By Marissa Calhoun
LOS ANGELES — It was like a scene from a major motion picture: a city ablaze as mobs of young rioters stormed the streets in protest.
Except in this case, it was reality.
Long before the uprisings on the streets of Ferguson or Baltimore, the 1992 L.A. riots in the wake of the first verdict in the Rodney King case had an undeniable effect on the city’s urban youth.
“Young people were the primary focus of the riots,” recalls Fred Heinrich, a longtime film editor who witnessed the unrest from his Los Angeles home. “I believe they were frustrated because they felt they were being under-served. When I saw all of this violence, I said to my wife, ‘There’s got to be something we can do.’”
A recent report published by UCLA’s Center for African-American Studies highlights the lack of minority employment in Hollywood — a void Heinrich has been working for years to change.
Heinrich’s nonprofit, Inner-City Filmmakers, provides free hands-on job training and placement for low-income minority youth, giving them increased access to the film and television industry.
“Screenwriting, directing, camera, editing, producing, casting — they learn all these skills,” Heinrich said. “I couldn’t have taught them how to be a baker or a plumber or anything like that. … What I do know about is filmmaking. So I scoured the city looking for promising youth.”
Since 1993, Inner-City Filmmakers has assisted more than 600 young people in Los Angeles County.
CNN spoke to Heinrich about his efforts to help diversify Hollywood’s work force. What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
CNN: What’s it like for a student taking part in your nonprofit’s summer intensive?
Heinrich: People have described our summer program as a boot camp. The students are expected to perform six or seven days a week for the entire eight weeks. Our program is tough. And it has to be tough because the industry is tough. There’s so much competition that if you’re not prepared, you’ll just sink.
We hire industry professionals to teach different classes in filmmaking. We bring in guest speakers like motion picture cinematographers and directors to share their knowledge with our young people. We do this so that our kids can decide what it is that they really believe their skill set is and narrow down what jobs in the industry they’d be most interested in pursuing.
We take the students on field trips to movie studios like Universal Studios, Warner Bros. and Sony. By the end of the eight weeks, every student makes their own film with other students from the program as a team. There’s a lot of pride and accomplishment. We know a lot of parents are telling their kids, “You’re never going to make it in the film business.” But we’ve had a lot of our kids go on to become really successful.
CNN: What kinds of success have some of your students seen?
Heinrich: A lot of our alumni go on to college. Some apply to and attend film school on scholarship in order to study their craft more. And many of those who graduate our program are now working in the business.
We help them find the jobs and internships through our contacts with studio personnel, and we also help our students get access to the production craft unions. It’s important to have that access to the unions because that’s where the good-paying jobs are. That’s where they’re protected from being overworked and underpaid.
But what’s really amazing is that some of our students are Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning industry professionals. It’s just incredible.
CNN: Diversity in Hollywood, or lack of it, has been a hot topic lately. Why do you think it’s an important conversation?
Heinrich: The diverse population in this country is growing, and they’re the audience that these filmmakers need to satisfy. We need to satisfy the needs of an ever-growing Latino population and a real growth of Asians in this country. We need more films for an increasingly middle-class, African-American audience. And to tell you the truth, even somebody like me — I mean I’ve seen all these films targeting white audiences — I want to know something about what makes other people tick.
But beyond that, it’s about jobs and access. Most of our students think it’s just too hard to break in. We’re out there to try and help convince them that that’s not the case. We’re looking for a more diverse future for our students in Hollywood, and they’re achieving that.
CNN: What advice do you have for a young person looking to break into the film industry?
Heinrich: This business is very competitive. It is definitely important that you have access to a network. And in order to be as competitive as possible, you have to make sure you know the people who are providing the jobs — and that they know who you are, and that you cultivate that relationship continuously.
I think a lot of people think about Hollywood in a negative sort of way because they feel that a lot of people get promised jobs and the jobs don’t materialize. But it doesn’t have to be that way. People have to — once they get their foot in the door — really make it shine inside.
I think I counted once the amount of unemployment time that I had while I was working. In the 40 years that I worked, I don’t think I was out of work for more than a month. So give the people what they want and they’ll keep coming to you.