Tech is ticket to work

Jobs in other showbiz arenas are harder to crack

Mastering the digital tools that are driving film and TV production in the 21st century is the quickest way to break into entertainment.

Many of the most valued players work below the line, with editors and digital artists in demand from reality TV- and MTV-style genres, feature f/x and 3-D toons.

But legions of gaming gurus also are flocking to the region. Interactive games conglom Electronic Arts was a Hollywood headliner among the past year’s economic expansions.

The company, whose workforce is expected to double to about 600 next year, moved into a 250,000-square-foot state-of-the-art HQ that is said to be the first new studio built in the city of Los Angeles since the 1930s.

“We’re seeing more interaction between mainline entertainment and videogame producers who are joining Activision and THQ,” says Jack Kyser, VP and chief economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Behind the numbers

Kyser says too much emphasis is placed on the sex appeal of feature production at a time when television activity is soaring. For example, the more than 150 skeins in production in L.A. since November have eclipsed the 21 features in production.

Trouble is employment figures can be misleading, says Kathleen Milnes, senior VP of workforce and economic development for the Entertainment Industry Development Corp. “We don’t have complete occupational information.”

Key activities left out of the employment equation include catering, equipment rental, and stage and set construction. The ability to do 3-D and motion-capture visuals, two of the town’s hottest areas, also aren’t appropriately reflected in the stats.

Another problem is that the relatively new North American Industrial Classification System counts only motion picture and TV production, with post-production now scattered through the NAICS code. But help is on the way. EIDC’s Entertainment Data Project, funded with a $750,000 state grant, will develop a methodology to improve employment data classification.

Steve Hulett, business representative for the Animation Guild Local 839, notes that the industry is buzzing with activity in the increasingly popular realm of computer-generated imaging. He says there are about 15 to 20 such projects in L.A. facilities and several more at Industrial Light & Magic, just north of San Francisco.

Despite 826 layoffs at Disney, Local 839 employment figures have held steady lately to between 1,600 and 1,750 from a high of about 2,850 in 1996-97.

“We’ve done a lot of retraining in the past three or four years,” Hulett says. While some 2-D clean-up artists will make the jump to CGI, others will find storyboarding and design work. Compositors who know software programs like RenderMan will be able to gain production experience in the growing indie CGI film sector.

Sharing the pain

But breaking into showbiz probably was much easier 10 years ago, when Kyser says overall employment was about 104,000 (it peaked at 146,000 in 1999 but has eased up in the face of runaway production). EIDC recently created a Web site (www.entertainmentcareers.cc) as a service for those trying to enter the market.

Some of Hollywood’s most visible talent are among those sharing the pain: The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists are still smarting from the reality TV trend featuring average Joes and Janes.

Gary Kaplan, a headhunter specializing in entertainment jobs, has seen a rapid decline in demand for executive talent in Hollywood since March 2001. One of the harsh realities in entertainment is that consolidation among majors has frozen out top talent. “Look at Universal, which is about to be merged into NBC,” says Kaplan, prexy of Gary Kaplan & Associates in Pasadena.

He’s not sanguine about hiring prospects at the newly configured U, which cut 700 to 800 positions last year. He says NBC parent General Electric is notorious for effectively managing its operating expenses. In short: Expect a smaller infrastructure.

Affecting f/x

The typical big feature in 1994 had about 250 visual effects shots whereas today it’s nearly 800, says Mary Stuart, prexy of Digiscope, an f/x house in Santa Monica. Digital artistry is more competitive today because the market has been flooded with young talent from college-taught CGI programs. “I get hundreds of resumes from people just trying to break in.”

Business dried up for Digi-scope after Sept. 11 and the threat of actors and writers strikes. But then revenue doubled in 2003 and staff has nearly tripled this year. “We’re expanding our 3-D department and finally buying some new equipment and are pretty much at capacity,” Stuart says.

Rhythm & Hues, a leading producer of character animation and visual f/x for entertainment and advertising in L.A., has seen its workforce more than double to about 800 within the past five years — with most growth traced to its film division.

The f/x end of the biz has become more accessible to smart and creative people who are benefiting from powerful off-the-shelf tools and low-cost workstations that have dropped to PC prices from more than $100,000 10 years ago, according to Richard Hollander, a senior visual f/x supervisor and prez of R&H’s film division.