Film Education: High School for Cinema Studies in South Bronx

April 12, 2009–The South Bronx launches the first public high school dedicated to film studies. The Cinema School will open its doors in a new building on the grounds of Monroe High School in September.

The program, which will follow a conservatory-style curriculum, has drawn funding from JPMorgan Chase Foundation.

It benefits from the support of major directors like Spike Jonze, Catherine Hardwicke, Spike Lee, David O. Russell, and Whit Stillman.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a supporter of the school, whose inaugural class will consist of 80 freshman students.

The school was founded by former social worker Joe Hall and indie producer Rachael Horovitz (HBO’s “Grey Gardens,” “About Schmidt”).

The Cinema School is in part an outgrowth of the nonprofit Ghetto Film School org, a film training program Hall founded in the Bronx in 2000. Hall’s program and students attracted industry attention, including Horovitz, who wanted to see the program expand into an accredited, year-round high school.

Evan Shapiro, president of the IFC and Sundance Channel cablers, serves as chairman of Ghetto Film School’s board and is also involved in the Cinema School.

Horovitz recruited a deep-pocketed benefactor for the school in JPMorgan Chase Foundation veep Gayle Jennings-O’Byrne, who deals with the bank’s arts and culture portfolio. Jennings-O’Byrne persuaded the Foundation to donate $110,000 to the Ghetto Film School. Of that donation, $35,000 went to fund the planning of the high school, and $75,000 bankrolled the Ghetto Film School’s final project, shot by students on location in Uganda.

The Cinema School, in new buildings on the campus of Monroe High, is part of a push by the N.Y. City schools to open more facilities with special curriculum focusing on specific disciplines.

Katharine Oliver, head of the Mayor’s Film Office, noted that the Cinema School would feed one of New York’s growth industries, film and TV production, and would help open doors for students who might otherwise struggle to break into the film biz.

The city has helped Hall and Horovitz secure funding for amenities like extra editing equipment that a standard public-school budget doesn’t provide. Horovitz says she wants the school to be able to afford better film screening equipment by the time classes start in September.

The filmmakers themselves won’t be teaching full course loads, but many have donated time and resources to the school simply because they like the idea.

Peter Becker, president of cineaste home-video distribution Criterion Collection, is helping the school’s teachers design the curriculum, or how to create a film literacy program that doesn’t feel like homework.

Hall and Ghetto Film School attracted the attention of helmer David O. Russell, and his support became a gateway to other high-profile supporters.

Whit Stillman said that the Cinema School program would go a long way toward ensuring that younger generations have an understanding of film history.