November 20, 2013,Â 5:30 a.m.
Director Alexander Payne was greeted like a hometown hero Saturday night — more than 1,500 miles from his native Omaha.
Nearly 300 actors, writers, producers, crew members and students crammed into the Sherry Lansing Theatre on the Paramount Studios lot for a Q&A and screening of Payne’s newly released “Nebraska.”
The Oscar-winning writer and director ofÂ “The Descendants,”“Sideways” and “Election” was the guest speaker at the event, organized by the Nebraska Coast Connection, an unusual support group of Nebraskans who work in the film and TV industry.
The black-and-white film, with its depiction of small-town life in the Cornhusker State, is a point of pride for the group, which includes more than 1,000 people. In the movie,Â Bruce DernÂ plays an aging and acerbic man who travels across the Midwest with his son to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize.
“This movie has such a resonance for us because so many of us grew up in small towns,” said Todd Nelson, the group’s founder and a freelance television producer for CBS. “I’m so proud that [Payne] has introduced Nebraska to the world in a way that isn’t just football andÂ Bruce Springsteen,” who made a best-selling album named after the state.
Billing itself as the “Nebraska mafia of Hollywood,” the Nebraska Coast Connection hosts monthly panel discussions with prominent Nebraskans, who come to talk about their work and offer advice to aspiring writers, directors and actors.
The meetings are typically held at the historic Culver Hotel in the old offices of Culver City founder Harry Culver — born in Milford, Neb.
The state’s roots in Hollywood run deep.
“We have Harold Lloyd, Montgomery Cliff, Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda,Â Dick CavettÂ — we’re a proud bunch,” Payne said.
Payne has been a longtime supporter of the Connection, coaxing cast and crew members from his films to be guest speakers and help Nebraska newcomers find careers and make contacts.
“I’m sure other states have some organizations, but I bet none of them are as large and well organized as the Nebraska Coast Connection,” Payne said. “It feels like being home.”
Nelson, aÂ University of NebraskaÂ graduate, launched the first Hollywood salon in 1995 with the help of the University of Nebraska Foundation, initially as a way to help his fellow home-staters network.
“Every job I had I would meet other Nebraskans, and none of them knew each other,” said Nelson, whose company Braska Films makes promos for CBS Studios International. “I thought if we could just band together, there must be 20 or 30 of us. Our first event, we had 200 people.”
The group’s network includes such high-profile figures asÂ Marg Helgenberger, star of CBS’Â “CSI”Â and “Intelligence”; Nick D’Agosto of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”; Tim Schlattmann, writer and producer of Showtime’sÂ “Dexter”; and Jon Bokenkamp, writer and creator of NBC’sÂ “The Blacklist.”
Bokenkamp, who was a guest of the group last month, said the Nebraska Coast Connection gave an early boost to his career. He was fresh out of film school at USC and parking cars for a living when he met Nelson at one of the group’s events. The two hailed from the small city of Kearney, Neb., and quickly became friends.
Nelson encouraged Bokenkamp to enter a screenwriting contest, which he won, launching his career.
“That would have never happened had I not bumped into Todd and got to know him through this group,” Bokenkamp said. “It’s people from home who get you and understand what it’s like to be in a place like Nebraska, but also what it’s like to leave a place like Nebraska and explore the entertainment industry, which can be a very scary thing.”
Bokenkamp’s fellow Kearney native, Schlattmann, was a guest in fall 2011.
“So much of show business is networking, so when you have a group that has a common bond, it’s fantastic,” Schlattmann said. “I’ve certainly recommended people for casting that I’ve met through Connection and keep people in mind for future projects.”