the candler blog

The Value of Film Education Today

Opinion

Two articles crossed my path recently that offer a bleak outlook for life after college. The first is by indie powerhouse producer Ted Hope, A “Career” In Indie Film? Better Have That Second Job Lined Up… The other is from Malcolm Harris in the literary magazine n+1 and features an ominous (if Almodóvaran) headline, Bad Education. His piece is much colder than Hope’s, offering mostly statistical analyses pointing towards a coming implosion of the American higher-education system and admitting an overall erosion of its quality over the last four or so decades. Here’s the crux of it:

If tuition has increased astronomically and the portion of money spent on instruction and student services has fallen, if the (at very least comparative) market value of a degree has dipped and most students can no longer afford to enjoy college as a period of intellectual adventure, then at least one more thing is clear: higher education, for-profit or not, has increasingly become a scam.

Over on Hope’s side, focusing mainly on how aspiring filmmakers should expect to get paid for anything but making films, he proffers these questions:

I think we would have more directors, producers, and writers creating more wonderful work, if we understood better how to earn a living doing one thing while we give our heart and mind to something else entirely. What are the jobs that lend themselves to a second profession on the side? How do people gain the skills that allow them to juggle to careers? What would such a practical curriculum look like?

I wrote about this two-years ago in the post Starting Out in Film, Now What?:

This may seem obvious, but a lot of film schools in the U.S. teach you the basics of many different fields instead of forcing you to master one. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s great to have a wide swath of knowledge as you start out in the world… If you want to find a job within the film industry you will have to hone your knowledge in on one specific aspect of the biz.

In theory, I agree with Hope, whose experience and insight is worth far more than mine. What he leaves out, however, is the cold hard fact that Harris shines a light on: that undergraduate film programs are, by and large, a scam. I believe in film education and I believe in the university model, but universities are now run like corporations and the money they are pulling in isn’t used to attract better faculty. It’s used to attract “better” students.

The goal for large state universities and elite private colleges alike has ceased to be (if it ever was) building well-educated citizens; now they hardly even bother to prepare students to assume their places among the ruling class. Instead we have, in [Marc] Bousquet’s words, “the entrepreneurial urges, vanity, and hobbyhorses of administrators: Digitize the curriculum! Build the best pool/golf course/stadium in the state! Bring more souls to God! Win the all-conference championship!” These expensive projects are all part of another cycle: corporate universities must be competitive in recruiting students who may become rich alumni, so they have to spend on attractive extras, which means they need more revenue, so they need more students paying higher tuition.

In my four years at college, I saw all of the changes that Bousquet describes. Loft-style dorms with luxury amenities, the largest computer lab in the country at that time and a multi-million dollar apartment for the school’s president (2 miles away) were a few steps in the corporatized direction my alma mater took. Meanwhile, our film equipment barely changed from the day I entered to the day I left, even though the industry was shifting, rapidly, to HD tapeless workflows.

If, as Harris suggests, the university system is broken, then isn’t the film school model in just as much disarray? Film programs looks good in a brochure and often attract wealthy students. The university takes the gamble that most of film students will change direction at some point and move to a different discipline, thereby sparing a strain in resources. Also, a student who hits it big in the film industry offers something even better than a donation: celebrity. Having a film program today is simply good business.

But what of the education? It’s important to remember that most of the filmmakers studied in film schools came of age in a time when no such academic programs existed. The truth is that we don’t need film programs at all. Put another way, one can’t practice medicine without having gone to medical school. But to make a film? There is no board that can certify you, no credential that designates you. The study of film, then, must be, to borrow Harris’s phrase, a pursuit of “intellectual adventure.”

Which brings me back to Ted Hope’s point. Learning how to survive while doing something you love is tricky, perhaps harder than can fit in any curriculum. Go to any festival and you will see the filmmakers who sell themselves well enough to either get by or get beer money off of their work. This isn’t a measure of their artistry, but perhaps finding a way to turn film into a paycheck is an art all its own.

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