Media Arts Grants: Manifesto & Arguments
Here are 95 theses on the MAG controversy at Northwestern University.
This document, which I’m calling MAGMA 95, is a freewheeling, 5,000+ word manifesto mixing hard facts and direct quotes with formal criticism and modest proposals. It’s a product of 30 days of wading around in endless emails and memos, texts and Facebook messages, phone calls and coffee dates on this one topic. It’s not everything we know, but it’s the deepest dive yet.
I wrote it not because I think sprawling proclamations are the best way to persuade people or effect change, but because I’m asking a lot of folks by riling them up so much, and they deserve to know where I’m coming from and why I thought this alumni response was necessary.
I’m also attempting as best as I can to draw a contrast with the RTVF department in the way we approach and address this issue. While they have been casual, cheerful, unhurried, and reticent to give much explanation, I am being radically transparent about my intentions, and dead serious about drowning you in information and urgent polemical arguments. My reasons are clear: student film at Northwestern is obviously very important to me, and I am hoping you will prefer my vision of a collectivized, pluralistic future for student film over the department’s top-down, hierarchical structure where all undergraduate film production is department-driven and faculty-centric.
If you’ve read this far and are starting to get cold feet about such a long read (Medium tells me it takes 20 minutes to finish), don’t worry: I wrote a shorter overview that is just as serious and detailed.
But if you really want to get into it with me, pull up a bar stool and let’s order a few rounds.
This is the story I want to tell you.
What’s at Stake
1. As Northwestern alumni, we know there are two things that make the university special: (a) its impossibly dynamic student body, and (b) the innovative work students produce when they’re encouraged to do whatever they want, on their own terms — the very “Northwestern Direction” the new ad campaign is referring to.
2. For RTVF, that innovative work was and always will be driven by the independent student film scene, which today faces an existential threat in the form of the “MAGs,” a funding structure that bans RTVF student groups from awarding grants while also giving the department full control over which projects get produced on campus.
The Way We Were
3. The entire media production culture at Northwestern was built by generations of students.
4. Its history of bold student-led initiatives dates back to at least 1984, when Eric Bernt (’86) and Jon Shapiro (’87) started the first undergraduate record label, Niteskool, and debuted its inaugural music video “Ambition” to an overflow audience at Annie May Swift Hall.
5. The School of Speech (later, Communication) recognized the power of student organizations like Inspire Media, Studio 22 Productions, and Women Filmmakers Alliance, and for decades tried to harness their energy by providing robust funding and a laissez-faire approach to managing campus productions and student activities.
6. It was a long-standing, mutually beneficial arrangement: students were able to build the experiences they wanted to see, with the freedom to pursue pioneering work that wasn’t happening anywhere else; in turn, the school could tout the student organizations in its promotional materials, and reward the students’ drive and vision by championing their efforts at a distance.
7. Around 2014, for reasons that have never been fully explained, the Radio/Television/Film department took over the funding process from the School of Communication and turned everything upside-down.
8. First, the department cut the student organizations’ discretionary production funds (colloquially referred to as “grants”), claiming that “student-to-student direct funding” had become a problem because student groups had “too much power in determining which students received funding” and “the process was unfair or dominated by cliques.”
9. Not all organizations award grants, so not all were affected. But those whose missions rely heavily on the ability to fund the projects they want to take on — namely, Inspire Media, Multicultural Filmmakers Collective, Niteskool, Studio 22, and Women Filmmakers Alliance — were gutted and decimated.
10. Studio 22, for example, suffered a 70% budget cut in FY16, losing $15,500 for making student films.
11. The department also banned student organizations from awarding grants in general, regardless of whether the grants came from the department or were fundraised in some other way.
12. The most infamous example comes from November 2015, when Women Filmmakers Alliance (NUWFA) partnered with the Northwestern Alumni Association in a “Giving Tuesday” Catalyzer campaign (Catalyzer is like Kickstarter but specifically for projects at Northwestern) and raised $2,526 for the 2016 NUWFA grant, promising donors that their gifts would “directly support the visions of the recipients of the 2016 NUWFA Grant” — which, according to former NUWFA leadership, the department expressly forbade and interdicted in the fall of 2016.
13. It’s wildly improper and reckless in the first place for any affiliate of the university to try and prevent donor funds from being spent on the stated purpose under which the donation was solicited, yet the RTVF department went even further by threatening to punish NUWFA by cutting all of their departmental funding, banning them from using the school’s equipment, and disbanding the group entirely if they were to give the $2,526 to their grant recipient.
