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Mon 2 Jun

A Fighting Chance: Nonprofit Group Leads Veterans into Film and TV Careers

For those who've served us, Veterans in Film & Television is an organization connecting service members to help their careers thrive. 

The idea was simple: Create an organization to support current and former military members working in film and television. Two years ago, Army paratrooper Kyle Hausmann-Stokes and Marine Mike Dowling envisioned a network that could facilitate communication between veterans and employers, offer networking opportunities, and support continuing education through mentorship.

Veterans in Film & Television is a nonprofit organization that brings together both current and former military veterans who work in all aspects of the film and television industries and has quickly seen its membership rise in the two years since its inception. VFT is supported by a board of directors that includes DreamWorks Animation executive Tim Norman and award-winning producer Karen Kraft, as well as celebrity ambassadors including actor, comedian, and retired Marine Rob Riggle.

Get In Media spoke with Kyle Hausmann-Stokes to learn about the beginnings of VFT and what the organization offers its members. 

Get In Media: How did the idea for VFT come about? How did both you and Mike Dowling wind up partnering up to make this organization happen?

Kyle Hausmann-Stokes: VFT was founded in February 2012, and I would say, maybe two months prior to that, Mike and I had become acquaintances. He actually reached out to me. He had found my website online. I was just graduating from the film school at US, and I’d just returned from Iraq a few years earlier. Mike was also in Iraq at roughly the same time that I was. He was in the Marine Corps and I was in the Army. I was just making a lot of veteran content. I was making a lot of veteran films. I was, I think, maybe one of the few veteran filmmakers of my generation. At least one of the few that was putting himself out there on the Internet. Mike had found that and reached out and said, “Hey, maybe we could work together,” and, “What advice would you have in terms of breaking into the industry?” Mike is an actor, and I’m a writer-director, so we weren’t exactly doing the same thing. But it was just this initial, out-of-the-blue email.

We ended up bumping into one each other a few weeks later at a networking event here in Los Angeles and we got to meet each other in person and decided to grab lunch a few days later. That’s kind of where the idea came about and spawned. Mike had been wanting to do something for a while. I think he wasn’t quite sure what or how, but I think he wanted to get some kind of group going and seeing what kind of other folks would be interested. I was very interested. Coming out of film school at USC being a military veteran, I was also looking for a way to create something, to organize. Everything in the military is like, we’re a brother and a sisterhood, and when you get out of the military you’re very much isolated. It was kind of an easy decision from there, where it was just us and a few other veterans that we had come to know. We had both recently become members of the American Legion and the VFW.

GIM: Did you find a lot of people were looking for something like this? Because, in a way, it sort of operates like a social network, but for people interested in the industry, whether they’re already in it or looking to get involved. So did you find that it was easy for people to gravitate toward this one central hub with common interests?

KHS: Yeah, I guess you could say that it was like a social network and, yeah, it was definitely easy to attract attention. There had not been an organization like this and VFT was fulfilling a demand that existed in the entertainment industry of veterans at the time.

Our first meeting was just a few dozen veterans and our next one a month later was probably around 50 or 60, and ever since then every month we meet and at every event we have 100 to 200 people attend, at minimum. So there’s been a lot of enthusiasm to join. I think we’re nearing 2,000 members now. I think we’re somewhere around 1,600 or 1,700 members now. All across the country in different states.

We created a website and a Facebook group that people can join and eventually we got to the point where we’re checking people’s credentials to verify that they were in fact military veterans so that the entertainment industry, if they were to find someone through VFT, we could let them know. Because it’s hard for civilians to know what’s a veteran, what’s not. What most people don’t know a ton about the military, so it’s one of the things we recently implemented. The short answer to your question is that there’s a ton of enthusiasm and it was just the right time for it to come about.

GIM: Does that shared experience of having served in the armed forces help these men and women connect on this new professional level, whether it’s advice or looking for a job opportunity?

KHS: Absolutely. The military is a culture, right? It’s a culture unlike any other within the U.S. or within the world, and only people that have lived and existed in that culture are truly going to understand. Unlike other things like a college you attended or some other way that you may have things in common with other people, the military is an all-consuming experience. It really is hard. It’s tough to transition from that back into the civilian world. It’s almost twofold.

Yes, veterans are going to be many times more likely to help out a fellow veteran within the entertainment industry because they have that shared experience, but also on a reintegration, emotional, cathartic level. We are also there to help each other or get back to being a civilian, a non-military person. So it’s twofold. From the facade, it may seem just like a professional networking and educational organization, but a lot of our members … I’d wager to say most of our members also get a lot out of it from general community and just having a place to fit in. Especially in the entertainment industry, which is big and mean and it can chew you up and spit you out.

