Vanderbilt had few affiliations with the local entertainment business.
“I loved Vanderbilt, but it was frustrating for me that this top-20 school in one of the most important entertainment cities in the country wasn’t tapping into that industry,” Gervich says. “There were multimillion-dollar musicians recording albums and multimillion-dollar videos being shot just blocks from campus, but there was little interaction between Vanderbilt and the entertainment industry.”
After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1996, Gervich earned a master’s degree from UCLA. His résumé includes writing and producing stints for the Fox Reality Channel, Fox TV, the E! and Style networks and Warner Bros. He is currently working on The Wanda Sykes Show. His network of friends and colleagues in the business is large now, but it was years in the making.
“When I got to LA, I knew literally nobody,” Gervich says. “I just kept thinking that life would’ve been so much easier if there had been a network of people I could look up—friendly Vanderbilt faces who I could call and say, ‘Hey, I’m from Vandy, and I just moved here. Can I take you to dinner or lunch?’”
As his career progressed, so did the idea of creating a networking tool for Vanderbilt students interested in a Hollywood career. In 2006 Gervich returned to campus to introduce the Vandy-in-Hollywood program and to conduct a workshop for Sam Girgus, professor of English and the self-proclaimed “godfather of everything we do in film here at Vanderbilt.”
“I had a grant and some funds to bring Chad here for the workshop and to start talking to students about the program,” Girgus says. “I helped create an environment of interest in film that he was able to nurture.”
Rich Hull, BA’92, is a 16-year veteran of the film and television business. The busy producer was one of the first people Gervich turned to for help in launching Vandy-in-Hollywood.
“Chad called me and said he wanted two things,” Hull says. “He wanted my help in getting the program started, and he wanted my company to host an intern. I agreed to both.”
Like Gervich, Hull knew all too well the difficulties of launching a career in Hollywood.
“I started as an unpaid intern, like most people do, and it’s incredibly competitive,” Hull says. “I had three interviews for an unpaid internship, but that’s your path for getting your first real job in the business. What Chad and I want to do is take our collective experience and relationships in the business and lean on companies to give Vanderbilt students internships they never would be able to get on their own.”
While Gervich and Hull promoted the program in Hollywood, a different group was leading the charge in Nashville. Along with Girgus, the Vanderbilt connection includes Paul Young, director of Vanderbilt’s film studies program; William M. Akers, senior lecturer in the theatre department; and Tiffany Franklin, assistant director of the Vanderbilt Career Center. Young and Akers promote the program in their classes and keep an eye out for suitable intern prospects, while Franklin helps take care of the logistics and paperwork.
Just wanting to work in Hollywood isn’t enough to land one of these coveted spots. The best candidates are able to articulate exactly what type of career in the entertainment field they want—or at least think they want.
“We’re looking for people who can be incredibly specific about their professional goals and what they want to do,” Gervich says. “The interns who are chosen are the ones who come in and can say, ‘I want to be a television writer on a half-hour comedy like The Simpsons’ or ‘My goal is to be a studio executive developing small, character-driven movies like Precious.’”
Gervich and Hull work to find an intern’s dream job, but there are no guarantees. What is assured, though, is that the students will work long hours for no compensation and must pay all their own expenses. The payoff comes in receiving class credit and having a beefed-up résumé with bona fide work experience plus sterling references from some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including NBC-Universal, CBS-Paramount, ABC Studios and IMAX.
Well-dressed young men and women are walking back and forth in front of a glassed-in office. The boss is sitting behind the desk.
Jeannette … Jeannette! Come in here!
A young woman, dressed more casually than her colleagues, rushes into the office and stands with her back to the camera. Typical office noises in the background.
Chad Gervich gave you this bright recommendation, so I give you this great opportunity and you don’t even bother to dress professionally!
He continues to berate the woman as the camera zooms out. We see the woman’s shoulders shake. She is crying.
FADE TO BLACK.
That scene occurred last summer on Jeannette Francis’ third day on the job at Red Varden Studios in Hollywood.
