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Debbie Heimowitz UC Berkeley grad Debbie Heimowitz at her summer office at Disney Studios. (Charles Herlevic photos)

Disney internship offers Berkeley grad a path to kids' programming

- Debbie Heimowitz, who graduated in May from UC Berkeley with a degree in Film Studies, is spending a magical summer learning the art and business of children's television programming.

The 22-year-old Heimowitz recently began an internship with Disney Channel Studios in Los Angeles, which oversees the development of new programming for the popular cable network. Having spent the better part of her life looking for creative ways to work with kids, Heimowitz believes that the Disney internship will be the launching point for a career in developing children's programming. Her goal is to one day open a production company to create a higher quality of educational entertainment for middle-school aged children.

The internship, sponsored by the nonprofit Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation, is considered one of the most prestigious in the entertainment industry, with nearly a thousand applicants for a mere 30 spots. The competition is fierce, with each of the winners getting to work for eight weeks in high profile studios and production companies around the Los Angeles area in areas such as costume design, animation, and game show production. Just being chosen as one of a hundred finalists is something that applicants can highlight on their resumes.

The Wonderful World of Disney

Heimowitz works on the top floor of the Disney offices in a high-rise overlooking downtown Burbank. Inside, it's Disney everywhere you look. Stepping out of the elevator, visitors are greeted by an open-armed Mickey Mouse billboard and a life-size figurine of a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger. Posters of the latest hit shows - including "Kim Possible" and "Lizzy McGuire" - cover the walls of the offices, while a wealth of fan mail is piled upon a desk, waiting to be sorted.

"This is the perfect bridge from college to work" says Heimowitz, whose previous experience had been mostly in the arena of film and video production. "The internship here is all development. I get to see how and why they hire certain writers and directors, and how they decide which talent is going to be good."

Heimowitz is already being put to work, having screened casting tapes for the upcoming season of "The Power Rangers," as well as beginning work on a database to track new show development. In addition to the standard internship tasks of sorting mail and dubbing tapes, she will be sitting in on test-pilot shows while taking notes for directors, as well as reading scripts and giving feedback.

"A screenwriting class I took taught by Mira Koppel at Berkeley was the best thing to prepare me for being here," notes Heimowitz, who herself penned a feature-length screenplay while in college. "When reading scripts here now, I have a better idea of what to look for."

The 30 students who are chosen for the internship stay tightly connected, often venturing out together in groups for dinner or just to see the sights. This has helped to ease Heimowitz's transition to the L.A. area, which initially was a little overwhelming.

The importance of outreach

Being at Disney isn't Heimowitz's first exposure to working in children's entertainment. While a sophomore at Castro Valley High School, Heimowitz began writing, producing and directing plays, starring children from her synagogue. Her productions, which included the parodies "Peter Panstein" and "The Wizard of Oy," were a hit, and helped to spark her enthusiasm for show business.

Debbie Heimowitz
Debbie Heimowitz

Sidebar: More about the financially imperiled ArtsBridge program
 

It was during Heimowitz's freshman year at UC Santa Barbara (she transferred to Berkeley after two years at Santa Barbara) that she became involved with ArtsBridge, an outreach program that brings the arts into low-performing schools. At UC Berkeley, Heimowitz continued her involved with ArtsBridge, working with children of all ages, from second-graders to high school students. Her video projects ranged in themes, from teaching fractions to drug diversion, with a strong focus on helping kids to better understand and appreciate different forms of media.

For her ArtsBridge project this year, Heimowitz worked with a sixth-grade class at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley. With the goal of turning part of the class curricula into a video production of a "TV show," the kids chose to adapt "The Library Card," a Jerry Spinelli novel they'd been assigned to read. Collectively, the children, the teacher, and Heimowitz wrote a script based on the book, made storyboards, cast the show, and shot the video, which Heimowitz hopes to show to the executives at Disney.

"ArtsBridge is creative and helps kids to learn and grow. It's an outlet that lets them be the voice of the media, rather than sitting back passively and being told what they should look like and what they should be doing," says Heimowitz.

Earlier this year, Heimowitz was chosen to speak at the national ArtsBridge conference in Irvine, where she met students from all over the country who were involved in bringing the arts into public schools. But with massive funding cuts looming, the California ArtsBridge program could face statewide elimination in 2003-04, which is unsettling to Heimowitz.

"I don't think I'd have chosen this career path if it wasn't for ArtsBridge. It's valuable on so many levels," she says. "It helps college students decide how they want to pursue their art and whether they want to go into teaching, it helps teachers with overcrowded classrooms, and it allows children to experience art even when there's no funding for it in their schools."

Summers around the world

In addition to ArtsBridge, Heimowitz stayed extremely active during her time in college, balancing outreach work, academics, and extracurricular activities. At Berkeley, she taught a De-Cal class on "Rent: The Musical" and helped to produce a collaborative feature film called "Security" in a class taught by renowned independent filmmaker Rob Nilsson.

"Cal has an infinite amount of opportunities, and if you seek these things out, you can have amazing experiences," says Heimowitz. "Sometimes there wasn't enough time in the day to do everything I wanted to do."

Heimowitz has spent the better part of the last two summers traveling both domestically and abroad to work with children. Last summer, she landed a job as a videographer at a boarding school in Switzerland, which involved creating a video yearbook and shooting a documentary of kids who had come from all over the world to go to school. The experience opened Heimowitz's eyes to the global influence of the U.S. media, and the need for more international production and programming for kids.

"I was working with kids from all over - Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Japan. This really interested me in how kids are affected internationally by media, especially American media," says Heimowitz, who would like to work abroad one day to create a more globally-minded form of children's programming.

Also active in the Jewish community, Heimowitz worked in Ohio as a Steven Spielberg Dramatic Arts Fellow two years ago, serving as camp director to a thousand children. This involved teaching Judaism in theatre and directing the kids in two musicals that she'd written, an experience that Heimowitz calls "amazing."

"What comes next?"

With no guarantee that she will find an industry job following her summer here, Heimowitz is keeping her options open, and imagines that she might go on to graduate school or look for work teaching children's theatre.

But despite the uncertainty of her future, Heimowitz already appreciates the intangibles of working in the Disney office. "One of the most valuable things about being here is talking to the people who work here and learning about how they got to where they are now," she says.

Heimowitz is learning both the pros and cons of working in the entertainment industry, which include long, but rewarding days. She is excited about spending the rest of the summer at Disney. "I'm so happy that I'm here. I feel like I'm getting to use all my previous experience in working with kids, and I'm also learning about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into children's programming."