Travolta's Livermore film production group adds new focus
By Lou Fancher
The group that brought summer film camps for children with autism to Saint Mary's College and intensive production workshops for adults with disabilities in Livermore has launched a venture that aims to secure jobs for people whose status in society might otherwise leave them to watch reruns on television all day or find themselves involved in activities lacking creativity and income.
Inclusion Films, the nonprofit organization led by actor, writer and director Joey Travolta (John Travolta's brother) has teamed up with Lafayette-based Futures Explored Inc., a nonprofit group that provides community and employment training services to adults with developmental disabilities, to form Futures Films.The company is a natural outgrowth of Travolta's Practical Film & Media Workshops, based in Livermore, which is itself an expansion of summer film camps for young people with autism that Travolta has held on the Saint Mary's College campus in Moraga since 2006.
"Kids were aging out of the camps," says Travolta. "We thought, 'What's next for them?' "
Travolta said the employment landscape for adults with developmental disabilities has been shifting. Media coverage that sheds light on the talents of people in the autism spectrum has helped move the needle in positive directions for kids younger than 18, but real change has been slow for adults with autism, he says.Launching the intensive 21-week Practical Workshop two years ago was a key component for achieving his ultimate goal: placing adults with disabilities into mainstream, real-time employment.
"Honestly, it's helping that I'm finding more and more opportunities for students to step up to the production company and develop, edit, write and shoot films," he says.
The proof of his claim comes from the NBA. Travolta expects that two recent projects will bring greater visibility to the filmmaking talent he says comes quickly to people with autism after adequate training.
"We gave internships to some of our guys and women from the workshop to cut a piece in Sacramento with the Kings. We did anther one with the Detroit Pistons. (Media company) Hooplaha jumped onboard, and we got them a paid gig. Now, other basketball teams that we pitched paid us to do stories. Work breeds more work," he says.
Planning to approach professional sports teams beyond basketball, Travolta says, "It's not a big ask. It's just us doing a story instead of them doing it."
Hester Wagner, director of Futures Films and the Practical Workshops, says that adults with disabilities benefit from employment in obvious ways -- boosting independence is a big one -- but the community also gains from Futures Films' collaborative structure.
In part because the company developed out of the workshop's deliberate process that pairs Hollywood professionals with adults whose talents self-select them for specific filmmaking jobs, there's more one-on-one oversight and forethought than might happen in a standard production company.
"The workshop helps each individual find their talents, whether it is editing, camera and lighting work, sound, writing or other things. We build those talents through focused training and participation in the teamwork that's required to produce great work. Thanks to the workshop headquarters, Futures Films is equipped with the latest editing suites, a Black Magic camera package and a 1,200-square-foot sound stage," she says.
Livermore Valley Film Commission Director Jeanie Haigh said a promotional video Future Films created for the commission is "clear on the message" and "a quality production, professionally done."
The back-and-forth consultations during the project included on-set changes and reshoots: "All of which are difficult and can frustrate someone not willing to take the customer's opinions and timing into account." Haigh says she appreciated Futures Films' can-do flexibility.
Another client, Valerie Carter, had a similar experience working with Future Films on a promo video for GraceSigns, a nonprofit that develops mobile sign language and reading apps.
"What makes Futures Films so outstanding is their commitment to working with individuals with disabilities as well as their commitment to excellence," Carter says.
"They have compassion and understanding about people that other film companies just may not have. They get it. They see people, all people ... as just people."
Travolta now has his eyes set on the next frontier. "We're looking at a Netflix-like situation. We want to build a network where we can create content and make value. Whether or not our employees become filmmakers isn't the end goal. Teaching them life and job skills they can use anywhere is."