“I started on a Thursday, and the boss was out that day and Friday, so everyone dressed casually,” Francis says. “I just thought that was the office environment and showed up a little casual on Monday. I got yelled at, and it was very jarring, but it was great because I’m never going to show up to meet my boss for the first time unless I’m wearing the most professional attire possible.”
Attitudes like Jeannette’s are the reason that, in just three short years, employers are actually calling Gervich to request Vandy-in-Hollywood interns.
“We have a great reputation, and employers love to hire Vanderbilt kids for the summer,” says Hull. “They show up on time, they do great work, they’re smart and they’re not knuckleheads. We want to keep that going.”
Several factors have contributed to Vandy-in-Hollywood’s success, but one in particular must be the screening and interview process. Last year close to 50 students applied, but only 12 actually received internships. Chad interviews each candidate personally. Because of the caliber of Vanderbilt’s interns, some companies now actually guarantee holding a spot for interns selected by Gervich.
“Chad looks for a good fit for their skill set and focus—which company or area of the entertainment industry they are most interested in,” says Tiffany Franklin, BA’96, of the Vanderbilt Career Center. “We’re also looking for dedication, passion, a willingness to work long hours, and an excitement about that world.”
Once the students have been selected, Gervich and Hull speak to them via conference call—usually at the end of April before exams.
“We want to make sure they put their best foot forward, that they know what to expect, and have information about their jobs and housing and life in Los Angeles,” Franklin says. “They also get to meet each other and start forming their own Hollywood network before they even leave town.”
Each selected student receives a Vandy-in-Hollywood summer intern handbook, which includes such tips as, “Timing is everything in Hollywood. Projects fall apart all the time because one piece of an intricate puzzle didn’t happen on time. Understand this, and know that when you’re asked to do something, the default timeline is that it’s urgent.”
One goal of this handbook is to deconstruct any misconceptions the interns may have about working in the land of year-round suntans and red carpets.
“The public face of Hollywood is glamorous, but behind the scenes it’s a really hard, time-consuming, tough slog of a business,” says Hull. “We’re trying to help people crack that world because it’s so tough to get into. Even when I go to movie premieres, it seems sexy, but it’s a lot of hard work.”
Another factor in the program’s success is the academic training they’ve received in the classroom. While Vanderbilt is not thought of as a “film school,” it provides training that some schools can’t offer.
“At some schools students are lucky to get to hold a camera by the time they’re a junior or senior,” says Paul Young, head of Vanderbilt’s film studies program. “Here we have fewer students, lots of equipment, and lots of space for editing and shooting and setting up lights. Our students have better opportunities right down the line.”
Vanderbilt also offers an advanced production workshop, taught by William M. Akers, BS’78, in which students work on production teams with a division of labor resembling an independent studio production.
“Will instills an ethic of professionalism,” says Young. “He teaches them that it’s about being part of a team, and it’s about looking out for your own future because one has to get along in the field in order to get ahead at all. It really is an industry in which who one knows is as important as knowing your stuff.”
Scone and coffee-fetching aside, the interns actually do valuable work, and their contributions matter to their employers. It’s said everyone in Hollywood has a movie script in their back pocket. Reading those scripts is a typical intern chore.
“Agents don’t have time to read every single script, but when they hear of an open role, they need a quick summary of what that script is about,” Shelton says. “They delegate those scripts to interns. We read them and write a summary with character synopses—which we’re heavily critiqued on. My five hours of work translates into about five minutes for the agent.”
One of the most comprehensive internships is with Reveille, an independent production company responsible for some of today’s most popular television shows, including The Office, The Tudors and The Biggest Loser. Hayley Dickson, BS’05, is the acquisitions coordinator for Reveille’s distribution arm, Shine International. Dickson created Reveille’s program when she was the company’s internship coordinator. She takes the responsibility seriously because of her own meaningful internship when she was majoring in human and organizational development at Peabody.
Dickson’s program calls for Reveille to hire 12 interns three times a year. While at Reveille they rotate throughout each of the company’s four main departments—reality television, scripted television, business and legal operations, and international sales and distribution.
