Film School Dreams Versus Job-Market Realities

By Robert Marich
   Sept. 5, 2013-I’ve always been amused—and somewhat dismayed—that film schools are so production- and history-centric in their curricula. Web pages and brochures use photos of earnest young people peering through camera lenses—often presenting lads who are reminiscent of young Spielbergs!
   It strikes me as more dream than reality, because production jobs that are pictured are scarce. Consider that a college education
Will Students Pay $40,000/year For This In the Future?
is not needed for most production jobs below the film director and camera crew.
   The usual fanciful cinema school pitch may not work much longer as evidenced by President Obama’s call for students to evaluate college from a practical standpoint. “We want to rate them on who’s offering the best value, so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck,” Obama said recently in a major address on reining in costs for higher education.
   With tuitions and student debt skyrocketing, expect students and government loan programs to back away from tuition for esoteric studies with little prospect of remuneration. This is a distant storm heading to the film schools focused narrowly on production, film curating and cinema history/philosophy. Students, parents and funders like the federal government used routinely to pay for such education, but the signs are they won’t in the future.
   College should also prepare cinema students for jobs in marketing, talent representation, entertainment finance and management/producing. Those jobs aren't arty, but they represent good-paying white-collar employment usually filled by college graduates.They also can be stepping stones to creative jobs in film. One traditional film school segment that is certainly appropriate for college-level instruction is screen writing, since it requires sophisticated literary skills. Screen writing jobs aren't shrinking.
   Film marketing is particularly fertile for college study since the quantity of movies and other high-quality video is mushrooming. So the challenge is to maximize revenue by marshalling consumers' attention in the increasingly-fragmented marketplace for entertainment. Also consider this: two of the three most recent heads of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (which confers the Oscars) are movie marketing executives who didn’t make films in their careers.
   As for traditional film-school job sectors in a slump, paying gigs as film critics are drying up at an alarming rate in media, since everyone is now a critic online. For students who aspire to be professors teaching cinema from an academic perspective (such as Italian or feminist film), the number of those teaching posts focused on cinema history will likely shrink. With the growing emphasis on the practical, expect that teaching jobs will shift to multimedia--and with a tilt to technical skills.
   Some argue that the indie-film sector will absorb graduates with arty expertise, but the indie-film business is smallish, hardscrabble and--since it's always short of money--isn't shopping for film philosophers.
   Prospective film students would be wise to insist on a complete picture of a cinema school's track record in propelling graduates to success: what is the percentage of grads working in their chosen field? Do not be satisfied with anecdotal placements such as “one of our grads from four years ago worked on Movie X." The cinema school may have graduated more than 100 students since then. What about the rest?
   I think years ago students and parents were less discerning because a college graduate could segue into other high-paying fields like sales or finance, if not landing one of the few plum film jobs. With the sour economy, those collateral jobs are now scarce too and everyone knows this fallback is diminished.
   If students and parents were more discerning, they’d notice that the film-production equipment pictured in college marketing materials that I see is rather primitive. Why pay $40,000 a year in college tuition to use production equipment that couldn’t even make a decent-looking TV commercial for a local car dealer?
   When I lecture at film schools, I advise students get well-rounded educations by devoting themselves to academics. When they graduate, they need to be “educated” to land high-paying jobs in the media biz.
   If students have a hankering to make a film now, that’s fine. Quit school and make the dream. There’s no point in shortchanging classes to make a film when they are paying all that tuition.
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