Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Part 4—Pretend Filmmakers

Part 4—Pretend Filmmakers

How to Tell a Real Filmmaker from a Fake One

This is part 4 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, 2, and 3 appear on previous blog pages. —Ray Carney
A post-script: The information below is important, but please note that there is a second, more recently added page,"Youth, Beauty, Idealism, Hopes, Dreams," that discusses serious deficiencies in the Boston University College of Communication Department of Film and Television screenwriting and film production programs in particular in even more detail than they are dealt with on this page. It is available in the right-hand menu under the listings for April 2015 or by clicking on this link

[Continued from the preceding page] ... 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?
The first thing to do is to look at the actual, proven accomplishments of the faculty. Are the teachers in the film program you are considering attending intellectually alive and artistically creative—or are they brain-dead? There’s one sure way to tell for a production program and another for a film studies program. And in both cases they are things you can factually verify, independently of the hype and distortions of the PR machine and the self-reports of faculty members. You’ll have to do a little homework, but think of it in terms of being paid fifty or a hundred thousand dollars for an hour or two of your time (since that’s the amount you’ll save by avoiding a school with a zombie film production or film studies faculty). 
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I'll deal with the film production faculty first. Here’s all you have to do in terms of checking out production teachers, packed into a single sentence:
Check that every single film production or screenwriting faculty member has not only written or directed (and preferably both written and directed—the separation of the two tasks in American filmmaking and academic film programs is an outdated, moribund legacy of the very worst of Hollywood's corporate practices. left over in my own backward-looking outdated Boston University film program) but actually released three or four (or more) feature-length films, either documentary or fiction, that have had real commercial runs of at least a few days in a regular, commercial movie theater in New York City. Nothing else counts. Trust me, I know what I am talking about. (And this is not at all difficult to verify, fortunately. You can check if any movie ever made had a run in New York simply by Googling "New York Times" and the name of the film or filmmaker, since the New York Times reviews every single film that is released and plays in New York City, without exception. That's their policy. Even the trashiest, most God-awful, slasher/exploitation film is guaranteed a review in the New York Times if it plays in a commercial movie theater in New York City. 
I’ve written the preceding so that every phrase matters. Let me take them up one at a time:
First, you are looking for a large number of faculty who have written and/or directed films. They are the only faculty who really matter in a film production program. No one else should even be allowed on the teaching faculty. (Boston University is full of non-filmmaking "filmmakers," pretend filmmakers in other words, but make sure the school you apply to isn't!) Producers are businessmen; technicians are technicians; editors are editors. The physics department doesn’t let the lab technicians teach and advise students. The art department doesn’t let the businessmen who run galleries teach art courses. The English department does not let publishers and editors teach literature courses. Why? Because those occupations do not have a broad enough, deep enough, intellectual perspective to provide a real educational experience. Only writers and directors should be allowed to teach film students, because only writers and directors will be able to speak to their hearts, souls, and minds. (If they are allowed to teach students at all, producers should be teaching in the business school.) And never forget that faculty appointments are a zero-sum game. Every technician who holds a faculty position is one less creative, intellectual, artistic member of the faculty. Every course a student takes from a technician is one less course that will speak to their heart, mind, and soul.
Second, you are looking for each and every writer and/or director on the faculty to have made a significant number of full-length movies. Short films don’t count. Any, every undergraduate film student can claim a half-dozen short films to his or her credit. Short films mean nothing. We’re talking about an average of three, four, five, or more full-length films from each and every faculty member who teaches filmmaking.
Third, the films must have been commercially released, screened, and distributed in New York City. Not sold as a home-brew DVD. Not streamed on the internet. Not merely listed on Amazon or some other film site. These things are the equivalent of a filmmaker selling his or her work on a card table on the street like a knock-off Hermes handbag or fake Rolex watch. Each of the films should have been commercially released and distributed New York. You have to believe me when I tell you that that's the location that matters, and (once you have learned the ropes), that’s what you’re trying to do; and that’s what each of your teachers should have already done a number of times--get your movie to play in a real movie theater, starting with one in New York City. Nothing else counts. Anyone can tell you their film is available--for sale, for rental, for stream--on the internet. That is nothing at all. You want someone who can tell you, show you, teach you, how to get your work in a movie theater in New York. That's the launching place; that's the place that matters. Accept no substitutes, knock-offs, or homebrew imitation movies. They are as far from being the real thing as the fake handbag and watch are.
Fourth and finally, to count as finished projects, these films have to have had an actual run in a regular movie theater like every other “real movie” you’ve heard of; not been screened only (or chiefly) in film festivals or specialty screenings; not shown by a museum or film archive (or by a dozen film festivals, museums, or film archives). 
