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Struggling filmmakers do what they have to do

  • Story Highlights
  • Every year filmmaking hopefuls gravitate to Hollywood
  • Many work at other jobs such as restaurants and stores as they pursue their dreams
  • Production backgrounds come in handy as Internet has changed game
  • Aspirant's advice: "Be friendly to everybody and remember people's names"
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By Jacque Wilson
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Carsten Kurpanek bought a car. Then he and his girlfriend packed up their things and drove more than 2,000 miles to Los Angeles.

Kurpanek, rear left, lately has gotten a job as an assistant editor with Oscar winner Richard Halsey.

Aspiring filmmaker Carsten Kurpanek and girlfriend Courtney Hawkins are looking to make it in Hollywood.

"We had four suitcases and an old TV and nothing else," he said with a laugh.

A year and a half later, it seems funny. But when the couple first arrived, not having a job or a place to live wasn't so amusing.

As the Oscars draw celebrities and million-dollar producers to Hollywood this week, newcomers to the entertainment industry are still struggling to make it big. Kurpanek is an aspiring filmmaker, one of many who traveled west after college in hopes of landing a job. His girlfriend, Courtney Hawkins, is an actress looking to the same.

There are no firm statistics on the number of graduates who follow that path to Los Angeles, said Joe Misiewicz, department chair for the telecommunications program at Ball State University in Indiana. But he guesses 10 to 12 of his seniors move to the showbiz capital every year.

Hawkins found her first paycheck as a waitress. After two weeks of crashing at a friend's place, she and Kurpanek found an apartment they could rent even with no credit history and minimal employment. A month later, Kurpanek started work as an unpaid intern at a reality TV company named AlphaDog. Kurpanek was a productive filmmaker during his time at Ball State, but his work counted for nothing in the big city.

"Your resume coming from school is blank -- even if you had 5,000 films on there," Kurpanek said. "Everybody you meet in the industry has worked for free in the industry."

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Phil McLaughlin can attest to that. After graduating from Indiana University in August 2007, he attached a U-Haul trailer to his car and started across the country.

"To be honest, I'm surprised my car made it," McLaughlin said. "By the time we hit the desert I had the heat on high with the windows down, watching the engine temp kiss the red the entire way."

McLaughlin's move coincided with the front end of the writers' strike, so he remained in unpaid internships and a tiny apartment for a while, sleeping on a mattress when he couldn't afford a bed frame.

"I don't know the square footage, but figuring it out would just be depressing," he said. "For a while it definitely was a stretch to pay bills. Finding work was not the easiest thing for me. We lived off of summer savings and my girlfriend's job at a department store."

Perhaps the biggest challenge for those trying to break into the industry is the seasonal nature of the work, Misiewicz said. Most end up freelancing or working on television shows that don't tape during the holidays or the summer.

"We try to tell [our graduates], you know what, you do what you have to do. Work at Target, at [the supermarket chain] Meijers, etc.," he said. "And just enjoy the weather."

The department encourages its students to dream big while equipping them with the knowledge of what they're getting in to. Indiana University did the same for McLaughlin. A seminar his senior year taught him that 90 percent of the entertainment industry is in Hollywood -- and to make it, you just have to take that chance.

Bobby Milly, program director for computer animation at the Los Angeles Film School, said more students come out each year from the East Coast because Hollywood is, quite literally, in the school's backyard.

"Especially with films and video games, the market is here. There are 30 video game companies out here alone," Milly said. "The benefit is that finding another job if you lose one without relocating is a much better possibility."

More than 30 percent of the school's students are from out of state, public relations spokesman Antoine Ibrahim said. And based on the volume of calls the housing department gets, a lot are moving to the area and becoming full-time residents, he said.

"I decided to move out to LA because it was obvious this is where the opportunity is," McLaughlin said. "There's easily 30 of us from my graduating class in my program that moved out here at the same time."

Having a support system helps, McLaughlin said. He and his friends use their production backgrounds to distribute online videos of their sketch comedy group Moon County. Many in the group have day jobs, but they each use their skills -- either as actors, writers or in production -- in hopes of getting noticed and padding their resume reels.

"I'm drawn to this line of work because of the inherent collaborative and creative energy, so ultimately I'd love to be in a position where I'm making a living working with friends, creating stuff we love," McLaughlin said.

"The money aspect hasn't necessarily come through yet, but I'm confident it will."

Kurpanek also posts his short films online because he knows the way to find a job in this industry has changed.

"It's definitely easier to get your stuff shown on platforms like YouTube, and having your own Web site makes things easier to show reels," he said.

Still there are ups and downs, especially in this economy. Marita Gomsrud and her twin sister, Mariel, understand the obstacles. They moved to Los Angeles from New York more than a year ago in hopes of becoming actresses on the big screen. They've found odd jobs here and there, from modeling to catering, but have yet to land a break.

"It can get really discouraging and frustrating," Marita said about going on audition after audition. "You know LA is going to be hard, but you never know how hard until you get here."

The sisters barely make it from month to month. They put a lot of what they make back into their careers through workshops and acting classes. Marita said it's hard to hold a steady job because actors have to be able to run out to auditions.

"It's exciting because your life could change from one Monday to the next; you could land that job and get that part," she said. "But it's also scary because your never know if you're going to work."

Of course, no one would come to Los Angeles if they didn't know the success stories. Kurpanek was let go from a job in November because a film he was working on was shut down. But he fought his way back and is now an assistant editor for Richard Halsey, who won an Oscar for film editing for "Rocky." Kurpanek also is looking forward to editing the short film "CarJack," which has a $75,000 budget.

He's on his way. But he has some advice for those hoping to find fame and fortune. "The biggest thing is networking. Be nice. Be friendly to everybody and remember people's names," Kurpanek said. "And you have to work for free."

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