Officials with America’s Council for the Creative Economy want to open a training academy for 3-D animation and special effects for television, movies, video games, and mobile applications, and for corporate, scientific, and medical visualizations. Credit: Flickr / Vancouver Film School

San Antonio could become the first city in the United States to host a program that is giving youth in other parts of the world the chance to learn a new skill, join the workforce, and see their names in the credits of blockbuster movies.

Officials with America’s Council for the Creative Economy (ACCE) are currently scouting for locations to open a training site, possibly on San Antonio’s West Side, and seeking funding to get it started. The school would provide training in 3-D animation and special effects for television, movies, video games, and mobile applications, and for corporate, scientific, and medical visualizations. The idea is to connect students to the creative industry here and in Hollywood.

On Tuesday, a local philanthropist and the council’s creative director pitched the program to a group of potential investors, donors, and school district representatives as a way to put San Antonio’s disconnected youth to work.

Bexar County has more than 30,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are “disconnected” – not working or in school, according to estimates based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Nationally, with more than 5.5 million youth deemed disconnected, the cost to taxpayers comes to $93 billion annually  in lost revenues and increased social services, according to Opportunity Nation.

The issue struck a chord with Mark Marion, a retired telecom executive and philanthropist who moved to San Antonio last year. “And I thought maybe there’s some little thing I can do to make a difference,” he said.

Marion partnered with film industry veteran Carlos Arguello, whom he had met at a tech conference, to bring ACCE Academy to San Antonio. 

Born in Nicaragua and raised in Central America, Arguello struggled in school due to dyslexia and later worked his way through art school in the U.S., where he discovered computers. Technology opened doors for him that led to a job with NASA, he said, then later in special effects in the entertainment industry. He retired early and returned to Central America after a successful career working on films such as Fast and Furious, Chronicles of Narnia, and Shrek, often with remote teams based in London and elsewhere.

“But then I realized there was a lot of young people that wanted to work in this industry, that they basically wanted to participate, but they didn’t have the knowledge and they didn’t also know how to get into the industry,” Arguello said. He started a school with 30 students that has grown exponentially into what is now known as ACCE with similar programs in Colombia, Guatemala, Jamaica, and Mexico.

Arguello and Marion are looking to open the nonprofit ACCE Academy in San Antonio and train 150 students in its first year, and 300 the next. They hope to raise $2.8 million, which would cover operating expenses and tuition for 450 students for the first two years.

Tuition is $575 monthly per student, with courses offered 11 months of the year. Arguello said similar programs in the U.S. are offered through some universities, such as Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida, and can cost up to $60,000 a year.

The program would be sustained in future years through tuition funded through federal financial aid, corporation-funded scholarships, and continuous fundraising activity.

Marion said the school could open within three months of securing the funding and he will seek accreditation “starting day one” to ensure the program qualifies for financial aid – and potentially college credits – through Alamo Colleges.

Another source of revenue for the academy could come from an ACCE commercial production studio, which would operate in San Antonio as a for-profit entity sharing in box-office profits.

Students for the ACCE Academy are selected based upon an entrance exam and demonstrated talent in the arts and technology. The program can go from six to 11 months, depending on the student’s abilities.

“What we seek to do early on is to find out what they’re good at and build on that strength [to] create a specialty,” Marion said. “Once you have created that specialty, you can go out and create another one. But the idea is to find the path of least resistance and greatest success – find out what his proclivities are, what his aptitude is, and build on that. And that’s what helps to get these kids up to speed as quickly as possible.”

Arguello said the number of applicants for other ACCE academies has far exceeded available slots. Marion has already begun reaching out to local groups that work with young people.

“We understand that we’re not the only ones that are trying to serve at-risk youth to try to impact that problem, and our position is we will collaborate with all of the players,” he said, including NXT Level Youth Opportunity Center, Say Sí, SA Youth, Joven, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and area school districts.

Wages for ACCE graduates vary depending on the project and skill. It will be “higher than minimum wage,” Marion said. “The beauty is these kids can earn these wages and never have to leave San Antonio.”

The “best and the brightest,” he said, would work in ACCE Studios to work on animated films, the niche they are targeting for the San Antonio studio. Others could be placed in media creation labs locally such as those operated by H-E-B and Frost Bank.

The skills taught through ACCE are in high demand as the streaming market grows at an explosive rate around the world. “The demand for visual content is greater than it’s ever been,” Marion said. “Right now, there are over 700 million people streaming video.

“In 2019, over $100 billion has been invested in digital content creation, and that’s the same amount … invested in the entire U.S. oil industry during the same period. So we’re at a moment now and an inflection point where this is really growing by leaps and bounds.”

“This is an industry we currently don’t have in San Antonio, that we could attract if we had the talent,” said Harriet Helmle, director of client relations at the investing firm Covenant, where Marion and Arguello pitched the program.

Officials and investors in other areas, such as Los Angeles, have asked Marion to bring ACCE to their cities. “Everybody wants this, but seeing the magnitude of the [disconnected youth] problem here has really made me passionate about trying to make a difference,” Marion said. “So we’re trying to see if we can make it work here.”

While they work to find funding for ACCE Academy, Marion and Arguello have been searching for space to operate the program and talking with Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) about possible locations in her Westside district. An invitation to operate at Port San Antonio is on hold, Marion said, until the program grows larger and additional space is needed.

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.