Making the Grade: A Primer for Considering Nonfiction Training Programs


Documentary film winners David Aristizabal of the USC (left), Rachel Loube of the School of Visual Arts (center) and Daniel Kowhler of Elon University prior to the 40th Annual Student Academy Awards this past June in Beverly Hills. Photo: Matt Petit / A.M.P.A.S.

Since the early 1980s, I have been examining and revisiting the subject of film education and training in numerous publications. In my article about documentary training programs that appeared in the September-October 2004 issue of Documentary magazine, I referenced a report in Daily Variety that stated that ten feature-length documentaries released theatrically since 1991 had grossed over $15 million globally. This figure did not include IMAX films or concert films, nor did it reflect television/cable, home video/DVD sales and downloads. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, released that year, would end  up grossing $222 million worldwide ($119 million in North America), becoming the highest grossing non-IMAX documentary of all time.

In the years since that article, 13 documentaries have grossed more than $15 million dollars globally. The big shift overall has been the growth of reality programs and other semi-nonfiction programs on television, cable and the Internet. The other major development is that thousands of independent documentaries are being made annually and the overall quality of production is improving.

With the economy slowly recovering and the fiction film business in a slow-motion decline, more and more filmmakers and celebrities are making documentaries. Perhaps it's the coolness factor of the filmmakers, or the impact of such works as Kirby Dick's The Invisible War changing the way the military is dealing with sexual abuse. It continues to feel like documentarians are the journalists (or the public-interest lawyers) of today, and the ever-decreasing cost of cameras and editing gear make filmmaking more accessible.

New film/video production training programs continue to surface and fade, and there are far more schools offering programs in documentary production than ever. However, the disconnect between these programs and the business continues, for the most part.

Despite the promising signs of growth and prominence in the professional documentary-making community, the barriers to entry are huge:

  • There is a serious lack of funding for productions at all budget levels.
  • There is a huge disconnect between the kind of nonfiction films that filmmakers want to make and what is being funded.
  • The documentary training programs are more out of sync with the industry than the fiction training programs.
  • The cost of graduate (and undergraduate) degrees make paying back loans difficult.
  • Students lack many skill sets that make them targets as easy hires, and entry-level positions pay terrible wages, for the most part.  The "exceptional" graduate might find a job, but for most, this is not the case.
  • Few programs provide students with meaningful internship opportunities, which would allow real-life training experiences prior to graduation.
  • PBS and other nonprofits have been hurt by the economy, making entry-level paying jobs even more difficult to obtain.
  • The same negative factors that have affected the newspaper, magazine, music and television industries are now impacting the film industry. The shifting economic models now call for cheaper productions and works-for-hire (for a single documentary), which pushes out the middle-level staff people. Organizational structures are now flatter, with fewer levels of managers.
  • The networks and cablers, for the most part, are not buying one-off documentaries, so the market for these works is limited. They offer few opportunities for students or recent graduates.

The Student Academy Awards and America's Top Documentary Training Programs

I have chosen to focus on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Student Academy Awards and the schools that the winning filmmakers have represented over the past 13 years as a criterion for assessing top documentary training programs in the United States.

For 40 years, AMPAS  has been selecting the top student films in four categories from American college students. For this article, I focused on the winners in the documentary category (AMPAS awards Gold, Silver and Bronze Medals to the top three films) over the past 14 years.  The faculty at many of the programs has been pretty stable. The judging is consistent from year to year, and the Los Angeles home-court advantage of UCLA, USC and the other local schools does not appear to have affected the results. Only one of the local programs has won any documentary awards in this period. Finally, if a program is not represented in this period, one must ask, "Why?" The Academy standard for documentary awards in its Oscar competition is globally recognized. The student competition is national, and students who have what they believe are competitive documentaries enter them.  

