Job hunters go back to school

Programs help workers stand out in marketplace

Jason Kaminsky dreams of a career like Sydney Pollack’s: acting in addition to producing. Tamara Sayiner just wants to direct.

They are just two of the many showbizzers that have gone back to school to achieve their goals, taking advantage of the wide array of programs designed to help workers enhance their skills or simply compete in a tough marketplace. The type of study may vary student by student, but the underlying motivation is the same: They all want to follow their dreams.

Kaminsky, for example, decided to apply to USC’s Peter Stark program as a way to move up as a producer. An actor-turned-theater producer in New York, he had to bartend when things got slow. His initial forays into indie film-producing weren’t exactly bringing in big bucks either.

Halfway through the two-year MFA program, he’s completed one internship with the Mark Gordon Co. and is in the middle of another at Universal. There’s no end in sight to the country’s economic woes, but Kaminsky, who just turned 30, has no regrets about his considerable investment in his future.

“This program has completely changed my life and how I work, and how I want my life to go,” the fledgling producer says.

If anything, he says, the recession has helped him focus on the bottom line and try to “really understand what studios and networks are looking for.”

Sayiner, meanwhile, hopes additional skills and networking through UCLA’s Extension program will pay off in future gigs. The Swedish immigrant completed one certificate through the program, and worked at E! before returning to start her second certificate. “Right now, it’s tough,” Sayiner says. “It’s not enough to have a good resume, good education or a good personality. Before, it was who you know, but not anymore.”

Now 35, Sayiner taught film to high school students in Sweden before heading to Hollywood.

“I gave up everything for my dream to come here,” she says.

Mike Stern has already landed the job of his dreams, thanks in great part to two consecutive grad programs. Stern worked in advertising before enrolling at NYU to pursue 3-D animation when the ad market slowed down after 9/11. But before he finished that study, he decided he needed more specialized training, and signed up for Animation Mentor’s online program, landing a job at DreamWorks shortly after completing that study.

Stern, who’s working on the company’s “How to Train Your Dragon” toon, liked his experience at Animation Mentor so much he’s become an instructor for the program, founded by professional animators four years ago. Its “mentors,” as its instructors are known, are drawn from various toon powerhouses, and give students hands-on critiques.

“A lot of animation is confidence,” Stern says. “Going to that school I got my confidence. When I came here, I felt like I had a leg up.”

Similarly, Tricia Gonnella credits the Stark program for giving her a boost over her peers. Shortly after graduating May 15, she started her job as assistant to Miramax production topper Keri Putnam.

“At least I have a foundation so I can decode the secret language,” Gonnella says.

Gonnella went into the program after a few years working for indie producer Michael Mailer in New York, and expected to return to the indie world upon graduating. Given the economic climate, however, she plans to “go the exec route and cross over that way.”

Educators admit there’s a lot more anxiety over tuition due to the troubled economy. That’s understandable, says Elizabeth Daley, dean of USC School of Cinematic Arts, but she likes to remind parents and students that entertainment is still a growth industry, with many more job opportunities than there used to be.

“The thing that’s vastly important — it’s always important, but especially in this economy — is to set realistic expectations,” Daley says.

The dean believes there’s strong need for greater HD and 3-D skills in the industry. “I’ve been thinking about how we can be a participant in retraining,” she says. “The industry is changing at breathtaking speed.”

UCLA Extension instructor Amotz Zakai, who teaches two classes, says more of his students are interested in transitioning to a new field. To help prepare them, he asks students how they would handle a problem he’s grappled with as VP of production for Echo Lake Prods. Among other pics, the indie outfit produced “Away From Her.”

While L.A.-based programs boast their access to working professionals, Florida-based Full Sail touts its wide range of entertainment study. Students may immerse themselves in everything from music to film, videogames to Internet marketing.

So far, there’s been little sign of the down economy hurting enrollment. Animation Mentor enrollment actually jumped 15% between winter 2008 and winter 2009, a gain co-founder Bobby Beck attributes to people looking at ways to help their careers.

Enrollment in showbiz classes at UCLA Extension hasn’t been affected either, according to Pascale Halm, head of UCLA Extension’s entertainment studies. Halm has seen “an increase in interest in programming for quantifiable skills,” such as operating the Red camera.

In this downturn, it behooves everyone to assess their skills and think how they might enhance their job prospects.

“You’ve got to make investments in hard times and good times,” Daley says. “We’ve got to keep a pool of talent coming into this industry.”

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