What Are Media Arts Grants?
14. At the same time, the department also introduced an alternative funding source called “Media Arts Grants,” or MAGs, which are administered centrally by the department.
15. It’s difficult to describe the MAGs for at least three reasons: (a) they’re a funding mechanism, so some of the details are technical and complicated, (b) the department maintains they are an evolving work-in-progress, so their nature is still in flux, and (c) they have existed for more than two years, yet are nowhere to be found on the school’s website (update: since the launch of the Save RTVF campaign, this page explaining and preemptively defending the MAGs has suddenly appeared).
16. But basically, MAGs are like grants awarded by the department instead of by a student organization, and they are a mandatory prerequisite for access to the school’s Equipment Cage — an absolute necessity for shooting a serious film on campus.
What We Know About MAGs so far
17. MAGs mean less money overall for student film.
18. A MAG allotment is capped at $1,500 or less per production. There is also one $5,000 MAG allotment per year.
19. For the sake of comparison: in the fiscal year before the MAGs, Studio 22 awarded seven grants at $2,200 each, in addition to the $7,500 Bindley Grant, special projects ranging between $300-$500, and the $1,000 New Student Grant.
20. If the MAGs were an equitable replacement for the grants, as the department contends, one would expect the total amount spent on MAGs to equal the total amount that was cut from the grant budgets of the student organizations.
21. But the numbers don’t add up. In the years that the MAG program has been in effect, spending on MAGs has been far less than the total cost of the grant money that was revoked.
22. In other words, the department has experienced a budgetary windfall by giving out MAGs instead of grants. Whether intentional or not, eliminating the grants has saved them a substantial amount of money, and it’s unclear whether that money is being stockpiled in a surplus for future productions, or spent on something else entirely (e.g. faculty projects, the graduate programs).
23. Thus, in our view, the MAGs constitute a deep budget cut in supporting student film, even when they are presented as a benevolent attempt to make funding more available to everyone.
24. The MAG system spends less money to produce fewer films.
25. In the old system, films that received grants almost always got made. It was extremely rare that a project funded and produced by a student organization would fail outright, go unfinished, and not premiere by the spring.
26. That’s because student organizations provided a muscular infrastructure for every film that won a grant. The groups did not serve as aloof studio executives handing out money, but active producing partners that got involved on a granular level in every case.
27. (This is an area of RTVF student life the department routinely underestimates and fundamentally misunderstands.)
28. Under the new system, it’s much more possible that a MAG-approved project will never materialize, because there is far less institutionalized energy behind the projects being chosen by the department (with the exception of those produced within the context of an RTVF production course, but more on that in a moment). So even though a film is strictly required to have a MAG in order to get off the ground, there is little guarantee it will actually go into production.
29. We know this is the case because it has already happened. The department awarded 22 MAGs during the 2015–16 school year, and only nine were screened that spring. Not all of these productions necessarily failed (some voluntarily decided to take more than a few quarters), but when compared to the output and track record of the traditional system, it is undeniable that the MAGs have proven to be dramatically less efficient and effective at producing student projects.
30. It’s plainly clear by the numbers that last year’s nine-film premiere was far fewer than years prior. As outlined above, Studio 22 made nine films by itself between the Bindley, the seven grants, and the New Filmmaker Grant alone, even before getting into any special projects, the NUWFA grant, the Niteskool video, and so on.
31. As for the current academic year, we’ve received reports that of the five MAGs that were slated to shoot this fall, only two were produced, and both were Senior Directing films in the RTVF 397 Advanced Directing sequence.
32. If that’s the case, one of the implications is that money that was previously spent on student film is now being diverted to faculty-led coursework, which, no matter what the actual intent, already gives the semblance of self-dealing on the part of the department.
33. The other implication is that in the traditional sense, the MAG system produced exactly zero independent student films in fall quarter 2016.
34. The MAGs have not increased faculty/student interaction, which the department says was the original impetus behind the system.
35. The department asserts that the MAG program “already appears to have produced a better grant process with an increased faculty engagement in working with student projects.”
36. From what we’ve heard from students, there has been little or no interaction or oversight by faculty after the MAGs have been awarded.
