Thursday, January 8, 2015

Buyer Beware—Choosing a Film School

From late November through the end of January each year I receive an unusual amount of mail from students asking me to comment on or recommend particular undergraduate- and graduate-level programs in film study, film production, and screenwriting. This year is no different. I have received inquiries from more than 500 potential applicants (in other words, a fairly overwhelming number) asking questions about both the film program at Boston University and those at a number of other schools. (For the record, NYU, USC, UCLA, Columbia, Wisconsin, Emerson, and Emory head the list of other schools I am most frequently asked about.)

In an attempt to save future correspondents the trouble of writing me (and, to be completely candid: to save myself, where possible, the time and effort of writing individual replies to future inquiries), I wanted to refer the interested blog reader to a six-part series of postings that seem to have been overlooked by most of the people who have written me.

The following pages (available via clickable links below, but also via the right-hand side-menu under the listings for January and February 2014) contain material that may help you with your decision-making. Underneath the title of each page, I am including a brief, lightly rewritten excerpt from that page to give a better idea of the subject area covered on it. —Ray Carney

“I receive numerous requests from prospective students who want my advice on how to get into the Boston University film program (sometimes expressing the desire to study with me). Other inquirers want more general information: What schools have good film programs? What questions should they ask when they visit the school? What should they look for (and look out for) in the course offerings? How can they tell a strong school from a weak one? … I have decided to devote a series of blog postings to this subject, in hopes of providing information to the largest number and widest range of prospective students and to cover the topic much more thoroughly than I am able to do in an email or phone conversation. The postings begin with a letter I received from a prospective student.”

As a side-note, I'd mention that I reported all of the problems I cite on this page (and many others) to Boston University administrators, but was only told words to the effect of: "If you don't like the way things are done, why don't you quit?" In short, I was the problem for having reported these things. It was easier to ignore them and blame me than correct them. Such is the BU attitude toward the education of students, and reports from faculty members. 

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Part 2--The Economics of the Education System 101

“You should treat the statements you read on the internet or hear at Open House and Visiting Day events with the same skepticism you would treat statements by a realtor or used car salesman attempting to close a sale. Do your research! Don’t be cheated! Everyone you talk to will defend their own program and tell you how good it will be for you." 

* * *

“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 mediocre faculty—none of whom will ever admit (or even realize) their own intellectual and artistic inadequacy or the shortcomings of the program they teach in.”

* * *

“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…. 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—not electronically, not on an internet site, but with a real, established book publisher? 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 in movie theaters. Fake works by pretend artists. Makers of pseudo-films linked to on internet sites. Creators of God-awful schedule-filling movies shown at film festivals. Forgers of flash-in-the-pan trash streamed on Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, or any other site or venue that accepts more or less anything submitted. If they are going to teach you how to do it, your faculty members should themselves have made many feature-length films (not shorts, advertisements, or PSAs!) that have had real commercial releases in real movie theaters!”

I'm sorry to say that I know many of these pretend filmmakers and screenwriters. They teach film production and screenwriting at my own university. Virtually all of the film production and screenwriting teachers in Boston University's film program fail ALL of the preceding tests. They have done nothing truly interesting, original, or personal in their entire careers. They have not released any features, let alone any good or important ones. Perhaps more appallingly, they know virtually nothing about artistic expression and are shockingly ignorant of the history of the art form they claim to work in. And yet 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? 

The information on the preceding page 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 that page. It is available in the right-hand menu under the listings for April 2015 or by clicking on
this link.

* * *

Here’s a basic test of the intellectual qualifications of Film Study teachers. Every single teacher should be required to pass it. No excuses. No exceptions. It has two parts—the first an extremely low bar that all but the smallest number of faculty members should automatically pass; the second a more revealing requirement that will separate the intellectual sheep from the goats. First, check that each and every Film Studies faculty member holds a Ph.D. (the easy requirement); second (the more significant and important requirement), check that each and every Film Studies faculty member has published at least three or four (and if he or she is over the age of forty-five, at least five or six) full-length, single-author books of film criticism, history, or analysis with major publishers, preferably top-tier university presses, like Cambridge, Oxford, Berkeley, Columbia, Princeton, or Harvard. Accept nothing less. Accept no substitutes. Film study is overflowing with junky reference books sold to libraries (and that no real person ever buys and reads), junky magazine articles, junky internet sites with junky essays on them. Books with major publishers are the only things that count. Film reviews don’t count. Articles in magazines don't count. Postings on internet sites don’t count. Only full-length, single-author books published with publishers at the intellectual level of the publishers listed above count. If all of the film study professors in a program have not met these two absolute minimum requirements, they should not be teaching, and certainly not teaching graduate students! Many graduate film studies students in my own program at Boston University are receiving their educations from faculty members who themselves do not have the appropriate terminal graduate degree. It is an intellectual disgrace and embarrassment. That's why it's deliberately kept a secret from the students, who have no idea how they are being intellectually short-changed by being taught by unqualified faculty members.