I believe the Academy results are a function of the student and his/her mentoring/teaching. Having seven programs win 11 of 14 first places suggests that these programs are doing a lot of things right. If one assumes that all programs were equal then the results would be a far more random distribution of winners. This has never been the case with the Academy student program. Finally, I understand that none of the seven schools look at past film works in selecting their students. They don't audition the students. They look at their grades, class ranks, letters of recommendation, etc. It's not like getting into a music or art program where a portfolio of past work is required. So, being a solid student is clearly important.

Having personally mentored some first-time filmmakers to Oscars nominations (and a win), I think it can be said, It's the teaching, it's the selection of the subject or content of the work and, finally, it is the filmmaking that matters. But it is also the talent, personality, energy level and level of determination of the student. These criteria should also be part of the selection process, but they are not, for nearly all of the programs. A personal or self-directed interview should be a critical part of the application process. It's not just smarts (or grades) or talent that make for a successful filmmaker; people skills are really important.

Moreover, despite the prestige of a Student Academy Award associated with documentary training programs, most of them are out of touch with the industry; they are not providing the skill-sets the students need to succeed in the business. I have interviewed many of the AMPAS documentary award winners, and most are clueless about marketing, distribution, their next steps in the field, and even how to get their films into festivals and markets and sold to broadcast and cable companies. The undergraduate programs seem to be missing the targets completely; graduate programs, while better, are, with a few exceptions, also off-target. Students need to know both how to make powerful works and how to market themselves.

Exhibit I : Top Performing Schools at Student Academy Awards: 2000-2013

This research is based on the schools’ performance in terms of the Student Academy Awards in the documentary program. Stanford and UC Berkeley are the standouts with nine and six awards each. Columbia and USC with four each, and the programs at American University, NYU with three each. In addition, University of Texas at Austin earned first and second place honors in 2001 and 2010, respectively.

Note: Eleven other programs earned one medal each, while none of the undergraduate programs received more than one award.

Tier 1: The Top Programs

Stanford University School of Humanities and Sciences--MFA Program in Documentary Film
(Total awards: 9. Gold Medals (first place): 2; Silver Medals (second place): 3; Bronze Medals (third place): 4)

UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Program
(Total Honors: 6. Gold Medals: 3; Silver Medals: 3)

Tier 2: Outstanding Programs

Columbia University School of the Arts
(Total awards: 4: Gold Medals: 1; Silver Medals: 2; Bronze Medals: 1)

USC School of Cinematic Arts
(Total awards: 4: Gold Medals: 2; Bronze Medals: 2)

Tier 3: Worth Considering

American University School of Communication Film and Media Arts Program
(Total awards: 3: Gold Medals: 1; Silver Medals: 1; Bronze Medals: 1)

NYU Graduate Film Program
(Total awards: 3. Gold Medals: 1; Silver Medals: 2)

University of Texas-Austin College of Communication
(Total awards: Gold Medal: 1; Silver Medal: 1)

 

Guide to Selecting and Evaluating Undergraduate, Graduate and Professional Documentary Training Programs

Before selecting a college, university or professional program, you might want to ask the following questions as a way of evaluating and comparing film programs:

1) Cost: What does the program cost? What does the tuition cover? How much financial aid is available? What kinds of loans—low-interest and high-interest bank loans—are available? What are the work-study programs? Beware of non-subsidized high-interest loans; they are really expensive and unforgiving.

2) Time: How many classes do you need, and how much time will it take to receive a degree or a certificate? Is it a two- or three-year program? How many students in the program are full-time and part-time?

3) Courses and Degrees: On the undergraduate level, a BFA, BA and BS are all pretty much interchangeable; on the graduate level, an MFA has far more value than an MA or MS. The MFA is a terminal degree, and graduates with this degree can teach in college and university film programs. Many non-university professional programs give a certificate or other piece of paper with the completion of course work. For the most part, these do not qualify the holder to teach at the college level. MFA degrees in film production can be earned in two years; however, three years is considered the normal time it takes to earn this degree. If the degree is awarded in less than three years, ask if graduates of the program are teaching. Contact one or more and talk about the program's perceived value within the academic community, if you are considering earning an MFA as a teaching credential.

