Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Part 3—Show Business

Part 3—Show Business

There’s No Business Like Show Business

This is part 3 in a series of blog postings answering prospective students' questions about what to look for (and what to avoid) in a film school and how to tell a good school from a less good one. Parts 1 and 2 appear on previous blog pages. —Ray Carney

[Continued from the preceding page] You don’t say if you are asking about film production (filmmaking, directing, and screenwriting) or film studies (criticism, history, analysis, appreciation), so I’ll give an answer that applies to both—or that jumps from one area to the other. I’ll also have to make a lot of generalizations that there are always a few exceptions to. In other words I can only offer you “rules of thumb,” but that is in the nature of the only kind of advice anyone can give without talking to you personally and learning about your exact situation. Please make allowances. 
Let me start with a warning. The first thing you have to guard against, as I already suggested, is falling for the “sales pitch” on the school’s web site or at its “Open House” and “Visiting Day” events. Never, ever forget that you are hearing a sales pitch of the exact same sort as the one a used car salesman would give you. (In fact, since academic events are less regulated than the sales of automobiles, you are probably hearing something that feels free to play even a little looser with the facts than what someone selling you a house or a car would be allowed to tell you.) I have sat through dozens of “Open House” and “Visiting Day” events at own university and, over and over again, heard half-truths, artful shadings of the truth, and (yes I’m sorry to say) outright, knowing misrepresentations—you see how polite I am being? Others might simply call them “barefaced lies”—told to students and their parents in response to questions about course offerings, the quality of their classmates, post-graduation job prospects, and, above all, the accomplishments and abilities of the faculty. 
Listening to a presentation from filmmakers or faculty members in any of the “Communications” professions, presents special problems. You have to keep in mind that most of the people working in film (like most professors of journalism and public relations) are, by virtue of their entire training, experience, and personal inclination, masters at working the PR system to make their accomplishments look bigger and more important than they are. PR pitches are how they raise money to try to make their movies; PR pitches are how they promote their movies; PR pitches are how they compete for awards. They have devoted their lives to making mountains of press releases out of molehills of accomplishment. Trust me—if you were applying to a philosophy or linguistics or biochemistry program, you wouldn’t have the same problem of having to wade through so much PR hype, overstatement, misstatement, and illusion. But in a Communications College, they are the norm. Summary: Be sure to wear your barn boots to all events.
If you ask administrators or faculty members how good the film program is or if it suits your needs, as you yourself observe [in the letter reproduced in “Part 2” of these postings], virtually all of them will tell you it is not only great, but "just right for you," no matter what your particular needs are or what deficiencies the program has. Call it the Goldilocks Rule: Ask any film department member (certainly any other member of the Boston University film program) about almost anything in the program you’re thinking of applying to, and he or she will tell you it is “just right” for your needs. 
Faculty in my department get into big trouble if they actually tell students the truth. I once told a super-star film production applicant who came to me and told me he was torn between attending NYU and Boston University that he was crazy to be torn; he should accept NYU’s offer of admission without a moment’s hesitation. For the record, the student wrote me an email a few months later, telling me how happy he was at NYU and thanking me profusely for giving him good advice, even when, as he well knew, it went against the interests of my own program in snaring a top-ranked student—but what he didn’t know (and I didn't tell him) was that in the interim I had been formally reprimanded administratively by my Dean for “not selling the program.” You mention my now-suppressed B.U. faculty web site in your note. [See the letter to me I print in “Part 2” of the current blog postings.] Well, that was one of the factors cited when Boston University administrators, including the Boston University Provost, the Dean of the College of Communication, and the Chairman of the Department of Film and Television, censored it, shut it down, and made explicit threats (I have them in writing) to destroy my professional reputation by making postings on the internet against me. College and department administrators specifically told me that the candor of my comments might encourage prospective film students to attend another university—or equally bad, might encourage students already at B.U. to major in something other than film. You’ve heard about “turf wars,” I assume. My mortal sin, my unforgiveable academic transgression, on those occasions and others, was to have said nice things to students about other majors, about the potential value of majoring in English or American Studies, for example. Sacre bleu! Holy-moly! Stop that guy! What a crazy thing for a film professor to tell a student!!! Comments of that sort can't be tolerated. They clearly merited punishment according to the people who determine my pay—and take my word for it—financial and bureaucratic punishment was, in fact, administered. 
More recently, I made the mistake of sending my students an email containing links to articles in The New York Times and IndieWire [at IndieWire.com] discussing the weakness of the post-graduation job market for film majors, and about how hard it is to obtain meaningful work as a film graduate. My goal was to console them if they were having trouble getting a job. But that was not how my Dean [Tom Fiedler] received my words. He monitors and attempts to control what faculty (me, in this case!) say and write to their students, and isn’t at all shy about telling the faculty member (me again!) what he thinks—or shy about punishing them administratively (and financially!)—if they say anything that goes “off-script.” He angrily objected to my having sent my students the email—to the point of swearing at me in a memo mocking and criticizing my email. (I’ll leave to your imagination how my pay was affected six months later.) He of course never disputed that the Times and IndieWire articles were accurate (since there was nothing to dispute), but despised and hated the fact that I was not giving film majors the standard happy-face “sales pitch” everyone on the faculty is supposed to be spewing. As far as he is concerned, the job of a faculty member is not to be a truth-teller, but a salesman. I had made the mistake of telling the truth. Shame on me. [His specific comments about my communications with my students and the administrative actions taken against me as a result of what I wrote them are commemorated in an earlier blog posting titled: “How Marketing and Branding Considerations Limit What Teachers Can Tell Their Students—or Suggest That They Read.”]
I’m obviously an exception (in, I hope, every way!). As far as I can tell, other faculty members in my department have gone their entire careers without ever once leveling with the students in any of these ways. In terms of my NYU story in particular, a B.U. faculty member recently bragged to me how he had talked a student out of attending NYU by telling him anything he wanted to hear. Translation: he was knowingly misleading the student, and not only knew what he was doing but bragged about doing it. That's the moral world these folks live in. Move over Mr. Used Car Salesman. At least most of his customers are over the age of 22. My colleagues don't have the problem of dealing with adults, with adult levels of skepticism and sales-resistance. It’s not hard to understand why this happens. Like most other forms of institutional corruption, it’s created by the top (look at my Dean's attitudes toward truth-telling!), and passed down the institution as a set of attitudes, values, and pressures. It's the administrative pressure—and the financial pressure to keep admissions and course enrollments up. The attitude was summed up for me by a memorable exchange with one of my esteemed colleagues who angrily shouted at me in a big meeting that I was “taking food out of [his] baby’s mouth!”—when something I proposed might have had the effect of making the program better but smaller. The good of his baby clearly came ahead of the good of his students. As far as he was concerned, he had made an irrefutable argument. Who in their right mind could ever choose their students over their pay? 
In short, never forget that you have dollar signs on your forehead. The ultimate, unquestioned goal of “Open House” events is to get you to sign on the dotted line. Administrators over me at B.U. openly refer to the process with “sales” metaphors. Students are “customers” looking to “buy,” and faculty and lower-level administrators are in charge of “closing the sale” (i.e., getting tuition dollars out of prospective students’ and parents’ bank accounts and into the university budget). They can be brutally honest about this behind closed doors. You should hear the things I have heard in meeting after meeting. At a place like B.U., a school without a significant endowment, a school that pays its annual expenses by bringing in tuition dollars, money is the main focus of most discussions. And a lot of it comes from tuitions. 
In their obsession with income, schools like Boston University have actually made the situation worse than it has to be (and a million times worse than it is at a school like Princeton or Harvard with a large endowment). In an effort to bring in even more tuition dollars and run academic programs on “sound business principles,” the university President and Provost have appointed a series of non-academics to major academic administrative posts. The idea is to bring in businessmen to run the show and “keep the academics honest.” These senior-level administrators basically don’t trust academics to balance the budget or to put financial values ahead of pedagogical principles. [See " The Two Cultures—The Conflict Between Business Values and the Life of the Mind" in the Spring 2013 blog postings, for more thoughts about the truly lamentable effects of this administrative policy at Boston University.]

