Don't Make the Grade -- Make the Connection
By Bruce Britt
Is James Petulla the savior of American adult education?
Though some may debate his methods, one thing is certain: Petulla’s radical, yet time-honored approach to teaching could shake higher learning to its unstable core. He is founder and president of Entertainment Connection, a California-based program that applies the old world concept of “externing” — i.e., a learning experience where students receive personal, on-the-job training from a seasoned professional.
An entertainment-oriented vocational program, Entertainment Connection offers students a low-cost, work-intensive way to enter the worlds of radio, TV, film and recording. Petulla’s graduates have been hired at some of the most prestigious companies in the entertainment business, including Universal Studios, ABC, CNN, Sony, MTV, NBC Radio, ESPN and HBO. Entertainment Connection students have worked on projects for renowned artists like director James Cameron (“Titanic”), Wesley Snipes, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Madonna, Nirvana, Garth Brooks, Puff Daddy, David Bowie and countless others.
Moreover, Petulla’s system allows students to acquire real-world knowledge in the studio of their choice in any city or country. His flexible program allows ambitious, industrious students to work part-time, nights or weekends with no prior experience required. In praise of Petulla and his innovative system, television veteran and ABC “20/20” host Hugh Downs recently commented: “It is especially amazing to me the amount of people you have placed in broadcasting jobs all over the country.”
Echoing the sentiments of many Entertainment Connection students, recording engineer Billy Flores says: “Although I am an extern, (Entertainment Connection has) enabled me to work in a top-of-the-line studio with some the music industry’s finest … Don Henley, Brian Wilson and the Rolling Stones.”
Aside from its apparent efficacy, Entertainment Connection also seems like a remarkable bargain and an educational boon. According to Petulla, Entertainment Connection eliminates crowded classrooms, stratospheric tuitions and college courses that often fail to result in gainful employment. In bold contrast, Entertainment Connection students work in every aspect of radio and television broadcasting, music recording, post production, video production, film production, digital and computer animation, special effects and other music, multimedia, and radio and television on-air and behind-the-scenes positions. And though his system caters to the entertainment industry, Petulla claims it could easily apply to most vocations.
“I believe the best teacher is an eminent working professional who is paying the rent by doing the work,” Petulla says. “In my view, schools have become money making endeavors where the student often gets hurt. My system cuts out all the junk — the bureaucracy, the Federal Aid, the US $50,000 tuitions. What I’m doing is breaking the chain of impersonal education. My system goes back to the days of royalty, when a craftsmen shared their knowledge one-on-one with an eager student.”
Petulla’s dim view of vocational education stems from experience. He started his career as a teacher at a now-defunct national broadcasting school where, he claims, he witnessed astounding abuses of power and government funds. “It was all a sales gimmick,” Petulla says. “Prospective students would come to the school, the admissions department would tape their voice and automatically call them the next day to congratulate them on having passed the admissions test. They didn’t even listen to the tape. It was a rude awakening for me.”
Dismayed by his observations, Petulla took note of how American education was failing its students. He now believes vocational schools and colleges are human clearinghouses where students learn in virtual environments that bear little semblance to the real world. Towards his goal of building a better mousetrap, Petulla developed his system of “employer trained alternative education.” Under Petulla’s Entertainment Connection program, students pay for on-the-job training with a professional mentor. What’s more, Petulla’s program can be implemented in any city in any country. Instead of uprooting their lives to attend a college or university, Entertainment Connections conforms to the student’s wishes, needs and lifestyle.
Petulla has even conceived a system of checks and balances where mentors are paid only after their assignment plans are reviewed by the Entertainment Connections staff. As an added incentive, Petulla pays mentors an added bonus if students are hired after completing their studies.
Having helped hundreds of successful and employed students, Petulla now believes his system could make America happier, wealthier and far more efficient and productive. He says the Entertainment Connection system could reduce the number of drones toiling at jobs they hate. It could save the government billions in defaulted student loans. It could revive the venerable art of teaching and may even make age irrelevant. Indeed, though many businesses are likely to turn away older job applicants, Entertainment Connection students are immediately placed in the care of working professionals. In fact, Petulla says many Entertainment Connection students are 40 or older.
“With traditional education, a 40 year-old broadcasting student won’t get past the receptionist,” Petulla says. “With my concept, the industry doesn’t see age. What’s more, the mentor-student system is flexible. It can even work for a slow mentor and a slow student, because they work at their own pace.”
Here’s how Entertainment Connection works: After contacting Petulla, applicants are placed on an initial interview screening schedule. The Entertainment Connection staff calls later to discuss the applicant’s personal goals, ambitions and expectations. If applicants demonstrate the sufficient motivation and desire, then Petulla’s staff arranges meetings between mentors and students in the area or region of the applicant’s choice. Applicants must have the mentor’s approval to be accepted for training.
Derek Koen is a persuasive testament to the power of Petulla’s system. A former mental health technician from Newark, N.J., Koen enrolled with Entertainment Connection in January, 2000. Under the guidance of mentor Lisa Franz, Koen had completed an independent short film and was recently hired at Wesley Snipes’ production company, Amenra Films. Koen has also established his own Los Angeles-based production company, Brigadoon Productions. Most impressive of all, Koen achieved these accomplishments within 8 months of enrolling with Entertainment Connection.