37. Now, there are two important exceptions: Senior Directing films, which already had faculty advisers attached, and students who take production classes so they can secure Cage-access for their MAG project, which dovetails with the next issue:
38. The MAG structure practically forces students to take RTVF production courses if they want to use the Cage.
39. Surprisingly, not all MAG recipients are guaranteed access to the Equipment Cage. During the MAG application process, students are required to submit budgets that project costs with and without the benefit of the Cage, and the only way to truly guarantee Cage-access is to take a 300-level RTVF course.
40. While most students would agree it’s good to have the option to receive course credit and faculty guidance by taking a 300-level production course, the problem is that the lack of guaranteed Cage-access for MAG recipients makes production courses virtually required for medium- and large-scale MAG film productions — an issue that did not exist under the traditional system, where grant films were given access to the Cage as a matter of course.
41. This is potentially burdensome to a student filmmaker, since not everyone can fit additional classes into their schedule, particularly when double-majoring.
42. But what’s more suspicious is that this setup directly benefits the RTVF department by artificially boosting the demand and enrollment numbers for their production courses.
43. Students don’t know who awards the MAGs, nor how they make their decisions.
44. The MAGs are awarded by a rotating committee of anonymous students and faculty — a kind of jury duty for determining which movies get made at Northwestern.
45. (In May 2016, the committee was composed of three students and four faculty members. It’s bizarre that even when attempting to create the appearance of greater fairness in the funding process, the department still overplayed its hand in its intention to seize control over the decision-making process by giving itself more votes.)
46. MAGs are awarded directly to the project, not the student group, which the department presents as a way of elevating and empowering the individual auteur (at least, the ones the faculty-driven MAG committee deems worthy of funding) over the “cliquish” producing groups.
47. But unlike RTVF student organizations, whose decision-making practices have been honed for years and are well-known by the participants, the MAG committee process is not transparent, their decisions are not subject to appeal, their criteria are not disclosed (even when students ask), and they are in no way accountable to the RTVF community.
48. Simply put, we reject the theory that a disinterested third party of randomly selected people in a closed-door meeting can make better producing decisions than student organizations, which possess deep knowledge of the campus production process, institutionalized norms of community-minded fairness, and a vested interest in the films’ success.
49. Compared to the traditional “pitch process” system, the MAG application is perfunctory.
50. The “pitch process” is one of RTVF’s oldest traditions: a crucible of competitive proposal-writing and rigorous interviews that student filmmakers must endure to win a grant.
51. As a baseline for participation, many organizations require a detailed “pitch packet,” setting the barrier of entry high to encourage serious applicants only. For an example of how thorough the packet is, here’s a non-exhaustive list of the sections required in the winter 2017 Studio 22 application:
• story and plot structure analysis;
• characters and theme;
• director’s statement and experience;
• producers’ experience;
• production logistics/equipment required;
• visual style;
• design aesthetic and “world” of the film;
• tentative logistics calendar;
• fundraising plan;
• crew application plan;
• potential quality of the set experience for the crew (often weighted as one of the highest considerations);
• style of leadership (tight-knit? skeleton crew? highly collaborative?) and plan to cultivate it;
• budget with fully-itemized inventory of expenses;
• distribution potential (e.g. festivals and other venues);
• a full screenplay.
Studio 22 board members are expected to read every packet in full and arrive at pitches with both a sophisticated understanding of each project and questions for the director/producers that will help determine their decision.
52. By contrast, the MAG application consists of a brief synopsis of the project, the filmmaker’s résumé, budget projections, and a faculty adviser.
53. There is no requirement to submit a screenplay, as we’ve been told “faculty do not have time” to read them.
54. There is no pitch process whatsoever.
55. This last point matters for a few different reasons. First, it undermines the department’s argument that under the previous system, “the process was unfair,” since the reason for the above-mentioned complexity in the pitch packets is to make the process as fair as possible through daunting requirements. It’s easier to bluff your way through a short, written application than it is to bluff through an entire decathlon.
56. Second, the department defends the MAGs by claiming they are “reflective of industry practices.” Presumably, by “industry,” the department doesn’t mean the entertainment industry, since it’s the student group pitch process that more closely resembles the Hollywood studio system model, particularly the in-person pitches.
57. Perhaps they mean something more like winning a Guggenheim Fellowship or NEA grant — which might make sense if Northwestern graduates regularly went into academia, worked in arts nonprofits, or became artists-in-residence after graduating.