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The reason I am imposing those conditions is to cut through the PR lies and press-release trickery. Almost anyone can convince you that they are an “important filmmaker” if you are dumb enough to believe that having a movie play at film festivals (or receiving this or that “special award” at a specialty screening) matters. Don’t believe it. It’s a bunch of baloney. They are lying to you—and probably to themselves. Anybody who makes anything (I do not exaggerate) can get into a half-dozen minor, regional, or specialized film festivals or get bookings for a special screening supporting the "fashionable cause of the day" at a film archive or museum. If a movie deals with a trendy social, sexual, or racial issue, no matter how awful, sentimental, or stupidly it does it, I promise you there are at least ten festivals and ten “special merit” awards waiting to be handed to the filmmaker by some special interest group that thinks screening the movie will help them raise money for their particular cause.
Provincial or regional screenings don't count. Festivals just don’t count. With the exception of a few truly selective film festivals in America and Europe (Berlin, Rotterdam, Cannes, Sundance, South by Southwest, Telluride, the New York Film Festival, and a few others), the bar to get into a festival is so embarrassingly low that playing in 99 percent of the film festivals in the world counts for nothing. Nothing. Film festival directors and museum and archive curators are delighted to do favors for academics who will send their students to see their films. It's how they supplement their budgets. They have dozens of screening slots to fill, and are delighted to have something, anything to put into the off-peak ones (where they know a maximum of twenty people will show up to see whatever they program). They will accept more or less anything they can get their hands on.
The bar is obviously even lower on the internet. Anybody can post their film on a streaming or download site. And anybody can sell a home-made DVD or download. Those things mean as little as a festival booking. Internet film links are the same as posting something on a blog. In the world of books and journalism, doing something like that is only proof that no real publisher is willing to publish what you wrote. You are not a published author unless a commercial publisher has published your work. Well, it’s no different in filmmaking. You are not a filmmaker unless your film has been “published” (i.e. distributed and played in theaters). 
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Most students would be surprised (and shocked) at how many film production teachers can’t meet the basic requirement of having released one or more feature-length films—at how few of their teachers have made films that have actually had regular runs in real movie theaters. (I know whereof I speak since his applies to virtually everyone who teaches film in my own program at Boston University. The production faculty is more or less all fake filmmakers, pretend filmmakers, who have done nothing but nothing important.) Students are paying a heck of a lot in tuition; they assume they are being taught by real filmmakers; but it’s not true. They are being taught by pretend filmmakers. That fact invalidates everything those teachers are supposed to be doing in class. They don’t have any idea what a work of art is, or what art does, because they themselves have never made a work of art. All they can teach you is how to use a piece of equipment or a piece of software; but you could have learned that in a weekend. You could have learned that from a book. It’s not worth forty or fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year.
Would you take a play-writing course where the teacher had never actually had his or her plays performed in front of paying audiences in real theaters? How about a creative writing course where the teacher had never actually published a novel or a book of poetry? That’s what you’re getting if you take film production from teachers who have not made full-length films that have had real releases. You are being taught by someone who has never done the thing they are supposedly teaching you to do. I know many of these pretend filmmakers. They teach film production at my own university. They have done nothing truly interesting, original, or personal in their entire careers. They know nothing about artistic expression. They are shockingly ignorant of the history of the art form they claim to work in. And they presume to tell students (the ones who stream into my office complaining that all they are being taught is fast-food recipes and formulas for how to make a movie) how to do it. Their arrogance takes my breath away. How arrogant is it to presume to give the next generation advice on something you yourself have never done and obviously don’t know how to do?
If it seems too hard to find the names of the distributors and the facts about whether films actually had regular theatrical bookings, here’s how to get the information in one easy step: An easy way to check if a movie has had a “real” release is to look in the film review index to The New York Times. It’s available on-line or in any big library. Or, as I say above an even easier way to check out whether a potential teacher has done anything since his or her student work, hack work, is simply to Google "New York Times" and the name of the film or the filmmaker. Every single movie that has had an actual commercial release in New York City (and every movie of even the slightest degree of importance plays there, usually before it plays anywhere else) is guaranteed a review in the Times. Guaranteed. It’s their editorial policy. So, as a general rule of thumb, if a feature-length movie has not been reviewed by the New York Times, it is not a “real movie,” and the faculty member is a fake filmmaker.
Of course if each of the faculty members in question has met the minimum requirement and made four or five (or more) feature-length films that have actually been released and played in movie theaters, and you have time, you might want to look at the most recent film of five or six of the faculty members. Your goal is not to see if they make the kinds of movies you want to make. That’s not important—and may in fact be counterproductive. You’re not looking for “friends” or artists with the same ideas you already have. You want to study with people who are doing better and different things than what you have thought of. Look to see if the works of the faculty at a given school are challenging, different, and intellectually stimulating; or if they are just part of the fashion-system—jokey, tricky Coen brothers knock-offs, genre film clones, sentimental made-for-TV movies, documentaries that have as much intellectual depth as a late-night-television PSA. (You know: those boring documentaries trying to get you to support a cause or a charity. Salesmanship again. Real documentaries aren't trying to sell you anything—intellectually or emotionally. They are much more subtle, interesting, and complex than that.)

