Indie Cinema Forces: The Proliferation of Film schools

The film schools that have sprung up all over the country produce a large number of ambitious filmmakers eager to take advantage of the new opportunitiess. Driven by a desire to communicate with images, most graduates insist that money is not the prime motivation for choosing a film career. Perceiving movies as the medium of their generation, young directors are encouraged by the prestige of indies which have made it easier for them to catch the industry's eye.

After decades of struggles to establish their validity and identity, the nation's top film schools are enjoying an unprecedented boom. Currently, hundreds of film programs in the U.S. offer a wide range of production courses as well as critical studies. Schools in New York and Los Angeles have the added advantage of proximity to the film and television industries. As more graduates are landing jobs, more applicants are clamoring for admission to schools.

There are two major ways for breaking into the film industry: Through film school or on the job training, working your way up through the ranks. Given the intense competition for jobs, aspiring filmmakers hope that a degree will give them the edge. Many aspirants would rather go to school than invest the years it takes to work their way up. Schools offer a short-cut into the industry, and prestigious ones are preferred because of their link to Hollywood. In 1992, 72 percent of first-time directors were graduates of film schools, compared with 35 percent in 1980. By 2000, over 80 percent of all new directors will have gone to school. Not surprisingly, a survey posing the question, “Should you go to film school if you want to get into Hollywood” found that those who went to school think filmmakers should go, and those who didn't, think it unnecessary.

Radical changes in the entertainment industry reverberated in schools during the 1970s. When the studio system, previously the de-facto academy for filmmakers, was disintegrating, schools began to fill the void, gearing themselves more and more towards feature films. A generation ago, before names like Spielberg or Scorsese made their mark, formal schooling was seen as a liability. The old-guard who had risen through the system perceived film students as wise know-it-alls with “weird” ideas about art. But nowadays, a school pedigree is not only respectable but a legitimate path for a film career.

In 1996, U.S. News and World Report ranked the top five film schools: USC tied with NYU as the top school (with 4.6 score), followed by AFI and UCLA (each 4.00) and California Institute of the Arts (3.80). Rivalry among the big schools is fierce and the competition among students to get into them increasingly tougher. Technical resources for instruction are available at community colleges, but the most desirable asset offered by major schools is prestige.

One of the oldest programs, USC boasts that each year since 1950, at least one of its graduates has been nominated for an Academy Award, and ten out of the 20 top-grossing films have USC alumni in key creative positions. Ironically, Spielberg (who has a building named after him) was rejected by USC due to bad grades. “Standards were so high,” Spielberg once mused, “that many of today's finest filmmakers were unable to attend.”

Concerned that students leave the program with degrees but no jobs, USC's Dean Elizabeth Daley bridged the gap by hiring Larry Auerbach, a former William Morris agent, to help ease transition into the industry–reportedly, 75% of USC graduates walk into Hollywood jobs. John Singleton is a cult hero among USC students, not only for directing a successful movie, Boyz N' the Hood, but for making it without “selling out.”

By graduation time, most students have made at least one film of their own and have worked on several others. Film school output is prodigious, with thousands of shorts produced every year. The hope is that somewhere in those thousands, genuine talent lurks. The film community is like a small town: Word about promising directors spreads quickly. Film schools make it their business to display their best to the industry through various channels. Successful films make it to regional or national contests, such as the one sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and regional festivals. Good student films find their way to film festivals, some dedicated entirely to shorts. At the Sundance Film Festival, about half of the short films in competition are made by students.

NYU, with an illustrious alumni list including Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Susan Seidelman, Martin Brest, has moved to the forefront in the last two decades. The emphasis is on production, not on theory; students arrive expecting to make movies. Of the hundred of applicants to NYU's Film School, the 5 percent accepted have to pay over $15,000 in tuition for the first year, then an additional $40,000 to $100,000 to finance the required projects over the three-year program. Attending film school is an expensive proposition, costing over $100,000 for a three-year stint.

Funding for student films comes from grants, loans, family and credit cards. Actors often provide free services, a practice that the Screen Actors Guild dislikes but tolerates. Sometimes students are able to sign up well-known actors, tempted by the high-quality of writing and the relatively short shooting schedules. Most students start out with ambitions to direct but later become producers or executives. Only a small percentage actually get to direct a feature within a decade after graduation, a fact that forces schools both to prepare students for disappointment and to encourage more commercially-oriented films.