“I want to make sure our interns have an incredible experience,” Dickson says. “They come here and dedicate their time and energy and work for free. It’s important to me that they learn something every day. They’re exposed to all the different activities and truly see how an independent production company works.”
While she may be slightly biased, Dickson says the Vanderbilt interns are a special group.
“They are definitely a cut above the others and bring an incredibly different and fresh perspective,” she says. “Most of our interns come from California schools or from schools with big entertainment programs. The Vanderbilt students provide the kind of diversity that creates a much stronger team, and they become leaders early on in the process.”
EXT. ALUMNI LAWN, VANDERBILT CAMPUS
It is graduation day at Vanderbilt. Families are seated behind the students, who are dressed in their regalia. The stage in front of the students is full of dignitaries. The camera slowly zooms in on one young man seated with his fellow graduates. As we get closer, we hear the “buzz, buzz” of a cell phone set to vibrate. People turn to stare at the young man, who hurriedly locates his phone and turns it off.
FADE TO BLACK.
The young man in that scenario is a superstar of the Vandy-in-Hollywood program, Sam Miller, BA’07, who interned at ABC, which is owned by Disney.
“I had human resources at Disney calling me in the middle of graduation,” says Miller. “I had to silence my vibrating phone while there was a speaker on stage.”
A week later Miller was in Los Angeles working as an assistant to a vice president of studio comedy at ABC Entertainment Group.
“It’s very lucky for me, someone who wants to write professionally, that I’m in a place where I’m actually working with writers and reading scripts,” says Miller. “My boss acts as a liaison between the producers and people writing the shows and the network that is airing the shows.”
Miller describes his job as managing his boss’ day. “Basically I am a secretary. I answer the phones and make sure my boss has access to the right people and that the wrong people don’t get to him. My current boss started like me. It’s a time-honored tradition simply because the only way to really learn about the television business is to experience it.”
As someone who made the leap from unpaid intern to paid employee, Miller has great advice for Vandy-in-Hollywood students. “An office job is different from college,” he says. “Be aware that you’re working long hours with people who’ve seen a lot of interns before, and they’ll see others again. The most important thing is to have a good attitude and make their job easier. If you do that, they’ll remember you when you get back out there and are looking for a job. You must make them want to help you.”
No matter whom you talk to, one thing is clear: Without connections, without a network, it’s almost impossible to find your way in Hollywood.
“A lot of people come out here thinking that just because they’re good writers, they won’t have any trouble landing a job,” says Gervich.
“Hollywood is very rarely about how talented you are. Good ideas are a dime a dozen. For every Vanderbilt kid who comes out here, a million other people out here are more talented than they are. Success is about learning the business, understanding the business, and about forming and maintaining relationships. Vandy-in-Hollywood is constructed to help students do just that.”
Professor Akers, who has written feature screenplays for MGM, Disney and Universal Studios, has an insider’s view of life in Hollywood. He offers some advice for parents who may be leery of footing the bill for a three-month unpaid internship.
“The question is, How much would you pay for your child to know people who can give them a job? When school’s over and you have no internship and you’re standing there holding your résumé in the freezing wind, you say, ‘Gosh, I wish I’d been able to do this.’ It’s worth it, without a doubt.”
Vandy-in-Hollywood has had remarkable success in a very short time, but that success is almost entirely due to the grassroots efforts of Gervich and Hull. They would like to grow the program and have a wish list that includes, among other items, a website, more networking events for alumni and students, and scholarships for students who can’t afford to foot the bill for three months in Los Angeles. Donations made to the film studies department can be earmarked for Vandy-in-Hollywood.
All student interns have an “a-ha” moment when they realize they’re actually living and working in Hollywood. Sam Miller’s went like this:
“The first script I read was for a project I had already read about online. It was for a TV show called Reaper, which was being directed by Kevin Smith, who is one of my favorites. I opened it up and was introduced to the main character—a 21-year-old named Sam. I was a 21-year-old named Sam at the time. It just sort of smacked me in the face that I really was in Hollywood.”
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: JOHN RUSSELL, Hugh Hamilton
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