A 2016 Postscript: In the year and a half since I posted the previous information, the situation at Boston University has become even worse, much worse, than the one described above. Censorship and standards of political and pedagogical correctness have moved into the classroom. The Director of Film Studies and Cinema and Media Studies (the same man) at Boston University has imposed rigid codes of "pedagogical correctness" on all film studies courses, both those offered to graduate students and to undergraduates, demanding that the courses be taught and students be evaluated according to strict guidelines he has laid down, which absolutely forbid any deviation from his (incredibly narrow-minded, old-fashioned and, truth be told, intellectually primitive) critical approaches, teaching methods, and ways of evaluating students. This control of what is said and done in the classroom has, shockingly and almost unbelievably, been publicly promulgated as official university policy. The result has been that I and other teachers in the program have been told that if our courses and teaching methods don't conform to these requirements and demands, in every last detail including what books are or are not included on the course reading list, we will not be allowed to teach in the Cinema and Media Studies (film major) program. (Our courses may appear in the course listings but students will not get any credit toward their film studies degree by taking them, which of course means that no one in the film major will be able to take them.) This intrusion into the most sacred and normally inviolable relationship in the university, the relationship between the teacher and his or her student and the organization and content of courses, is not only an extreme violation of academic and intellectual freedom for the faculty member, but the most serious possible blow to the education of every film student at Boston University. Teachers must now teach the same kinds of material, in the same ways, with reading assignments not of their own choice, and evaluation methods dictated by the Director of Film Studies and Cinema and Media Studies, even if they violently disagree with the ideas about film and teaching methods he now requires be employed (as I for one am not afraid to say I do--I in fact find his understanding of film intellectually wrong-headed, and the teaching methods he requires to be counter-productive and backward in every way). It's a sad day for film teachers at Boston University but an even sadder day for film students who are now deprived of different points of view, fresh methods, and innovative perspectives. Those things are not allowed, are explicitly forbidden, in the BU Cinema and Media Studies and Film Studies programs.

* * *

“Be sure to verify whether grad students actually have a chance to take graduate-level courses. Sounds pretty simple, eh? Sounds like a no-brainer? Don't be so sure. Cost-cutting and educational corner-cutting are the rule, not the exception. Grad students in the Boston University film program are, without exception, simply thrown into pre-existing undergraduate courses and fraudulently given a graduate-level course registration number and graduate-level course credit for listening to presentations to and for undergraduates and non-film-majors, who are getting credit for taking the exact same course with an undergraduate course number assigned to it. Talk about cheaping it out. Freshmen and Sophomores sit next to Masters and Ph.D. students and the grad students listen to the exact same presentation that is being delivered to the Freshmen, and get graduate credit for being there (not as TAs or GAs, but as regular, full-time students in the emphatically undergrad course)—if you can get your mind around that! Shabby and shoddy are understatements. Welcome to the Boston University film program. The place where there are no academic standards. And no shame. 

For more information about how, in the Boston University film program, graduate students are denied actual graduate-level education and are simply thrown into low-level, introductory undergraduate courses, to get their educations sitting next to sophomores and juniors, as if they had taken a time machine back to their undergraduate years, click here

"And conversely, you should check whether undergraduate students are able to get their degrees taking courses designed exclusively for undergraduates, so that Freshmen hear lectures designed for Freshmen and Seniors hear lectures designed for Seniors, etcetera, where they will get the attention and level of intellectual approach they need and deserve as undergrads. The overwhelming majority of Boston University undergraduate film study courses, all but two or three courses, have significant numbers of graduate students enrolled in them, mixed in with the larger numbers of undergrads, right down to the Freshman level, which means that the teacher cannot focus exclusively on the intellectual and pedagogical needs of undergraduates, who have to fight for attention with students five or even ten or fifteen years older than themselves, students who are at a completely different level of experience and intellectual development.

"Another extremely important thing to look at, whether you are a prospective graduate or undergraduate student, is the class-meeting schedule. How many hours a week do classes meet, and how many times a week? I mean real days and hours devoted to teaching and interactional learning, not to watching a movie. Is a significant proportion of the course meeting time devoted to screening films (as it is in all of the Film Study courses in the Boston University program)? If so, you are being cheated. You are paying thousands of tuition dollars to sit in the dark watching a movie you could have watched for free at home. You are being defrauded of the education you are paying so much to get by lazy and pedagogically irresponsible teachers.”