           Case in point: My Dean’s entire previous professional career, as far as I can tell, is in the corporate world; my Chairman is also from the world of business (he’s a TV producer—the guy who deals with budgets, schedules, logistics, and payments). Between them, two businessmen, they recommend and make all of the basic hiring, retention, pay, and promotion decisions in my department. Okay. Got that? Ready for a pop quiz? Given their backgrounds and values, what do you think they base their hiring, promotion, and pay decisions on? —A faculty member’s intellectual brilliance? —His or her pedagogical originality? —The intellectual challenge of the faculty member’s courses? —The quality of their creative or scholarly work? The question answers itself once you know the occupational experience of both of these men. Neither of them has either the life experience or the ability to be able to assess the value of the intellectual and creative aspects of a faculty member’s work. Even if they wanted to do that (which they don’t); they wouldn’t know how. Of course, they don’t realize it; but that’s what it is to be blind in some way; you don’t see what you can’t see. 
So what do they do? They look at what courses and subjects enroll the largest number of students and hire and promote faculty members who will put the largest number of fannies in the seats, and “please” the most students—even when it means dumbing down courses, inflating grades, and teaching junk. “Popularity” is what matters. “Market share” is what matters. They have measured value all of their lives by keeping “the customer” happy. If someone like me tells them that there are serious intellectual shortcomings and pedagogical problems, they don’t want to hear it; they yell; they swear; they tell me to shut up; they dock my pay; they tell me to quit if I don’t like what they are doing. [See the spring 2013 blog postings for more than you want to know on their reactions to my suggestions for improvements.]
So let’s turn from mid- and lower-level administrators to faculty members themselves as sources of truth. Even beyond the financial and bureaucratic pressures to “make the sale,” and “put food in my baby’s mouth,” it’s a sad fact of life that faculty who teach in (and administrators who oversee) a second- or third-rate program, a program with major intellectual and pedagogical problems, almost by definition don’t know that their program has the problems it does. If they knew there were problems with courses, they would presumably correct them; if they knew there were problems with personnel, they would presumably get rid of the dead wood and hire smarter and more caring and creative teachers. 
That has important consequences for your visit. If you ask faculty members to talk to you about the program they teach in, you’ll almost never hear anything except how great it is. Not necessarily because they are deliberately lying (though to be sure I’ve heard a lot of that), but because they just can’t see the problems. They’ll be sincere when they tell you how wonderful things are; but they’ll be wrong. Just like 90 percent of the people who drive cars believe they are “above average” drivers, third-rate teachers don’t know they are third-rate. That’s the definition of being third-rate. The fact is that truly exceptional, excellent people are much more likely to see and acknowledge problems with the places they work—and even with their own work—because they have high standards. It’s the mediocrities who will tell you how wonderful their schools are and how they will fulfill all your needs.
So the question becomes how to get beyond business values, the distortions of the PR machine, the financial pressure to “close the sale,” the smugness and imperceptiveness of mediocrity?

Continued in Part 4—“Pretend Filmmakers:

How to Tell a Real Filmmaker from a Fake One”