Koen’s rapid ascent into the film world supports what masters like filmmaker George Lucas have claimed all along. According to the “Star Wars” creator: “The most powerful thing in teaching is to be able to have a one-on-one relationship with the student. To be one human being having personal contact with another human being — nothing is more powerful than that.”
Despite his disarming enthusiasm and almost evangelical zeal, Petulla admits some people are suspicious of his system. Sitting in his office overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Petulla comes off like the stereotypical California pitchman — all blue eyes, gleaming teeth and honey-voiced charm. Like Petulla himself, Entertainment Connection seems too simple, sensible and good to be true. But Petulla insists he’s not selling anyone a bill of goods. “I’ve seen first-hand how the educational system is failing students,” he says. “I’m in this business to help people. That’s my sincere motivation.”
Rick Proto is a Entertainment Connection student who was initially suspicious of Petulla. The son of a California car salesman, Proto was a heavy equipment operator until an injury suddenly ended his career. He had planned to use his disability award to attend vocational rehabilitation school, but along the way he discovered Entertainment Connection. “I was somewhat concerned initially, because Entertainment Connection is not your typical school,” Proto says. “But I had a feeling deep inside that Jimi’s school was true to heart. I could tell Jimi was a very sincere guy, and he followed up on everything he promised.”
After meeting with Petulla and a prospective mentor, Proto enrolled with Entertainment Connection. He immediately began externing at a Hollywood production company. Proto now works 14 hour days for little or no pay, yet he’s never been happier. “At the age of 40, I got to start my life over again,” Proto says. “I’m doing something I never really knew I had a passion for — the film industry. I pack each day with as much knowledge and fun as I possibly can. And I stress the word ‘fun.’ Nothing beats the feeling of doing what you love.”
Asked to comment on his Entertainment Connection experience, Proto is downright effusive. “Entertainment Connections is a progressive program that allows people to fulfill their dreams in radio, television, film or recording,” he says. “If you want to get into the entertainment industry, it’s the best way to go. If James Petulla says he’s going to do something for you, he does it. I know he’s always been there for me.”
Apparently, Entertainment Connection is a boon for both mentors and students. To date, mentor Tyrone Dixon has had eight Entertainment Connection students, four of which are gainfully employed in the entertainment industry. His students range in age from 19 to 45 years old. A graduate of the prestigious American Film Institute in Los Angeles, Dixon is now the proud founder and president of Dixon Film Entertainment. He wishes Entertainment Connection was around when he was starting out.
“Had it been around, I would have done Entertainment Connection before I applied to AFI,” Dixon says. “AFI is a respected school that introduced me to the business, but Entertainment Connection offers valuable, on-the-job training. As a Entertainment Connection mentor, I actually get students on a real set and teach them proper structure and formatting that makes for a viable commercial product.”
Though Dixon is a vocal supporter of Entertainment Connection, he says the course requires dedication, hard work and some sacrifice. “Film Connection can be a viable asset to anyone that wants to pursue a career in the film industry,” Dixon says. “If an individual is absolutely sure film is their passion, then Entertainment Connection is an incredible opportunity.”
Brian Hickox concurs with Dixon. The founder and president of Brian Hickox Films Inc., his films have won seven Emmys, a Golden Globe, a George Foster Peabody and 200 film festival awards worldwide. A highly opinionated man, Hickox doesn’t mince words when discussing the current state of American film education. “I find that teachers in other schools are has-beens or never-weres,” Hickox states matter-of-factly. “If professors aren’t constantly attending technical conferences, then they’re teaching students old, outdated technology. The same applies to content. Unless you’re on the front lines talking to networks and studios on a daily basis, you’re not going to know how to prepare students to do a proper pitch. I find the best teacher is somebody who’s on the line doing it.”
Hickox says Petulla’s course gives students the sort of training most colleges don’t provide. What’s more, he says Entertainment Connection helps students decide what entertainment job suits them best. “Students want and need behind-the-scenes experience,” Hickox says. “With on-site training, people are able to determine what capacity they would like to work at. Under Jimi’s system, you could be a production assistant on two shows. That’s almost enough experience to be a teacher at most American film schools.
“Entertainment Connection gives students hands-on, one-on-one integration into the entertainment industry,” Hickox continues. “I don’t know of any other program that does that. After the student pays his tuition, there is a fee paid to the trainer if he decides to hire the student after the externship. That’s a wonderful incentive for the student and the teacher. The student gets meaningful employment and the mentor shares his knowledge and experience. Entertainment Connection is filling a need for pairing enthusiastic students with capable mentors.”
As if to underscore Hickox’s comments, student Derek Koen relates a remarkable Entertainment Connection anecdote. “A lot of people who worked on my short film were film school graduates,” Koen says. “That’s pretty amazing when you consider I’ve only been doing this for eight months. Like the name says, Entertainment Connection can get you connected. Without ever meeting Jimi, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”