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Hollywood and the education system have been intertwined for many years, with celebrities and industry companies long writing checks and forming charitable partnerships to give back to the next generation. As of late, though, Hollywood has taken a big new step in changing the school system: creating its own.
The Roybal School of Film and Television Production, with a board featuring George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Don Cheadle, Kerry Washington, Mindy Kaling, Nicole Avant, Eva Longoria, Working Title Films’ Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, and CAA’s Bryan Lourd, was announced in June, with plans to welcome high school students starting next fall.
And Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre — who unveiled the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation (IYA) in 2013 — will open a public high school in South L.A. in 2022. LeBron James also has his own school in Ohio, Sean Combs is behind three Capital Preparatory Schools in New York and Pharrell Williams has plans to open one in Virginia.
Clooney and his producing partner Heslov came up with the idea for Roybal after conversations with Fellner and Lourd about ways to better bring diversity to below-the-line Hollywood jobs. “There’s so many kids in Los Angeles, being the heart of Hollywood, who don’t even realize that a visual effects job exists out there because they’re not given the opportunities,” says Clooney. As a result, his team worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District to design a magnet school (to start with ninth and 10th graders before expanding to 11th and 12th) for students in underserved communities to have a pathway to work in production through education, internships and valuable industry connections.
“We don’t want this to be the showy version of this, we don’t want it to be acting or writing or directing necessarily,” Clooney says of the focus on behind-the-camera areas of Hollywood “that you actually make a really good living at.” And if it goes well, he has ideas of taking the same model to other major filming cities like New York, Atlanta and New Orleans.
With so many projects in production these days, Clooney says, “there’s an enormous amount of jobs in editing, in visual effects, in makeup and hair, that we can, that we should, be able to access. Why not access it with all of this young talent that we have in our own backyard? It’s ridiculous that we wouldn’t.”
Clooney and Heslov are helping design the curriculum as well as spearheading fundraising and are in conversations with every studio, streamer, network and union to be involved — as Clooney jokes, “I’m really good at guilting people.” On a more serious note, “They want to be able to say they’re part of the solution to this #OscarsSoWhite kind of argument; they want to be part of the solution,” the star adds. Clooney and Heslov also intend to be involved in teaching, and other names (like Joel Coen) have expressed similar interest. “That’s one of the things we’re most excited about, to go in and be able to spend time with the kids,” says Heslov.
The school also is part of a larger LAUSD mission to focus on real-world jobs and career readiness. “When it comes to the nuances of film and television, we don’t have any of that knowledge,” says senior director of the superintendent’s office Jared DuPree, “and on their end, they can’t speak to us about graduation requirements as it relates to A-through-G readiness. So we both need each other.”
Iovine and Dre’s IYA has served a similar role in the community, offering innovative education at USC through undergraduate and grad programs based on the skills they both learned in their music careers and Beats By Dre collaboration.
“It’s really the big fix, as far as we’re concerned,” Iovine says. “We’re getting the basic groundwork right, which is getting our kids better educated and healthier overall. It’s also an area we’re passionate about, which is combining the arts and technology, which we feel is the future of the workforce. And we feel we owe a lot to the inner city and we want to do the right thing there.”
That mission will soon expand with the upcoming high school, a Leimert Park magnet temporarily called Regional High School No. 1 — also in partnership with LAUSD — which will use their integrated design, business and technology curriculum to teach the next generation of innovators. And in the next few years, Iovine hopes to keep growing their education model, both in and out of L.A.
“We’re old-fashioned record makers. We focus on what you’re doing at that moment, and you get that right, and then you can mold the rest of it,” the longtime music exec says. “It took us eight to nine years to get the academy right, and now we’re ready to move on to a high school, and then we want to scale the high school, and we are also looking at other cities. We just want to get the model right.”
And while not everyone can start a school, other Hollywood figures remain prominent donors to existing institutions. Chuck Lorre has donated millions for STEM education through his Big Bang Theory Scholars program at UCLA and Young Sheldon initiatives in L.A. and Texas, and in 2020 provided food scarcity grants to L.A. public schools and local charities totaling over $1.5 million. Will.i.am’s i.am Angel Foundation has also teamed with LAUSD to bring robotics learning to 12,000 Boyle Heights students. And in 2019, CAA partnered with LAUSD to help further public education initiatives.
As magnet schools that are fully part of LAUSD, the Iovine and Dre high school and Roybal represent a shift in Hollywood’s support of education, which in recent years has tended to focus on backing independent charter schools. (Netflix’s Reed Hastings has donated millions to support charters.) That’s significant, says public education advocate and former producer Tracy Abbott. “I’m relieved to see that Dre, Iovine and Clooney had not chosen the investor-driven charter school route, which is financed with public dollars but privately managed. I’m pretty sure a CEO of a charter school with an inflated salary would be counterproductive to their goals,” Abbott says. “Then there is the fact that charter teachers and staff are predominately without collective bargaining. In this important era of equity and social justice, magnets make more sense.”
As IYA dean Thanassis Rikakis puts it, “Hollywood saying, ‘We can do better, and we have the knowledge, we have the resources, we have the partners to do better,’ is a statement that really brings the best out of society because it creates aspirations. They’re not just coming out and giving a speech and going home; [they’re saying,] ‘We are putting everything we have — our knowledge, our time, our money — into not letting education fail so many people.’ “
This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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