Corey Manlove loves movies. You can tell it from the way he talks about his extensive Blu-ray collection for which he is unsure his apartment can hold anymore. He talks passionately about the merits of physical media like DVDs and LaserDiscs and makes lighthearted jabs about the ills of Netflix. While he’s been a production assistant on a few TV show sets, his dream is to work on a DC Extended Universe film.
“When I got laid off from my civilian job [working hotel security], I took it as an opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always had an interest in film production,” Manlove, who served in the U.S. Navy, tells Variety. “But it hasn’t been easy for me to get my foot in the door.”
On a Saturday morning in January, Manlove is one of a dozen veterans gathered in a windowless conference room on the Google campus in Playa Vista, Calif., to help him with that dream. They are attending a production seminar organized by Vets2Set, a nonprofit aimed at securing entry-level production positions for veterans. A similar seminar is scheduled for Feb. 27 in New York City.
“It is hard to get into this business,” Suzanne Hargrove, executive producer at the production company Prettybird, says warmly, but matter-of-factly to the group, almost all of whom are taking notes.
Hargrove, whose parents were both in the military, goes through a PowerPoint presentation, one slide detailing a production hierarchy, from the executive producer and director, down to the production assistant. A subsequent slide: her rules for being a successful production assistant, among them not being on one’s phone texting and not sharing photos from set.
“The vets are the guys who know to show up on time, work in a team and get the mission accomplished,” Vets2Set founder David Cohen, a former commercial head of production, tells Variety. “If they can be out in the desert in Iraq fixing a truck in the worst conditions, they certainly can drive your vans in Hollywood and New York and help transport equipment.”
Cohen started the organization in New York City last November. Veterans can register themselves in a database and be connected to entry-level production assistant gigs and job shadows on TV, commercial and film sets.
Vets who register also have the option of indicating what environments they are most comfortable in and avoid ones where they aren’t, like if they are sensitive to explosions, loud noises or heights. And listing level of education is not a requirement.
According to Cohen, the Vets2Set’s database currently has over 200 registrants in 25 states and 57 production companies. One success story includes a female vet who was hired by Al Roker’s production company, Al Roker Entertainment.
Kevin Manos, another guest speaker at the seminar and a production supervisor for commercials, says that unlike some civilians he’s worked with, veterans readily understand chain-of-command, organizing to complete a task and following production protocol.
“Other kids who want to get into the industry who are just out of college, they’re so used to questioning everything and thinking of better ways or a quicker way or easier ways to do it when there aren’t any,” says Manos, who worked as a jet mechanic in the Navy. “There are just things that need to be done.”
But as anyone who has worked in the world of freelance production knows, finding work can be a job itself. Several at the seminar, who had worked on sets in the past, lament the sporadic nature of jobs, sometimes going a month or longer between gigs. They’re finding it hard to pay bills while pursuing their dreams.
Patrick Trizila, a former Marine who has worked on sets as a P.A. and extra, suggests they take part-time gigs at Coffee Bean or Starbucks or drive for rideshare services Lyft or Uber.
Trizila, who was wounded while stationed in Bahrain, said music and theater served as his outlets while recovering from his injuries at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, Calif., and with nonprofit organization Wounded Warrior Project. It was then that his first sergeant recommended Trizila sign up to be an extra on the Michael Bay-produced TNT series “The Last Ship.” He’s fallen in love with production ever since.
“I feel for them because I was in that same spot,” he says, of wanting to offer his fellow vets hope that they can still pursue their dreams of working in the industry.
Cohen says he understands their frustration.
“So many people think the minute you sign up, you’re going to get work,” he says, adding that he hopes, one day, production companies will include a rider that mandates hiring two veterans on every set.
For Manlove, that time can’t come soon enough. Checking in with Variety a month after the production seminar, Manlove says he still hasn’t gotten any substantial production work, save for an unpaid job shadowing opportunity. He has taken up a job driving for senior citizens and the elderly. His bank account is running low, and he fears he will have to dip into his retirement to keep himself afloat in the near future. He’s considering going back to working as a security guard.
The dry spell is something that Manlove seems to have foreseen in January: “When you’re trying to pay the bills, it can get a little hectic sometimes. That’s the life, and everybody gets through it. I’m no different than anybody else.”