Will Film School Reform Lead to Hollywood Diversity?

Historically, America's universities have prided themselves on developing America's workforce. Don't film programs at these universities owe it to themselves to make it more affordable for those young artists from under-served communities who want to deepen their craft?
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In the 1960s, film school was still a novelty. Even though the University of Southern California introduced the bachelor's degree in film as early as 1932, filmmakers were still by and large beholden to an apprentice system where they learned the ropes until succeeding those that taught them. Needless to say, a bachelor's degree was not necessary to achieve this goal. By the 1960s, however, several prestigious film departments sprouted up, most notably New York University and Cal Arts (founded by someone named Walt Disney). The so-called "Film School Generation" in the United States changed cinema as we know it. Graduates like George Lucas created the modern summer blockbuster while filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola furthered the auteur theory cementing the image of movie directors as modern-day rock stars. Other countries simultaneously created their own incubators for filmmaking talent: Lodz in Poland was founded in 1948, NFTS in the U.K. in 1971, and others in Beijing, Prague, and Australia were created within this same time span.

Today, filmmaking is more accessible then ever due to lower costs in equipment, software and crowdfunding helping to get films produced and distributed. Numerous articles have proclaimed film schools as obsolete. Even filmmakers like Werner Herzog and Robert Rodriguez have stated that film school is an unnecessary pathway into the industry, and some parts of these arguments are correct: film schools - now with exorbitant costs - should be worried about becoming archaic to a generation weaned on DIY content, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

It's important to note that this isn't just a film school problem; it's a problem throughout higher education in America. Universities are pricing themselves at tuition rates that prevent those in lower socio-economic tax brackets from pursuing higher education. While there is still some debate about why, according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, 77% of adults from families in the top income quartile earned a bachelor's degree by the time they turned 24 in 2013; compared to 9% of people from the lowest income bracket. Film schools, just like universities, are now big business. New York Film Academy spends more than $10 million annually in advertising alone. Most film school students even have to fundraise for their own films, separate from their tuition. Then, once you come out of film school, debt is inevitable. So not only does a top film school cost $45,000+ a year, you also have to raise money for a thesis project that isn't covered by tuition and prepare for debt post-graduation. Because of these prices, can you guess what effect this has on the ethnic demographics of most film schools? They still lack diversity. Sixteen percent of USC's entire undergraduate student body is African-American and Hispanic (and 19% of graduate students). So coming out of a graduate film program, what do you get? $200K in loans and a homogeneous group of peers continuing to tell stories from the same point-of-view.

Hollywood agencies have taken notice. Young agent assistants scour through Vimeo's Staff Picks of the Week as thoroughly as they used to attend industry night screenings at film schools. Wanna-be comedians and writers are getting agents off of Vine and Twitter accounts. Kickstarter and Indie Go-Go are now resources for established filmmakers like Zach Braff and Spike Lee. There is an abundance of talent that doesn't see the need for accumulating debt in prestigious film schools. This is being embraced by students from far more diverse backgrounds at a faster rate than film school enrollment. MiTu Network, which exclusively targets Latino audiences, launched on YouTube in May of 2012. By 2013, in less than one year, the video startup had surpassed their one-billionth view. In 2014, they had over 6 billion views. The three founders were all Latino TV industry veterans before this venture. According to the Pew Research Center, African-Americans and Latinos have significantly higher proportional viewership on their cell phones and they are more likely to record a video, and more likely than whites to post a video. A recent study of teens by Variety shows YouTube star KSI -- a British creator of Nigerian descent whose real name is Olajide Olatunji -- above any Hollywood or music star, of a list that included Katy Perry, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo di Caprio. African American YouTube creator and comedian Glozell is the most followed female African American creator on YouTube. She has more subscribers on YouTube than Coldplay, the BBC, and Google's own channel. Shows like Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl, East Los High, Anacostia, and Anyone But Me are becoming successful and turning into avenues worth pursuing for content creators who either can't afford film school or would rather use that capital to produce something on their own.

And still, film is America's #1 creative export. Shouldn't the creators of this content reflect the historic diversity of this country? Historically, America's universities have prided themselves on developing America's workforce. Don't film programs at these universities owe it to themselves to make it more affordable for those young artists from under-served communities who want to deepen their craft? Hollywood has beaten their own chests for years about being "ahead of the curve" on various social issues. There have also been times in history when moving images have changed the overall viewpoint of the larger US population; what if film schools took a cue from their own art form? Loyola Marymount University has partnered with Ghetto Film School in Los Angeles to provide a residential TV Writing summer program where 20 students from diverse backgrounds will live on campus while producing original webisodes. Film schools should follow LMU's lead and begin leading the way by aiming to make their programming less expensive to take advantage of a more diverse pool of talent in those students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who aspire to a college education and cannot afford it.

But there's something to be said about the think-tank atmosphere of a college campus; ideas developed during this age of a young artist's career can be beneficial. As a collaborative art form, it helps to practice working with and become familiar with an assortment of personality types with aesthetic preferences that differ from yours. There's also a delayed gratification that lends itself to the development of a young artist: the patience and lack of immediate success is great training for a business that is subjective by nature and built on benefactors and outside approval. And finally, we all know the statistics: the unemployment rate for those without a bachelor's degree versus college graduates is nearly double. It simply makes sense to go to college to have a chance of a successful life. And while you're there, you might as well pursue an interest you love.

Another benefit of attending film school (as with any college discipline) is that you create a peer network that you have access to for the rest of your career. Some film school advocates would suggest that the connections from your classmates and the alumni network offset the cons of getting a BFA in film. Detractors would argue that this only applies in the cities where the US filmmaking community is highly concentrated (NYC or LA). But even film schools in more remote locations like the Rhode Island School of Design and Florida State have created very successful graduates (Gus Van Sant and Seth MacFarlane - RISD; "It Follows" David Robert Mitchell and "The Maze Runner" director Wes Ball at FSU). Film schools are catching up with the tastes of a newer generation; they have begun prioritizing other forms of storytelling. Web series, video game design, and other assorted digital media now sit next to seminars on the French New Wave in class catalogs across US campuses.

Film school naysayers point out that even with all of the talent that has come from film schools (Jane Campion, Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, not to name hundreds of others), there is an abundance of talent that doesn't come from ivory towers. Pedro Almodovar, Stanley Kubrick, and Christopher Nolan had other jobs before embarking on their film careers. This is simply cherry-picking success stories; you can say that about a plethora of career paths and, for every Quentin Tarantino, there are 10 film geeks who will never be paid to make films for a living. But what if the self-starters populating the Internet could deepen their storytelling skills by collaborating with like-minded, high-achieving artists from vastly different backgrounds? Exploring their craft while having time to debate whether The Bicycle Thief is the definitive Marxist fable? Or take a great humanities elective completely outside of their major to foster their curiosity about the world? Or they could be influenced by a visiting professor and old master like Nicholas Ray, as filmmaker Jim Jarmusch did. Imagine the possibilities of the future of filmmaking if more of these great film schools were these diverse, affordable incubators of our nation's talent. Cheaper tuition to film schools for those from less privileged backgrounds might go a long way to helping diversify America's young filmmakers.

Derrick Cameron is the Artistic Director of Ghetto Film School.

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