GIM: Does having that shoulder of having fellow veterans around help in combating some of the issues that veterans deal with in terms of coming back and trying to find work. Unemployment, especially among veterans, is still incredibly high. I think at last check it was around 7 percent with disability and job training and what not. Does this help push that along where other aspects of society and the workforce aren’t really capable or willing to deal with those issues?

KHS: Yes. We’re not a general veteran advocacy organization. We’re very focused on just film and television. But I think that the veteran unemployment rate is proportional to that of the rest of the country. There are actually a lot of misconceptions about veterans. How many are homeless, how many are unemployed. I think it’s tragic, and I think it gets more attention because people don’t like the idea that people who have volunteered to serve their country  come back and they’re unemployed or homeless. But if you compare veterans to the country as a whole, the percentage of veterans that actually are employed and not homeless is about the same.

Again that’s getting a little bit outside of our purview, but as a veteran myself, it is kind of frustrating every time you see in the news about that. We don’t like when people say that when they think of a veteran they think, “unemployed.” You think “homeless.” But we’re actually not. The percentage of men and women that have served in the armed forces now, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, is less than 1 percent. Of that very small, small group of people, there’s never been such a small group of Americans that have served in the military, so when you take that very small group and so many of them are homeless, yeah, the percentage might be high, but proportionally.

Anyway, the reason I bring that up is that one of the things we’re trying to do with VFT is to shift the perception of veterans through film and television. There are organizations out there like [Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America] and Got Your 6. I would definitely look into them. There’s a whole lot of good stuff on their website and they’re a bigger umbrella organization that organizes a lot of other veteran organizations. A lot of veteran service organizations are concerned with different veteran issues.

VFT isn’t necessarily concerned with, “We’re going to help rehabilitate veterans with [post-traumatic stress disorder] or [traumatic brain injuries] or employment skills per se.” We do it via film and television. VFT is a group of artists that just happened to be military veterans, and that’s one of the ways we like to position ourselves. We hope that the entertainment industry, whether that be a studio, production company, or whoever, they’re not going to hire our members because, “Oh, you’re a veteran, we should feel bad. We’d really like to give you a chance.” Our members are talented. They’re creative and I’m sure you can relate from the veterans you have there at Full Sail. So I would say that the way we most directly want to help in terms of the veteran issues that you’re talking about, the big ones that people hear about like homelessness and joblessness and PTSD, the way that we go about that with VFT is through our art. It’s through the films that we’re in, through the TV shows that our members might appear or work on or the commercials we make, through the scripts that we write. That’s the way that we are helping to shift perceptions and debunk a lot of those misconceptions.

GIM: Operating as a nonprofit, obviously you need incredible support to make everything come together. What have you found the reaction to be from both Hollywood and the industry at large and different branches of the military when they’re approached with what you’re doing in any type of assistance or support you may be asking for?

KHS: We’ve been met with nothing but support and enthusiasm the entire way and I think that’s a big reason for our very rapid success. The entertainment industry, looking specifically at them, we like to say that they’re very veteran friendly right now, and it’s true! Not only do I think that the entertainment industry loosely mimics the rest of the country, and obviously this is a good time for veterans, the country is very veteran friendly, and so too with the entertainment industry. Especially after Vietnam, people don’t feel great about the way those veterans were received and now with Iraq and Afghanistan and a lot of us combat vets coming home, I think that everyone is very keen that it’s handled properly, that every opportunity is afforded to veterans. In that sense it’s been incredible.

Every major studio you can think of that we’ve interfaced with has been incredibly supportive. You mentioned being a nonprofit takes a lot of resources, and we had no idea. Mike and I are not nonprofit administrators. I’m a director. He’s an actor. So we’ve had to create VFT with a lot of on-the-job training and on spare time. It’s not like we quit our jobs and said, “Hey, let’s open up this office and bring in all of these administrators.” This is as grassroots as it gets. It’s really been tough in that regard. It’s been about a million times more work than I ever could have anticipated, but that’s been reciprocated by, for example, NBCUniversal. Huge network, right? Once they caught wind of VFT, they said, “We want to get involved. We want to help.” One of the ways was that at one of our early meetings the president and CEO of NBCUniversal, Ron Meyer, he’s a former Marine, we had him come in. He was our keynote speaker at one of our events, and that’s a guy that any organization across the country would like to get. We’ve had job fairs with organizations like CAA, the huge agency out here, they’ve been so enthusiastic and supportive that they’ve sent their HR reps to a lot of our events. And they’ve hired people! I know that three VFT members have been hired at CAA directly as a result of those HR people coming to our meetings.

