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Arts & Entertainment

BU in LA

Part two: At Lions Gate Films, script readers learn what studios really want

The Readers: Part two of a five-part series on Boston University’s Los Angeles Internship Program.

Rachelle Williams has been in Los Angeles for only four weeks, but she already starts each workday like an old pro: with a script and a diet Coke.

“I don’t like coffee,” she explains. “It makes me jittery.”

Williams (COM’07) got her job at Lions Gate Films by panning a sample script called Drivers’ Ed, about a man who enacts revenge on the teenagers who killed his family by becoming their drivers’ education teacher. Now, as a production intern, she spends her days reading scripts and writing “coverage,” which means a synopsis, and sometimes, her opinion about whether to consider it or pass. She typically goes through two scripts a day and is currently skimming what she describes as a cross between Major League and Fever Pitch. It’s not particularly good, she says. But there are perks — last week, to her surprise, she was handed a script by the writer David Mamet. Again to her surprise, it wasn’t all she expected. “You could tell that he was just trying too hard,” she says.

While it may seem odd that a college senior is the first-round reader for Mamet’s latest screenplay, it’s actually fairly common in the industry, according to Bill Linsman, the director of the BU in LA program. Williams is part of a coveted demographic group, and Lions Gate wants to know what she and the other interns are thinking.

“Most executives are between 35 and 50, and they are interested in what the 20- and 21-year-olds think of actors X, Y, and Z,” says Linsman. “The internship is a symbiotic relationship.”

In exchange for their services as a test audience, the interns get free screenings (Williams has already seen the not-yet-released Employee of the Month starring Dane Cook and Jessica Simpson) and the occasional celebrity sighting (“Nick Lachey was in there last week,” Williams says, pointing to the conference room just down the hall from her desk).

Most important, they are learning who’s who and what’s what. Hollywood has its own rules and its own language, and day by day, the film and television interns in BU in LA are mastering both.

For the past three years, BU has offered acting, writing, film/television, and public relations internship programs to students at the College of Fine Arts and the College of Communication who are drawn to television and film. Those accepted into the intensive, single semester programs, which are run through BU’s Division of International Programs, live in Los Angeles and combine study of their craft with internships in the offices of agents, casting directors, and public relations firms.

Students work on collaborative projects and are taught and coached by BU alums who are Hollywood success stories, including Krista Vernoff (CFA’93), writer and producer of Grey’s Anatomy, and Nina Tassler (CFA’79), president of CBS Entertainment. Students are also given opportunities to audition for TV and film projects and to showcase their work to agents, managers, producers, and development executives.

“Anybody at BU who’s interested in the entertainment business can get a very good education, in theory, in Boston,” Linsman says. “But because Hollywood is such a unique, entertainment-oriented place, this becomes a way to really broaden their education related to the entertainment industry.”

Answering the phone, for example — an intern’s task in any industry — requires an understanding of certain terms. One never says, “He’s not available at the moment,” but instead, “I don’t have him right now.” A caller doesn’t leave a message — he or she “leaves word.”

Then there are the players involved. “I had no clue,” Williams says of her pre-LA experience. “I didn’t even know that Viacom owned Paramount. I’m from Atlanta — they don’t have Variety in the supermarkets there.” Now, she borrows back issues of the industry trade publications from her supervisors to make sure she understands who’s involved in the latest projects and deals.

“You’re learning that it’s a business,” says Scott Milder (COM’06), who is getting an MFA in screenwriting at BU and is also an intern at Lions Gate. “I think film school creates a little protective bubble a lot of the time. But it’s not the glamorous ideal, and I think it’s good for people to learn.” Milder, who is from Albuquerque, doesn’t plan to stay in Los Angeles after the semester is over, but thinks he’d prefer to work in his home state. “You’re one of a million people out here,” he says.

For others, however, the lack of glamour has its own appeal. Seth Needle (COM’07), an intern in the Lions Gate acquisitions department, has always hoped to write and direct his own horror films — he wanted the job at Lions Gate, he says, because it’s becoming known as the industry’s horror specialist. Now, having spent a month reading scripts and writing coverage, he’s thinking he might want to shift his focus to a career in the business side of moviemaking. “I’d be just as happy finding the next big movie as I would be making a smaller production,” he says. “I like that I can influence a decision here.”

Like the majority of students in the BU program, Williams is sticking with her plans to work in the creative side of the business. She’s had some success as a screenwriter already with her screenplay The Premonition, which won the College of Communication’s 2005 Fleder-Rosenberg Short Screenplay Contest. But after four weeks, she’s learned that an award-winning screenplay just isn’t enough.

The Premonition
is “kind of like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker,” she begins, “about a mother having a premonition about her son’s death — he comes back from the war and is killed the day he comes back . . .” She stops. “I have to learn how to pitch things.” Her goal is to find a literary agent by December, before she goes back to Boston for her last semester of college.

To read part one of the series, Learning and Living The Biz: The actors, click here.

Click the slide show below to hear Rachelle Williams talk about the LA she would like to see when the long day’s work is done.