4) Film and Video Facilities: In considering a degree program, it's worth visiting the school to check out facilities. Some programs have state-of-the-art cameras, stages, audio and editing equipment and world-class physical facilities, while other programs don't have enough editing bays to handle student needs. Ask students about the amount and quality of the equipment, its maintenance, hours of operation for post facilities, screening rooms, graphics, etc.

5) Faculty: How many faculty members are full time? Part time? It's preferable if faculty members are full time and available to participate in the program. Also, faculty should have teaching and film school experience. There is a need for the programs to balance professional academics with professional filmmakers.

6) Faculty Working in the Industry: How many on the faculty are working in the documentary field? What kinds of films are they making? Who is producing them? Are there current award-winning (Oscars, Emmys, etc.) faculty teaching? Are they involved with professional media arts organizations, including the motion picture and television academies? Do faculty members attend markets like Cannes, MIPDoc, Sunnyside of the Doc, RealScreen, etc.? While great teaching is critical to a program's success, programs with faculty who are working in the field can offer paid entry-level positions on their projects. More importantly, they know what is going on in the field and can mentor students and help students find jobs, sell projects and get meetings with potential funders.

7) Internships: Internships are critical to help students move into the industry. Working at networks, studios, television stations or production companies is vital to finding full-time employment upon graduation. Ask about the nature and kinds of internships available to students. Do they pay? Are they with companies that specialize in the field you want to work in after you graduate? For programs not located in production centers like Los Angeles or New York, seek out internships in cities that have a documentary industry such as Chicago, San Francisco, etc., or at least with filmmakers that have a strong reputation. For example, working in Walpole, New Hampshire, on a Ken Burns project would be a great experience for any student. Internships need to provide training; being a gofer, digitizer or logger, or rolling calls, should not be the only work you do on an internship. You need to develop skill sets that make it possible for you to do a job. What financial aid is available to students who are doing internships?

8) Nature of the Classes: Learning how to use a specific piece of gear is useful, but it does not make for a great program; the equipment is always changing. Classes need to teach the aesthetics of our field, not just the craft. While craft is important, knowing documentary film history and understanding what makes a great film are even more important—learning how to evaluate your work (and the work of others), structure and shoot scenes, select materials to document, etc.

Very few documentary training programs provide students with the business skill sets to survive, let alone the critical, historical and artistic skill sets to make powerful works. Learning how to produce, write proposals and grant applications, prepare packages for pitching and funding, develop business plans, distribute and market is far more important than learning how to use a camera or an editing program.

Programs need a varied faculty to teach, mentor and provide professional training. Programs headed and run by professionals may be rich in classes on "how to," but weak in classes about the "art" and the long history of documentary. Programs run by academics and former pros may be totally disconnected from the industry. Academic and career diversity on a program's faculty is important for students to have a rich experience.

9) The Portfolio Work: Making a great final film-school film should be your goal if you want to be a director, cinematographer, editor or producer. Many of the portfolio films are out of sync with what the industry and nontheatrical markets are producing, acquiring and distributing, and what the film, television, cable and professional industries are honoring in terms of awards. It's not the budget or the technology that's important in a student film, but how compelling and moving it is. The Student Academy Awards and College Television Awards are dominated by a handful of schools. Clearly, these schools are doing something right, so focus on the programs where student work is winning major awards, and when you talk to the students, find out which faculty members are making a difference. It's not the program as much as the instruction.

10) Location: There is much to be said about going to a film school located in a market where there are jobs. While this is optimal, it's really expensive to live in these cities and be a student at the same time. Consider going to the best school that accepts you, at a tuition level you can afford, that has a strong internship program in the city where you want to live after you graduate. Going to school in China, for example, won’t give you a local network to connect to if you’re going to move to Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco after graduation.

Note: This is the fourth revision of this article, which was previously published in the September-October 2004 and Fall 2009 issues of Documentary.

