EXCLUSIVE: Hollywood’s relationship to people who’ve been on the wrong side of the law is usually limited to using their struggles as plot fodder in police procedurals. From the standpoint of inclusion in the hiring system, Hollywood is mostly closed to them.
A promising program has been slowly bettering the odds. The Universal Filmed Entertainment Group has initiated an innovative effort that offers internships to formerly incarcerated people looking to change their station and gain valuable work skills to sustain careers. Organizers hope other studios and content generators will embrace a program that has offered a lifeline to some who never imagined it possible.
Alyssa Marie and Bryan McCoy are two who have had their lives changed by the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), which provides support and advocacy for the formerly incarcerated, in partnership with the Universal Inclusion Council (UIC), Universal Filmed Entertainment Group (UFEG), and Global Talent Development & Inclusion (GTDI) department (remember these acronyms). This partnership offers those reentering society paid internships and training in film technology, publicity, creative operations, physical production, and theatrical development. There are already enough success stories to indicate the program’s stewards are on to something.
The program began in 2018 and started with three interns. By 2020, it expanded to 17, with six graduating to full-time positions at Universal. Marie and McCoy met most of the strict criteria members must meet before connecting with Universal.
Members need to be in pursuit of an Associate, Bachelor, or Graduate degree at an accredited institution and be able to provide documentation to verify their enrollment; complete 30+ hours of course credit; be authorized to work in the United States without visa sponsorship by NBCUniversal; complete one year in the ARC program; previous internship or work experience, previous volunteer experience within the community. Each candidate is reviewed case-by-case and does not exclude anyone based on their circumstances. However, they must be in good standing with ARC, which means they commit to being drug, gang, and crime-free before walking through the studio doors.
Alyssa Marie gets up every morning and braves the long drive to the lot for her job as post-production coordinator in worldwide creative operations. A decade ago, she never imagined this is where she would end up as someone who was formerly incarcerated, but her journey through the ARC got her here. She heard about ARC through another resident at a halfway house after release from jail, and told me that growing up, her family had access to limited resources. Living in survival mode while struggling with gender identity led to confusion, frustration, and eventually, trouble with the law. Though she didn’t know much about ARC, Alyssa figured there was no harm in finding out more, but when approaching the building, she was hesitant to go inside and talk with anyone due to self-doubt.
“I was constantly asking myself ‘where do I belong?’ Not knowing what I wanted led me into the ARC, where I met Sam Lewis and other great people who were lovely,” said the 25-year-old. “In one way, I’m intimidated, but in another way, there was a lot of relatability there because they knew where I was coming from.”
Interning at Universal taught her how to handle herself like a professional, allowing her to develop hard and soft skills. It also gave her the strength to come out as a trans woman. Now armed with a sense of purpose, her confusion and frustration was alleviated as she began to live her truth.
Alyssa was the first to sit at the intersection of the ARC, UFEG, and GTDI Below-the-Line Traineeship, which gave her the opportunity to work on Jordan Peele’s Nope. It was a major accomplishment to work on a mega-budget movie, and she smiled when reminiscing about the experience.
“On the set of Nope, I was a visual effects PA and had no idea what that meant,” she said laughing. “I was nervous because I was around people that had been doing this their entire life, wondering if they were watching me and judging my work harshly.”
Alyssa was in the pilot cohort of the Traineeship managed by GTDI, which provides on and off-the-job training and mentorship across select below-the-line departments on film projects around the world.
“The partnership seamlessly fits into our mission because we are about creating access and opportunity,” says Janine Jones Clark, EVP of Inclusion – Talent & Content and head of Universal’s GTDI team. “Our mission is to create equity. And when you look at the individuals that go through ARC, whatever their circumstances may be that got them to where they are, everybody deserves a second chance. If you don’t look at things through that equitable lens, you’re just perpetuating the cycle and not allowing them to advance in our industry or elsewhere.”
Working on Nope was a crash course in on-set professionalism and learning new skills. According to Alyssa Marie, some of the highlights included collecting data and understanding panoramic shots.
“It was constantly observing the data wrangler collecting information on every single scene. Learning why we needed to obtain thousands of panoramic shots to scan the ranch where the film took place,” she said. “I’m honored and humbled to have relationships with the pros. It also helped me to understand that I’m also becoming a pro myself, which is mindblowing.”
The access that ARC and the Below-the-Line Traineeship provided helped land her a full-time coordinator position at the company. As Alyssa explained it, being post-production coordinator is a multifaceted job that includes acting as the post-production contact across all phases of production and ensuring partners successfully follow through within approved schedule, technical, and budget parameters.
A full work day for Alyssa includes check priority emails/tasks that need to be inspected for movie trailers going out to MPA. Another element of her job is to watch trailers and TV spots for quality control. With a job like this organization is one of the keys to success with having to invoice for production work, handling expenses for the department and going to mix sessions etc.
Alyssa is optimistic about her future in life and in Hollywood. She’s been able to explore her interest in sound and music and wants to work on her own projects and continue being an advocate for other marginalized groups who want to seek similar career opportunities.
“Life is definitely shifting in the coolest way for me,” said Alyssa. “ I’m super humbled by the direction the universe has placed me. As an advocate, I want to help change that narrative of hardship that people may have around me, or to those in need, and I’m keeping an open mind to new things in life like exploring my interests.”
Bryan McCoy, another ARC intern turned employee, also has a full-time position with Universal in the tech department, and had a similar trajectory to Alyssa Marie in that he sought out the ARC “to participate in whatever would help me survive.”
You see, McCoy had a tough upbringing that led him into the arms of gang culture at 13 years old. By the age of 17, he was arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison. In California, you must serve 85 percent of your sentence for any violent crimes. Producer and ARC founder Scott Budnick, along with lawmakers and activists, pushed for new laws for the sentencing of juveniles. By the time this happened, Bryan had already served most of his time. This was when he first heard about the ARC program, and it set some thoughts in motion.
“I held out hope for changes within the prison system and remained optimistic about my rehabilitation,” Bryan said. He knew ARC was the way, so it was now just a matter of seeing things through.
After getting out, McCoy went to a halfway house, enrolled in college to study programming, and pursued an internship at Universal through the ARC. Bryan explained he was interested in exploring anything in the technological field and was offered a role in the Physical Support Group, which performs many technological tasks, such as setting up WiFi, on film sets.
“The internship flew by, and after the internship I asked, how can I continue? Now, I am full time,” Bryan said with a sense of pride.
His current title is junior application software developer for Universal Pictures Production Technology and the production support group’s (PSG) programming team to support IT Film Production and studio clients, and developing new solutions for production workflows based on NBCU preferred platforms. At the start of his work day, he searches emails to check if anyone needs application support. He prioritizes projects based on the importance level via the ticketing system. He also leads his own projects and/or works with a team to troubleshoot various tech issues.
His team lead, Sherwin Roque (who does not come from a criminal background), was there to guide Bryan during the learning process. Sherwin understood what would be needed to structure his path to victory. You see, Sherwin also started as an NBCU intern and is now senior director of Production Technology at Universal Pictures. He didn’t want to see any setbacks he experienced repeated for Bryan, so he developed his own style of training.
“I gave him subtle expectations to meet, and he exceeded every one and eventually, he got to lead his own projects,” said Sherwin. “If you have a team member, you have to know that that team member is there to help you, and I let him know that, constantly.”
Since I know how the internship affected Bryan professionally, the last question I asked him was how the program affected him personally. For him, it was gratifying to see how it benefited not only him but his family.
“It feels great to be a financial asset to them,” Bryan said smiling. “For a long time, I felt like a burden on everyone, but seeing the joy on my mom’s face lets me know I’m finally doing good things with my life which has helped me develop productive habits and mindsets that nurture my hope for a brighter future.”
As for the future, he’s certain he has one ahead of him. After all he’s been through, hitting rock bottom and from that entering the Hollywood corporate world, he plans to continue paying it forward.
“I intend to continue being passionate about achieving my personal, spiritual, and professional goals so that I can better help my loved ones emotionally, spiritually, and financially. I also want to help inspire others that it’s never too late to pursue our dreams.”
Bryan and Alyssa are outliers in a justice system who managed to find a path to success, but access to programs and services so far is restricted for most. According to the Prison Policy initiative, state and federal governments bear the brunt of spending $182 billion that goes to staffing, and the upkeep of two million Americans that are in prison. Sentencing policies disproportionately affect people of color who make up 67 percent of the penitentiary population, while representing only 37 percent of the overall population in the United States, which is due to racial bias and socioeconomic inequality.
But what happens when someone is actively looking for work after years of confinement? The California Innocence Project mentions the state struggles with keeping recidivism programs alive as funding was stripped over the years, leaving former inmates waiting months, or even years to access services. This lapse in time leaves them susceptible to committing crimes, but ARC has always aimed to bridge this gap.
Sam Lewis, the current CEO of the ARC, was incarcerated for 24 years. He told me there was nothing like this when he was looking for rehabilitation upon release. When he finally got wind of the program’s existence, he quickly joined because he wanted to help others from being in his position when he got out. With all that he has learned while being a part of this he is now in charge. ARC began after Budnick taught a writing class inside a Sylmar Juvenile Hall called Inside Out Writers.
“He learned about the injustices the youth were encountering,” Lewis said. “These kids were coming home without any pathway to redemption, so this organization was founded to alleviate that.”
Scott stepped up and built a team of like-minded people to tackle an issue affecting people who were in the same position as Alyssa and Bryan at one point. A noteworthy aspect of programs like this is they are constantly expanding, requiring a willingness to network and form alliances. Sam explains that when Scott and Universal met and discussed the ARC, they saw the importance of it all, and suggested creating internships for those enrolled in college so they can have an opportunity for career growth. This idea was further endorsed by Donna Langley, UFEG Chairman, who was looking for ways to enhance diversity and inclusion to endeavor to become a fully anti-racist, non-biased company.
Both participants sought different outcomes from their participation in the program. Alyssa was looking for self preservation while Bryan was looking to save his family. But now the question remains: how did their presence impact Universal as a whole? Dwight Caines, Universal’s President of Domestic Marketing, was able to answer that after I asked when they realized there was a need for more inclusion, and how they seek to create a welcoming environment for Alyssa, Bryan, and others like them.
“There’s an interesting realization that action is often motivated by crisis,” said Caines. “George Floyd’s murder led us to take stock of the inhumanity that’s been ignored for too long.”
Building on the industry leading work that Langley and her team were already engaged in, he explained that she looked for ways to enhance diversity and equity in an effort to become a fully inclusive company— a place where people can come to work and leave their biases at the door. They wanted to focus on the people, creators, and promoting partnerships with community-based services. Additionally, they actively searched for organizations to affiliate with. ARC was on their radar, and it was through their partnership that Universal facilitated a welcoming environment for the interns. Dwight expounded on how this was made possible by learning when to identify blind spots.
“How do we recognize unconscious bias to the point where we can stop before we act and then act differently?” Caines emphasized the importance of recognizing these biases and how this allowed ARC to change office culture at Universal, saying, “We need to make sure that people who have made mistakes aren’t judged by the worst mistake that they’ve made in their life.”
As these people entered the corporate world with minimal experience, how did Universal prepare to invite these newcomers into the fold without making them feel inadequate? He mentions:
“Inclusion is when those invited get the chance to contribute, be seen, and show up as their authentic selves,” Dwight said sternly. “They aren’t there to be silent, but to give input that makes the work and the team better. I keep reminding people that invitation and inclusion are two different things.”
Hoai Scott, Universal’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources, confirmed that sentiment when we sat down to discuss the ARC partnership. A major concern when first hearing about this program was how the interns are onboarded to ensure a real sense of psychological safety in the workplace and real belonging and immersion in the company experience. Many places say they want to champion inclusion, but sometimes it’s just lip service. Hoai insists that companywide integration starts with the individual.
“We ask them about their interests and then tailor the experience to their needs. The interns have school, court dates, and meetings with their parole officers, and we choose hiring managers who will be flexible to guarantee their success,” she said confidently. “Someone from operations helps them with their onboarding. Vice Chairman Jimmy Horowitz [also an ARC Board Member] and myself are an extra layer of support and provide mentors to each individual. There is someone at every level to make sure they feel at home here.”
But the support for ARC’s programs and initiatives doesn’t stop with the internship. In 2021, ARC and the Universal Inclusion Council launched the Impact Accelerator Program to leverage Universal’s core strengths, talents and resources as a media company to provide volunteer hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars of pro-bono consulting in order to amplify the ARC’s mission of ending mass incarceration and transforming the criminal justice system so that it is more just and equitable for all.
Recently, Universal and ARC released a public service announcement, developed and produced by the Studio to help change the narrative around those who are system impacted. The Universal Marketing team, Inclusion Council and their agency, The Refinery, co-produced a spot that featured three ARC interns. In addition to the production itself, the Studio threw its weight behind the PSA with a major marketing campaign that kicked off last week across various Universal and NBCUniversal Corporate channels.
Te solution for increasing the practice of second chance hiring can’t be tackled with just a single program or initiative. Like all systemic change, it requires a sustained commitment to progress and willingness to adapt.
“Please put this in print and quote me. All other major networks and studios need to follow suit because NBCUniveral is blazing the pathway,” ARC’s Lewis said passionately. “Five years from now, the rest of the companies will be trying to catch up.”
For Universal, though, real success for second chance hiring is in scalability, and the only way to achieve that is through collaboration with their colleagues across the industry to create a larger network willing to enforce this initiative so that more underrepresented people can have a chance to succeed.
“I want leaders at other studios to go, ‘I got a glimpse of what they’re doing over there. I just want the model. I want the handbook. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel,’” Caines said. “If there’s a leader at another studio, I want them to feel free to call me as their counterpart and say, ‘How are you doing what you’re doing? And can we be on that journey with you?’ That would be amazing for me, because this is not about competition, it’s about community.”