UCLA's film program started in 1947 and initially concentrated on nonfiction and experimental film. But under pressure to increase its connection to the industry, UCLA has undergone major changes. Columbia has also reexamined its approach to education, with a sharper eye to providing its students better employment prospects. Film schools operate under constant fear of losing touch with the industry for which they ostensibly train students.

Most film schools have changed, allowing more hands-on training and actual moviemaking into their curricula. They try helping students get a leg-up in the business, from hosting job fairs to signing first-look contracts with agencies. Encouraging students to show their work publicly and interact with agents and executives, NYU sponsors the annual Haig Manoogian Screening in L.A. and lends its support to international festivals.

Agencies are always searching for new talent and, like major league scouts, they are looking for early signs. While student films are fertile ground, agents often ask students if they have a script; smart students will have a finished script in hand. Consensus holds that two solid scripts can lead to a directing job on the third.

The industry, both mainstream and independent, uses schools as development pools, providing them scholarships and new equipment. All the major schools have developed strategies to tap industry money, and are becoming mired in a debate about the proper relationships between Hollywood and the academe. Schools are intensely involved in examining their educational philosophy, specifically the relationship between theory and praxis. The line between student filmmaking and professional careers has blurred, aided by Hollywood's appetite for “product” and abetted by the schools themselves. The big schools promote their students aggressively, but problems persist: Does early success by Hollywood standards stunt a filmmaker's creativity Film schools are a place to experiment, but the message doesn't always come down that way.

Schools have traditionally seen themselves as “safe” places where students can pursue personal visions. Some schools “protect” their students from the taint of careerism by encouraging them to make films without commercial considerations. Student's projects may be their only opportunity to exercise freedom of expression without economic constraints, without bowing to audience tastes, without compromising their beliefs. At the same time, they also know that their films will be screened publicly and that the guests will include Hollywood power brokers.

Top schools are courted by the Hollywood studios eager to sign “first-look” deals with them. Studios would grant money to the program in exchange for an exclusive first crack at students' films. Faculties are split on this idea; it crystallizes the academic vs. professionals dilemma. Professors worry that students are producing commercial films just to fit the studio mold.

The debate over the value of film school continues. Perhaps the greatest value is affording filmmakers the opportunity to take artistic chances. “It's about doing,” said Gillian Armstrong, who attended film school in Australia before making My Brilliant Career, “you rarely in the professional world have the chance to express yourself as an individual.” Director Emir Kusturica (Underground), who teaches at Columbia, is concerned about the focus at some schools on preparing students for the industry. For him, movies are first and foremost art, and students may “lose their religion” in their preoccupation with commerce.

Film education has glamour, but it is also one of the more trouble-fraught corners of American universities. Costs are rising, competitive pressures are fierce, and contentious debates flare about ethics and educational mission. Schools have become a powerful force for rejuvenating Hollywood–a kind of laboratory for the industry. Yet, critics claim that by moving closer to industry, schools have made it increasingly difficult to distinguish deal-hungry would-be filmmakers from young investment bankers.

There are also those convinced that being a good filmmaker is more a matter of natural talent. Schools can shore up the weak parts, but the ability to move the camera and get good performances may be something more instinctive. Often schools seem hard-pressed to describe the difference between their students' work and that of filmmakers who came up through the ranks.

Still, the recent growth in film schools is a testament to their acceptance as a legitimate path into the industry. Despite growing success, only a small number of school graduates hit the big time. Half of graduates from the big schools work in the industry after graduation. About one-third of USC's annual graduates get full-time film work, often as low-paid script readers, one-third may work part-time, and the rest probably won't go anywhere. Schools can't guarantee jobs, but they brag about their alumni's employment rates, carefully pointing out that their graduates are working in “some aspect” of film. However, this success rate may have little to do with anything taught in schools. By choosing the top of an already talented crop, schools may just be selecting people likely to succeed even without the benefit of formal education.

Yet despite the controversies, film schools have become the dominant way to get into the industry. The small core of top schools is beginning to “institutionalize” access to movie and TV work–much as schools have become the valves that admit (or shut out) talent seeking entry to the medical or legal professions. Unprecedented success in placing graduates in the industry reaffirms the prestige of top schools.

Film schools' control over access is problematic: Burgeoning cost has made it tougher for bootstrap directors to compile a sample work without institutional support. There is a growing fear that the top schools are restricted to a small, homogenous group–many of whom have already attended ivy league colleges and can afford the financial burden of schooling. Not surprisingly, prestigious schools serve predominantly white, male, middle-class students, with the percentage of ethnic minorities quite small.