In terms of military, we’ve met with [Army Chief of Staff] General Odierno. So we’ve definitely met with our fair share of Department of Defense folks who have been incredibly supportive. I think they really like to know that when military members start transitioning out that they have places to go other than the cliché places. Like, “Oh, you’re in the military. You can be a security guard or a police officer.” Not that there’s anything wrong with those, especially for those of us that have been artists before we even joined the military. It’s unfortunate and sometimes it’s hard to break out of that pigeonhole and say, “I’m a lot more than just someone who is good at following orders and I can stack boxes at the grocery store all day.”

I think that because VFT is an organization of creatives, a lot of folks are really enthusiastic about that. And you know what, man? It’s hard. It’s been hard for the entertainment industry to know how to access veterans, you know? A lot of them don’t have a ton of information. “I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want to offend them. What if they’re looking for someone from the Army but we’re really doing Marines and we don’t know the difference?” Everybody out of respect doesn’t want to say or do the wrong thing, so they’ve really had to rely heavily on individuals. Technical advisors, or other people here and there to help navigate, “OK, we want to do a show about the military. We want to do a show about veterans, but we want to make sure we get it right.”

Don’t get me wrong, there are companies out there that are doing that, but to our knowledge, there hasn’t been a nonprofit kind of conduit organization that existed, and that’s really what we hope and are aiming for VFT to be. A big organization, almost like a guild, like the PGA or DGA, where anything related, film, TV, media, any project that involves military veterans in any way, we want to provide a quality and ideally cost-free resource to the industry to make sure that veterans are engaged or employed and are properly represented.

GIM: Just in the logistics of it, how does a veteran go about in getting connected and enrolled into VFT to be able to use the resources that are at hand?

KHS: That’s a great question. Any person that has served in the military and is either working in the entertainment industry to aspires to can join VFT for free. They would go about that by going to our website, VFTLA.org, and there’s a big join button. You fill out a brief application that asks you a little bit about your basic information. We’ll collect basic information about what you did in the military and also about what it is that you’re doing now in the entertainment industry, or what you want to do. Then we also allow you to upload photos and videos in terms of your reel, your headshots, whatever it is. Also your bio and résumé. Then, ultimately, like I mentioned before, we’ll collect your discharge document, which is called a DD-214, which essentially lets us know that you did serve in the military, that you did what you say you did, and that you weren’t dishonorably discharged. It only takes a few minutes to complete the application, and then it comes to us. We review it to make sure everything is legit, and then you get approved, and you’re a member of VFT.

What does membership mean? It means that you have a profile within the VFT Veteran Directory. We have this online veteran directory where all of our members have these free profiles where everything that they entered in, whatever information that they choose, is presented so that if you are looking to hire a veteran there at Full Sail as a camera operator, for example, you can go to the veteran directory. You can say you want to look for veterans in Florida that have experience at camera and apply the filter and bam; you’re presented with veterans. You can get in touch with those veterans through the system.

At this point it’s all free. We provide it for free to veterans and to those people that want to get in touch with those veterans. On top of that, once you’re a member of ours, you’ll get invited to our private Facebook group. It’s closed off to the public, so it’s only for our members, and we post a ton of incredible opportunities in there every day, as do our members. Our members use the Facebook group, so it’s incredibly active. People say, “I have an audition coming up, who can run sides with me?” or, “Hey, I’m casting a commercial tomorrow,” or whatever it is. It’s a marketplace.

Becoming a VFT member also gets you on our exclusive email list and you get invited to our monthly events that we hold. We hold one in Los Angeles and we hold one in New York every month in which we have a keynote speaker from the industry. We’ve had huge celebrities like Adam Driver, Stan Lee, Gale Ann Hurd, Rob Riggle, Scott Waugh, etc. We expose our members to these great people and provide events for members to showcase their recent work like commercials that they were in, short films, whatever it is. We have a pitch fest in which our members can get up in front of the entire VFTcommunity that’s at the event and pitch their idea. “Hey, I want to do a short film about this. I’m looking for crew or actors or an executive producer.” And then after the event we have a two- to three-hour networking mixer, so people can interact with the keynote guest. They can interact with some of the HR or industry reps that are coming to the event.

Ultimately, what I think people love the most is that they get to interact with each other. It’s great. There have been so many amazing projects that have come out of people that have just met at a VFT meeting. “Oh, you were in the Marine Corps? I was in the Coast Guard. Let’s do this film together.” We hear about that stuff all the time and it just happens from veterans getting together. It’s really great. 

- See more at: http://getinmedia.com/articles/film-tv-careers/fighting-chance-nonprofit...

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