Michelle Obama (Plus Blake Lively, Whoopi Goldberg & Other Hollywood Stars) on How to Break Into Hollywood

BlogHer Original Post

Who doesn't daydream of a job in Hollywood? As director David Frankel said yesterday, it's the sort of job that people would pay others to be part of; it's the sort of job you love so much that you'd be willing to do it for free. But how do people go about actually breaking into the industry?

Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy, always says that the White House takes a cradle-to-career approach to education. That was definitely apparent at the Careers In Film Symposium at the White House on October 8 , where First Lady Michelle Obama introduced high school students to heavy Hollywood hitters. The all-star panel included actresses Whoopi Goldberg and Blake Lively, superproducer Harvey Weinstein, and director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station).

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Image: Melissa Ford

When most people think of jobs in film, they think of the obvious: director, actor, maybe cinematographer. But at the workshop, kids learned about the real scope of jobs in the industry -- everything from sound design to lighting, makeup, music, and costumes.

Composer Alan Menken kicked off the discussion with a medley of his songs, including a solo from Disney's Hercules -- an anthem of self-belief that set a tone for the panel. That same advice was echoed all day: Believe in yourself, and you can go the distance.

It was refreshing to hear stars like Whoopi Goldberg talk about starting out with only a dream, just like the students in the room. With the exception of Lively, none of the celebs had had Hollywood connections. All of them overcame great odds to get where they are today, whether growing up in the New York projects or struggling as a single parent. And Ms. Obama included herself in the circle of achievers: "We grew up like you all did," she told the kids.

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Image: Melissa Ford

The workshop was the brainchild of the First Lady, who approached Weinstein after the Oscars and explained her vision. He pulled together a wonderful and varied list of speakers, who all stressed the importance of education -- starting with the First Lady, who told the students they needed to be prepared to jump when opportunity knocks.

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Image: Melissa Ford

"You are going to be whatever you choose to be," Goldberg said, but Frankel cautioned patience: Movie-making itself is a slog, he said, and breaking into the industry usually takes time. But Lively told students to never let anyone tell them no -- including themselves. Added Weinstein, "I don't let anyone tell me no, even the White House!"

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Image: Melissa Ford

Actress Naomie Harris said that everyone pursuing a career in the fine arts has moments of self-doubt. It's normal, and the only thing to do is push through. Lively agreed: "Every day, it's a decision to feel confident."

Todd Wagner, producer and a co-owner of Landmark Theatres, gave the kids what he believes are the four elements to success: hardwork, education, luck, and timing. The first two elements, he pointed out, are entirely within a person's control.

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Image: Melissa Ford

When you tour the Warner Brothers studio outside London, you finish up in a room that resembles Ollivander's wand shop from the Harry Potter movies. There are thousands of wand boxes, each with a person's name on it, to mark all the people who worked on the eight films in the series. Once you really understand just how many people it takes to bring a film to life, it gets a little easier to stay hopeful, be confident, remain patient, and never accept no for an answer. Thanks to Ms. Obama and the entire panel for helping to give some kids with a dream some real tools to make it come true.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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