By Greta Chiocchetti
Last semester, alumni from Academy of Art University’s Schools of Entertainment (Acting, Motion Pictures & Television, and Writing for Film, TV & Digital Media) offered answers to the most common questions about life after the Academy—including how to get that first job—in a Zoom panel moderated by Schools of Entertainment Executive Director and Academy Award winner Jana Sue Memel.
The alumni panelists—Jun Li, M.F.A. cinematography; Unique Cooper, B.F.A. producing; Sophia Kalin, M.F.A. directing, Ryan Curtis, B.F.A. editing; Shiv Sudhakar, M.F.A. screenwriting; Rain Zheng, M.F.A. directing; Jarred Gregory-Grimes, B.F.A.screenwriting; Liv Li, M.F.A. motion pictures and television, and Cynthia Chen, M.F.A. animation and visual effects—shared how they jumpstarted a career in the entertainment world and how current students can get the most out of their time at the Academy.
Network, Network, Network
Liv Li, an L.A.-based producer and assistant director, who graduated with her M.F.A. in 2018, stressed the importance of building up one’s confidence to network with others in the industry.
“As a fresh graduate, you will probably have to overcome yourself first,” said Li. “That’s what I did. Sometimes I feel like I’m not confident enough to present myself well. But before you can really seize your opportunities, you have to be able to overcome that feeling.”
Unique Cooper, who graduated with a B.F.A. in producing in 2019, stressed that the unprecedented times brought on by the pandemic might be an opportunity in disguise.
“Just go after it, especially with Covid. If you have anything that you’re working on, now is the time to send it. Right now, everyone is like, ‘I don’t know what the next step is,’ so if they don’t know what the next step is and you don’t know what the next step is, we’re on the same playing field,” said Cooper, who now works as an Office Production Assistant for “Grey’s Anatomy” at Walt Disney Television. “If you’re a writer, they’re looking for content because everybody’s still sitting at home. Everybody’s still unemployed. You can’t go to movie theaters. Just go and get it.”
Jarred Gregory-Grimes, a screenwriting alumnus who graduated in 2019, met his current manager at SFFILM by volunteering during his time in school.
“When I interviewed with them later, [the hiring managers] were like, ‘Oh yeah, we remember you,’” Gregory-Grimes said. “I think it’s really about saying yes to a lot of things, even if they’re unpaid in the beginning, and showing that you know how to to do the job and are excited to be there.”
Ryan Curtis, a Creative Photo Coordinator at Walt Disney Studios, said he cast a wide net after moving to Los Angeles and looking for his first postgraduate job.
“It was someone who I hadn’t talked to in something like 10 years who helped me out. I had gotten a friend of mine his first job in New York on a commercial 10 years ago, and when I came to L.A., he was the only person I knew out here,” said Curtis, who graduated in 2019 with a B.A. “I reached out to him, and I said, ‘Hey, do you know anybody that would let me just push a broom around set, or whatever they need.’ And he happened to be working on a movie over at Paramount, and then when he went over to ‘American Horror Story,’ he got me over onto that. Sometimes people don’t remember you, but I was fortunate enough.”
Take a Chance
Shiv Sudhakar’s screenwriting breakthrough came after he took his fate into his own hands and cold-emailed the agent of an instructor he had during his time at the Academy.
“I just looked him up online and found his email, and thought, ‘Why not?’ An hour later, my instructor called me and was like, ‘Did you email my agent? You probably should run that past me first, but I’ll put a good word in for you,’” said Sudhakar.
When the agent wrote him back asking for a sample of Sudhakar’s best work, he sent it in, and months later, he found himself in that very agent’s office. “We’ve been working together ever since. He’s gotten me jobs at HBO, NBC, Disney…”
Sudhakar offered another helpful tidbit: He always looks up the writer of films he’s enjoyed. After watching a romantic comedy written by Nathan Atkins, Sudhakar found Atkins’ contact information on his website and decided to send him a script he wrote while attending the Academy.
“He emailed me back and worked with me on the script, and then he signed to produce it,” said Sudhakar. “Literally today—I’m not joking—we talked to an actress who wants to sign on to it, and they’re going to try to package it to Netflix. To all the students that are listening, you can just go after the things that you want. I just found people’s emails online, and it worked out.”
Be Willing to Try New Things
Sophia Kalin, who graduated with a master’s in directing in 2017, was convinced that she would be a starving artist after school. Memel suggested that she try to find work at an agency instead—an idea that Kalin found herself very hesitant about exploring.
“I really did not think that atmosphere would be good for me,” said Kalin. “But Jana talked me into it, as she did many things. She emailed an agent there, and sent my résumé, and got me an interview with HR. And I got a job, just like that.”
Kalin, who came to film school to become a director, realized that there was an alternate path into the industry—one that she was well-suited for.
“Being at an agency, you are sort of the filter of the entertainment industry. It’s been a great learning experience,” said Kalin. “I came to film school wanting to be a director, then I thought I’d want to be a producer, and I entered into an agency thinking maybe I’ll be an agent. Now I’m looking for a job again—but it’s all been a great way to network.”
Cooper was reluctant to relocate to Los Angeles after graduation. But when she met and connected with one of the directors and writers for “Empire” at Spring Show, she was offered an internship there—and it turned out to open many doors.
“It forced me to move to L.A., and when I got there, I wasn’t shy about talking to people on set—I was like, ‘Hey, I’m Unique, I just got here, and I want to work in TV,’” said Cooper. “I wasn’t shy; I told them ‘I want to be you in the future,’ and people have been giving me pointers and teaching me things that I’ll need to know as a producer.”