The state's film industry supports more than 14,000 direct and indirect jobs, with an average salary of $63,000 per year, according to the Louisiana Film & Entertainment Association. 

A New Orleans-based nonprofit is offering training to connect disadvantaged teens to those jobs.

The COOL Cooperative offers interactive educational programs and first-hand experiences in the local film scene, and in the process, it also helps the teens hone their creative talents and foster relationships with professionals and their peers.

“You see kids these days consuming entertainment on their smartphones and tablets,” said John Swider, COOL Cooperative's executive director. “We teach our students how to be creators and not just consumers of the digital content.”

The program participants, known as COOL Creators, run a YouTube channel called COOLfeed.

“Whenever we make a film, we post it on our YouTube channel,” Swider explained. “That way, their friends can see it.”   

They also post skits from rehearsal or class.

On a recent Wednesday evening at the Behrman Park Gym in Algiers, two students sat across from one another in an acting drill. They remained stone-faced while swapped cringe-worthy riddles. Another student filmed them while a director offered suggestions.

Swider described the scene as a “dad's joke competition, where two students tell the worst jokes they can think of, to see who could crack a smile last.”

“We like to loosen things up,” he said, noting that the crew develops short films for COOLfeed, along with lighthearted comedy sketches that will garner clicks from people surfing the internet.

During the activity, Davon Burnett, a 10th-grader at Landry-Walker College and Career Preparatory High School, manned the camera, which was perched on a tripod.

“I was trying to keep the focus right, making sure it isn't too dark or too bright, and making sure the camera's real steady,” said Burnett, who enjoys acting but envisions himself as an assistant director, or even a filmmaker.

“When I get older, I can use this as a pathway to follow, if I don't chose to be a doctor or something,” he said.

The more complex of the COOLfeed clips showcase a documentary about Landry-Walker’s marching band and an interview with Academy Award-winner Richard Dreyfuss.

In addition to updating COOLfeed, the students visit movie sets and observe the production process. While there, they create behind-the-scenes videos and interview the key players, including the actors and the director.  

They recently traveled to the “The True Don Quixote” set in Chalmette, where they interviewed producers Jason Waggenspack and Trey Burvant; and the Mandeville set for “Santa Jaws” — a movie made by Baton Rouge's Active Entertainment for the Syfy (Sci-Fi) channel.

Swider also invites industry experts to chat with his students during class. Past guest speakers include drone pilots, producers, acting coaches, special effects pros.

COOL Cooperative also participates in two local film fests: The New Orleans Film Festival and the 48-Hour Film Project. 

For the New Orleans Film Festival, produced by the New Orleans Film Society, the students collaborate with a local director to create a short film, which they later enter into the festival. “Alienated” was the title of their 2018 film.

Besides airing the movie for a live audience, the students interview celebrities on the red carpet. This year, they had the opportunity to speak with actor Rob Reiner, actress Laura Cayouette, filmmaker Ben Zeitlin, and actor Jason Mitchell, among other well-respected industry professionals.

During the 48-Hour Film Project, the COOL Creators are challenged to write, shoot, edit and deliver a film within a weekend. This year, the group’s finished product “Fire!” placed second, ahead of nearly 50 film entries.

Rondrick Davis, a 10th-grader at Landry-Walker, won the award for best supporting actor for his role in “Fire!” — a five-minute film about a struggling dancer.

“I was awestruck when I found out — surprised,” said Davis, adding that he’d eventually like to work in New Orleans as either an actor or a cameraman.

While Davis’ experience in the COOL Cooperative is helping him prepare for a career in Hollywood South, it’s also giving him the chance to hang out with like-minded people.

“We all have fun. We learn about each other. We cry; we laugh; we do all that stuff here,” Davis said. “We are a big family.”

And that family continues to grow.

Swider and his colleagues are spreading the word about COOL Cooperative by visiting local schools to tell students about the film industry and the available careers within it.

“If they’re interested, they come to the program. If they like it, they stay on. Then what happens from there is they tell their friends,” Swider said. “Next thing you know, you have six or seven students, because that's their peer group, and they all like movies or they all want to make their content into reality.”

He’s currently helping the oldest group of COOL Creators — 11th-graders — prepare for college or a more immediate job in the film industry.

“By the time they finish with us, they should be able to walk onto any campus or any movie set and be good to go,” Swider said.  

His next step is to introduce the COOL Cooperative program to young public library patrons.

“A lot of the students in our program, they don't have a lot of opportunities in life, just because of geography,”  Swider said. “We're going to stay with the kids we work with and become a resource for them to lead a better life. That's our goal.”