If any of those things are the case, run as fast as you can the other way. Cross that school off your list. The reason is that if you find a clunker of that caliber made by a single faculty member, even a single dud, it is evidence of a larger and much more serious problem. It means that the department doesn’t understand the difference between gold and dross—the very thing you are in college to learn! (To say it for the millionth time: You are not there to learn how to use pieces of equipment or you might as well be studying to be a plumber or an auto mechanic.) It means that the Chairman and Dean hire, retain, and promote people who don't know good from bad. (Don't get me started on this subject ... or there will be no stopping me. It's the history of the past twenty years of the Boston University film program. Pretend filmmakers who don't know what they are doing voting to promote other pretend filmmakers so that they themselves will be voted to be promoted by their buddies the next time round. And a Dean and Chairman who don't know the difference. Or, to all appearances, care. A closed hermeneutic circle, where excellence actually becomes a threat—since it only reveals the lack of accomplishment of the ones already there.) And if the faculty doesn’t know how to tell the difference between excellence and trash, between the style-system and real value, between intellectual depth and superficiality, between cinematic quality and junk, how in the world can they teach it to you? Why would you pay fifty thousand dollars (or more) to study with them? 
I'm sorry to say that virtually all of the film production teachers at my own university's film production program at Boston University fail ALL of the preceding tests. But don't be discouraged. You can do better. There are other universities (Columbia, NYU, UCLA, and many others) where virtually all of the film production teachers have actually made real movies that real people have seen and real newspapers have reviewed. Don't waste your money. Don't throw it away. Find a real film program with real filmmakers in it. 

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For the record, I have spoken out about the specific situation in the Boston University Department of Film and Television on numerous occasions, defending the values I have articulated above, arguing that film students deserve (and, given the tuitions they are paying, certainly have every right to expect) a much better educational experience than they have been receiving.
For what it is worth, I include four paragraphs from a memo I wrote my Dean on the same subject several years ago (one of many such memos I have written B.U. administrators or statements I have made at meetings on this and similar subjects).
         My Dean’s sole response to this particular memo, if it matters, was sternly to admonish me for having written what I had and having said the things I had said. He did not ask to meet with me to discuss the issues I had raised. He did not promise to look into the situation. He significantly did not tell me that any of the statements I made were false or misleading. He only deplored the fact that I had made them, and told me it was extremely uncollegial of me to have sent such a memo to him. I was not being a team-player. As he has told me on numerous occasions, saying things like this was “making trouble,” and branded me as being “a troublemaker.” (I was of course punished for what I had written and said, here and elsewhere, in the next pay cycle).
          The only thing that gets left out of that point of view is the students and their needs. They are forgotten. They disappear. Everything becomes about faculty members going-along and getting-along. Everything becomes about being a team player. Everything becomes about collegiality. But what about the students? —Ray Carney

Dean Tom Fiedler
College of Communication
640 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston University
Boston, MA 02215

Dear Tom:
…… Though the truth is hidden from administrators as much as possible by a paperwork blizzard of made-to-order or strictly local-interest press-releases and lists of alleged “awards” from tiny, unimportant film festivals, it’s a simple fact that the Department of Film and Television simply has no filmmakers of even the smallest degree of importance, stature, or achievement on its regular, full-time faculty. Not one.
It is not only a public relations embarrassment that this should be true of the entire faculty of a Department of Film and Television at a supposedly major American university; it is intellectually illegitimate and pedagogically fraudulent. The department is not giving its students the education they think they are so handsomely paying for; it is tricking and defrauding them with a second-rate educational experience. (Imagine a music program where the students were taught by third-rate performers who had never done anything important—or a creative writing program where students were taught by writers who have only written schlock and junk.)
It should not be surprising that this state of affairs poses an almost insurmountable obstacle to the recruitment and retention of graduate students—or at least to the recruitment and retention of intelligent, knowledgeable grad students. Potential applicants to the film and television production programs browse our online listings or attend one of our orientation events and see the name of—or meet—no one who has done any even slightly important, creative, or interesting work in their field.
It would carry me far beyond the bounds of this letter to explain how this deplorable situation has arisen and been perpetuated, and how, in fact, the few genuinely talented and accomplished working filmmakers (several among the most important living practitioners of the art) who have expressed interest in teaching in the department over the years have been rejected out of hand by department members clearly threatened by their accomplishments; or how, on the rare occasions when a talented filmmaker has actually joined the faculty, on a part-time or full-time basis, they have either been fired, driven away, or left of their own volition when they realized who their colleagues were, and who—and what sort of work (and complete absence of creative work)—was being rewarded with pay-raises and promotions. (Tom, I have spoken out about this state of affairs on numerous occasions, most often during department review periods—and have been penalized financially and administratively for doing so—but if you would like a “crash course” on the subject of friends-promoting-friends in attempts to ensure their own future promotions, I would recommend that you look again at a memo I sent you on XXXXX about the YYYYYY review, where I touched on a few of the ways that administrative time-serving, press-release self-promotion, celebrity and special-interest “endorsements,” and the currying of favor with administrators have replaced actual productivity and intellectual accomplishment as the basis for department promotions and pay-raises.) …….

Ray Carney
Professor, Film and American Studies

Continued in Part 5—Is There Intellectual Life in the Universe?
Pretend and True Thinking in Film Criticism