Mitchell W. Block produced the Oscar and multi-Emmy Award nominated documentary Poster Girl, which also received the IDA Best Short Documentary Award in 2011, is an executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning Carrier, a 10-hour documentary series and companion feature he conceived and co-created. The series aired on PBS in 2008 and has aired globally on National Geographic channels. His distribution company, Direct Cinema Limited, has handled many documentaries and shorts, including over 60 Oscar nominees and winners. He has been teaching independent producing in the Peter Stark Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts since 1992, and he consults and teaches worldwide on a variety of documentary and fiction projects. Block can be reached at mwblock@aol.com, or visit his blog at http://docunomics.blogspot.com/. ©2013, mwblock, All Rights Reserved

 

 

Exhibit II:   List of AMPAS winners 2000 to 2013

Title

Filmmaker

College

Year

Rank

Dying Green

Ellen Tripler

American U

2012

2

A Place to Land

Lauren DeAngelis

American U

2009

3

As We Forgive

Laura Waters Hinson

American U

2008

1

Lost Country

Heather Burky

Art Institute of Jacksonville

2012

3

Rediscovering Pape

Maria Royo

City College NY

2010

2

Vera Klement : Blunt Edge

Wonjung Bae

Columbia College, Chicago

2011

1

The Last Mermaids

Liz Chase

Columbia University

2009

1

The Wait

Cassandra Lazaire, Kelly Asmuth

Columbia University

2009

2

Unattached

J.J. Adler

Columbia University

2008

2

Lumo

Jorgen S. Perlmutt, Nelson Walker III

Columbia University

2007

3

Left Behind

Christof Putzel

Conn. College

2003

1

Win or Lose

Daniel Koehler

Elon U

2013

3

Moving House

Pin Pin Tan

Northwestern U

2002

1

Hiro: A Story of Japanese Internment

Keiko Wright  BFA

NYU

2012

1

Ladies of the Land

Megan Thompson BFA

NYU

2007

2

Family Values

Eva Saks  MFA

NYU

2002

2

Three Beauties

Mak Hossain

Purdue U

2006

3

Between Two Fires

Douglas Noel Smith

Regent University

2000

3

Listen

Kimby Caplan

SMU

2005

3

Imaginary Circumstances

Anthony Weeks

Stanford University

2011

2

Sin País (Without Country)

Theo Rigby

Stanford University

2011

3

Dreams Awake (Suena Despierto)

Kevin Gordon & Rebekah Meredit

Stanford University

2010

3

Cross Your Eyes Keep Them Wide

Ben Wu

Stanford University

2007

1

Unhitched

Erin Hudso, Ben Wu

Stanford University

2005

2

Those Who Trespass

Renee Fischer

Stanford University

2003

3

Revolutions Per Minute

Thomas Burns

Stanford University

2002

3

XXXY

Porter Gale, Laleh Soomekh

Stanford University

2001

1

Slender Existence

Laura C. Murray

Stanford University

2000

2

Every Tuesday: A Portrait of The New Yorker Cartoonists

Rachel Loube

SVA

2013

2

Cuba: Illogical Temple

David Pittock, Lindsey Kealy

U of Nebraska, Lincoln

2004

3

Yizkor (Remembrance)

Ruth Fertig

U of Texas, Austin

2010

1

Green

Laura Dunn

U of Texas, Austin

2001

2

Reporter Zero

Carrie Lozano

UC Berkeley

2006

1

The Women's Kingdom

Xiaoli Zhou

UC Berkeley

2006

2

The Life of Kevin Carter

Dan Krauss-Academy Award Nom

UC Berkeley

2005

1

Cheerleader

Kimberlee Bassford

UC Berkeley

2004

1

When The Storm Came

Shilpi Grupta

UC Berkeley

2004

2

Indiana Aria

Elizabeth Pollock

UC Berkeley

2003

2

A Second Chance

David Aristizabal

USC

2013

1

If a Body Meet a Body

Brian Davis

USC

2008

3

Undesirables

Marianna Yarovskaya

USC

2001

3

Iron Ladies

Kennedy Wheatley

USC

2000

1

 

Tags: