Summer 2014

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From left, Britt Lower ’08, Andrew Perez ’05, Blake Silver ’05 and Harry Lennix ’86 at the reading of Northwestern professor David Downs’ new play "Vag and the Boys" in March 2013. Andrew Arnold Photography.

Wildcats in Hollywood

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Alumni group helps grads find success in entertainment industry.

Marcus Folmar ’96 felt pretty comfortable as he prepared to audition for the TV series Ringer a few years ago in Hollywood. Like Folmar, the show’s co-creators, Eric Charmelo ’95 and Nicole Snyder ’97, had graduated from Northwestern. As the three were chatting about their time in Evanston, Michael Testa joined the conversation.

Testa, the show’s casting director, had graduated from Northwestern in 1986 — unbeknownst to Folmar, Charmelo or Snyder. Just like that, four Wildcats working in the entertainment industry were connected. “No matter where you go, no matter what show, you’re going to run into somebody from Northwestern,” Folmar says.

Folmar landed the role on Ringer, a crime and mystery drama that aired on the CW. A short time later, Testa, Charmelo and Snyder participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Northwestern University Entertainment Alliance West, an alumni organization. Folmar and Jackie Laine ’08, a reality TV producer, are the current co-presidents.

NUEA West’s members include recent graduates and established writers, actors and filmmakers. They turn to the organization — one of the Northwestern Alumni Association’s national clubs — to expand their professional networks, make friends, find jobs and get feedback on their work.

The organization was founded in the early 1990s by a handful of Northwestern graduates trying to harness the collective power of their fellow alumni working in the industry. The group now has about 240 active members and about 1,800 people on its email list. It hosted 27 events last year and has a similarly packed schedule this year. A sister chapter, NUEA East, is based in New York City.

“My experience has been that Northwestern alums are enthusiastic about meeting and giving back to and even hiring Northwestern alums when they can find them,” says Folmar, who works as an audition coach in addition to acting and, like Laine, majored in radio/TV/film at Northwestern’s School of Communication.

“I think that’s probably true for most alumni groups — there’s a loyalty toward people who went to your university,” Folmar says. “But I think it’s especially strong among Wildcats.”

Although NUEA West has helped plenty of alumni advance their careers, one of its key roles is helping young graduates make the transition to Hollywood, Laine says.

Among the group’s most popular annual events is its “Surviving LA” panel, in which industry veterans dispense advice and answer questions from young alumni. Panelists often stress the importance of developing “Hollywood street smarts” and discuss how to build a successful career path, say Folmar and Laine.

“We put the effort in to make sure that when new graduates come to LA and start working, that they’re not left on their own and just floating out in the ether,” Laine says.

NUEA West also gives Hollywood newcomers a chance to work with industry veterans during its biggest annual event, the LA|NU Showcase, which features original scenes written and performed by Northwestern alumni.

The show’s writers participate in workshops as they refine their scripts, getting pointers from established Northwestern alumni writers. The scenes are performed in front of sellout crowds that include agents, managers and casting directors.

Other peer groups meet throughout the year. Folmar worked on his writing recently through one such group led by Janae Bakken ’96, a TV writer and co-executive producer. Folmar spent about nine hours over three weeks learning how to pitch an idea for a TV show.

“That’s knowledge that in all my years out here I’d never really gotten,” he says. “To me, it was like a university-level class that I paid nothing for except my $40 annual NUEA West membership. It was great.”

Just as important as the professional development offered by NUEA West, Laine says, is the opportunity to meet new people and find a niche in a huge, competitive industry. “The point is to build a community,” she says. “I’ve met a lot of great people whom I can look to for advice.”