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Breaking into the business

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LOS ANGELES – Aspiring American Indian actors, writers, directors and producers gathered at the Autry National Center Sept. 18 to attend an industry event, “Careers in Focus: American Indians in Entertainment.” The evening included a panel discussion featuring top film and television professionals.

Coming to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the movie business is hard for anyone, but it is especially trying for Native people because of the types of roles currently or historically created by Hollywood, including an apparent lack of contemporary roles and limited opportunities. The people who attended the event hope this situation will change.

The “Careers in Focus” event was co-sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild President’s National Task Force on American Indians and the American Indian Center for Television and Film.

The task force was established in January 2007 to promote and safeguard the interests and rights of American Indian performers. The task force believes that a heightened awareness of and commitment to fair employment practices on the part of industry decision makers will lead to an expanded use of the American Indian Performer in features, television, commercials and other multimedia.

Actress DeLanna Studi, Cherokee, is part of the task force and helped organize the event. “Over the last year, we have organized a few casting mixers for our Native actors,” she said. “For this event, we extended an invitation to the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America. We wanted to showcase all of our Native talent at this event.”

The American Indian National Center for Television and Film is a resource center for American Indian talent in front of and behind the cameras. A partnership among the Institute of American Indian Arts, Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development and the nation’s major broadcasters – ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC – the center serves as a bridge between the American Indian community and the entertainment industry.

Jhane Myers, Comanche, is the center’s executive director. She was instrumental in planning the evening’s events. “Our goals for this event were really twofold,” she said. “One was to gather the Native American entertainment community: there are so many of us spread throughout the city and the event provides a place to network. Another goal was to show the industry just how many Native artists are in this town.”

The task force and the American Indian National Center share the same mission: to increase employment opportunities and promote more accurate representations of contemporary American Indian communities.

At “Careers in Focus,” a panel of industry representatives from the four major networks shared some practices and strategies for increasing the visibility and employment of American Indian actors, writers, directors and producers.

The panel assembled included Native actor Adam Beach; writer and writing instructor Geoff Harris; Veena Sud, executive producer/writer/director; Kim Williams, casting director, FOX; Marc Hirschfeld, executive VP of casting, NBC; and Fern Orenstein, VP of casting, CBS.

The panel was moderated by CBS national news correspondent Hattie Kaufman, Nez Perce. Advice was given to a newly arrived actress on how to get an agent, audition dos and don’ts were discussed and tips to writers seeking representation were given.

“Tell a universal story, and everyone can relate,” was some advice from Harris, who conducted the 2007 and 2008 summer TV and film writing workshops at IAIA.

Sud, who currently writes for and produces the CBS series “Cold Case,” told the audience, “Hone your craft – you have to write every day.”

The casting representatives reminded the actors, “Don’t rely solely on your agent. Remember your agent gets 10 percent – you have gotta do 90 percent of the work. You must always be pushing yourself and your own career.”

Beach talked about his experiences and struggles in Hollywood – his success gave hope to the room full of Native artists who seek a career in this industry.

The panel discussion ended and the crowd moved to an outdoor patio area for food and drinks, to mix and mingle: in other words, network.

As Hirschfeld said, “The Native community needs to mobilize, create a critical mass and work together.”

Studi said, “We had an amazing turnout. We had over 200 people in attendance tonight. We wanted an elegant and professional event so the industry can see us as modern-day people and employable talent.”

“It is really up to us,” Myers said. “We have the talent and the capabilities to change the images of Natives in Hollywood. We have writers who can write it, producers and directors who can bring a project to life, and actors who can act in it. It is a very exciting time.”