It’s just after 9 a.m. and class is fully in session at Roybal Film and Television Production Magnet, a specialty academy near Downtown Los Angeles. Cell phones are out of sight, pens are scribbling away and projectors are humming.
But instead of reflecting lessons on geography, grammar or science, in one classroom, the first page of a Harry Potter script is on screen. In another, close to two dozen students are hard at work on their “superhero backstories,” an assignment that requires they present original designs for a superhero’s costume both on the job and off, taking into account character, time period, story and concept.
Maybe out of respect, or because they’re so engrossed with the task, only a few students peek over their shoulder at the slight commotion caused by a tour of Hollywood power players-turned-Roybal insiders who’ve dropped by to survey the scene. And no student was bold enough to ask for pointers from the onetime superhero and Oscar-winning superstar standing at the back of the class — George Clooney.
To them, he’s more than Batman. Clooney is a Roybal co-founder alongside longtime producing partner Grant Heslov and longtime agent and CAA co-chairman Bryan Lourd. Together, they turned up to school on Wednesday for an opening celebration and pep rally that reinforced the school’s mission of pumping diverse talent directly from a focused and skill-driven high school education straight into the industry in below-the-line roles.
There was more to applaud than just the mission’s progress and the star power in the room from Clooney and fellow co-founders and board members Mindy Kaling and Don Cheadle. It was confirmed that the school secured a total of $4 million in funding for the program from such new sources as Amazon Studios, Disney, Fox Corp., NBCUniversal/Telemundo Enterprises, Paramount and Warner Bros. Discovery. Those companies, now founding partners, join previously announced founding partner The History Channel/A&E Networks along with Netflix and Sony Pictures Entertainment.
In other news, Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier, NBCUniversal executive vp and chief diversity officer Craig Robinson, and Paramount’s executive vp global head of inclusion and executive vp public affairs at Nickelodeon Marva Smalls have joined the Roybal Advisory Board. They will work alongside board members Clooney, Heslov, Lourd, Kaling, Cheadle, Kerry Washington, Eva Longoria, Nicole Avant, Working Title Films founders Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, veteran studio chief Jim Gianopulos, as well as A+E Networks Group’s president and chairman Paul Buccieri.
Buccieri and Fellner also joined Wednesday’s festivities and the latter’s showing was notable in that he and Bevan operate a similar program in the U.K. After the tour and during an advisory board meeting, Fellner offered an enthusiastic congratulations to the team for their hyper speed progress of welcoming an inaugural class of 150 ninth and 10th grade students in August after formally launching the program just last summer. He wasn’t the only one.
“I can’t imagine it’s been 18 months, 16 months,” said Kaling in kicking off the pep rally opposite Cheadle. “And the Roybal school went from an idea to a groundbreaking institution and you are its pioneers.”
After the students erupted in applause, Kaling said she’s a living example of “you have to see it to believe it.” As the child of immigrants, the actress and super producer said she was raised by a television. “That’s where I fell in love with this but I had no access, and what’s amazing about [this school] is that we’re going to try and provide that.”
Cheadle then confirmed the board’s commitment. “We were very fortunate to visit some classes today and see you guys in action,” he said. “Hopefully, we will be able to provide a pathway for you to get into this industry, find lucrative jobs and have greater representation in this business that we’ve been fortunate enough to be in for many years.”
One way to light the path is by providing access and career insights from professionals currently on the job. Roybal’s inaugural industry council is comprised of a group of accomplished artisans including costume designers Ruth Carter and Emilio Sosa, production designers Wynn Thomas and Korey Washington, hair and make-up artist Howard Berger, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, lighting director Danny Gonzalez, supervising sound editors Bobbi Banks and Glenfield Payne, film editor Michael Tronick, animation artist Vicky Pui, and visual effects producer Brooke Breton.
Overseen by principal Blanca Cruz, the Roybal Film and Television Production Magnet — housed at the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center on Colton Street in the Westlake neighborhood — could eventually be expanded to more schools in Los Angeles. If all goes well, maybe even California or perhaps to other major production hubs like New York, Atlanta and Chicago, said Clooney during his remarks from the podium.
“Our industry, really, since its inception has been pretty poor at inclusion and usually the way we try to fix it is at the end of the process,” said Clooney, fresh from London where he premiered his new film Ticket to Paradise, a reteaming with Julia Roberts. “That hasn’t worked out very well as we’ve seen.”
Roybal can help reverse that, Clooney continued, thanks in large part to the studio and network partners that have donated much needed funds. “They bought in, in a much different way by saying that in two or three years, when our first group is graduating and has been through the course, there’s going to be internships and apprenticeships and actual jobs that are going to lead to better and better jobs so that we can change the complexity of this industry,” said Clooney, who also gave a heartfelt shout out to Lourd by calling him “the driving engine” of the program. “Actors don’t really thank their agents, for good reason, but we’re thanking you because it really doesn’t get started without all the hard work Bryan did.”
Clooney then pivoted to a polite request of the students to focus on the education but not before taking a mini-detour back to where the day started with superheroes. “We’re very excited to be here with you. Now, look, you’re going to have to help us out because this is new and this is education and in our industry, no one really thinks of education,” he explained. “I think that’s fair. You know, if you think of actors, you don’t really think of education in general. If you look at me, you just think, oh, he’s just the best Batman.”
Cheadle then quipped, “Best available.”
“Really, though, Ben Affleck?” Clooney continued of the caped crusader who was also played by Affleck, Christian Bale, Michael Keaton and most recently Robert Pattinson. “He’s got nothing on me.”
Once the laughter died down, Clooney closed the program by getting serious about Roybal’s commitment to changing the face of Hollywood. “The bottom line is this guys, the path into the industry has to be an education of this industry and that education starts here and it starts today with all of you. We couldn’t be more proud to be here, and we couldn’t be more excited for your future.”