58. But let’s be clear: most Northwestern RTVF students who go into film do so by moving out to Los Angeles and becoming assistants or PAs. The industry to which most RTVF students aspire is simply not reflected in the MAG system.
59. (Besides, whether we’re talking about a MacArthur genius grant or 20th Century Fox, both require screenplays.)
60. Third, the student group pitch process was always more than just a contest or a funding mechanism. It was an educational experience unlike anything else at Northwestern. For many alumni who went into the entertainment business, the pitch process was the central professional development exercise of their college experience — on both sides of the pitch.
61. Revoking grant powers from the student groups minimizes and in some cases nullifies the pitch process altogether, which severely diminishes the quality of film education at Northwestern overall.
62. Even though the department has eliminated student group autonomy by revoking grant powers, they are still hoping to profit from the existing student groups by allowing them to produce the MAG films for them.
63. There is still one way the department allows student groups to award money to student films, which is called a “Plus-Up.”
64. “Plus-Ups” are roughly equivalent to what used to be called “Finishing Grants,” where a student group would give supplemental funding to a project already underway that didn’t go through the traditional pitch process. These were often awarded to high-quality Senior Directing projects that were struggling to raise funds on their own.
65. The department likes to characterize Plus-Ups as some kind of multiple-financier, producing-partner simulation. As they describe it on their website, “Students are invited to partner with supported groups (i.e. Studio 22, NUWFA, MultiCultural Collective, etc.) to pitch projects for grant approval, or to form a partnership after the grant is awarded — both now common practices in a changing professional media landscape.”
66. This description obscures the fact that student groups still can’t award grants on their own. Let’s say, for example, that NUWFA conducts a pitch process to select a (theoretical) grant recipient. The NUWFA grant winner would then need to apply for a MAG — but if for some reason the winner didn’t get it, NUWFA would not be allowed to award the Plus-Up money, and the film wouldn’t get made. To extend the department’s own metaphor, it would be as if Gilbert Films, Impostor Pictures, and Marc Platt Productions wanted to team up to produce La La Land, but for some reason their bank accounts were frozen unless Summit Entertainment gave the film the greenlight. Needless to say, this is not a common practice of any professional media landscape. In a true exercise in real-world film financing, the department would simply give the groups money and let them spend it on the projects they want to produce.
67. The maximum limit for a Plus-Up is only $500. Here’s how the rule was explained in March 2016: “you cannot fund student productions outside the MAG process; and the maximum additional amount you can offer any individual MAG grantee is $500.00. And we ask that you don’t sponsor a free-standing non-MAG project.” If the group gives more than $500, it violates the MAG guidelines, and they risk losing Cage-access and all other RTVF funding for speakers, workshops, and events.
68. Although Plus-Ups are clearly an attempt to strike a compromise with the student organizations, they’re still an instance of “student-to-student funding” — which doesn’t make sense.
69. If “student-to-student funding” was the specter haunting Evanston that caused the groups to lose grant powers in the first place, why are they able to award money to productions after they get a MAG? Why are students ethically incapable of awarding their own “free-standing non-MAG” grants, yet fully capable of choosing their Plus-Ups?
70. And if the original idea was that it’s unfair to have student organizations be the sole arbiters of who does and does not get funding, how it fair that the department has now become the sole arbiter?
71. We have never fully understood the argument against student-to-student funding in the first place. Empowering Northwestern students to make decisions about how funds get spent is what much of student organization life is based on. In the Associated Student Government, for example, undergrads on the finance board administer the entire Student Activities Fund that powers all ASG-recognized groups — which is essentially $1.4 million in student-to-student funding per year. Are RTVF students uniquely unable to make these sorts of judgments fairly and equitably? (If so, how is it that NU Channel 1 administers a pitch process for its student-to-student pilot grants without being accused of being “unfair or dominated by cliques?”)
72. Unless, of course, student-to-student funding was never really a problem at all, only a false pretense used to usher in an alternative funding structure which just so happens to give the department full control over (and credit for) all film projects that get made on campus.
The Road to This Response
73. We, the alumni behind the campaign, found out about the MAG controversy on November 30 through an op-ed in North by Northwestern, and we reached out to the faculty for their side of the story the same day. We received an official response from the chair of the department that said, among other things, that “the faculty in RTVF spent two years talking with URSA [the RTVF Student Council] representatives and members of student groups to design the new system.” We took this to mean that the MAG system was the product of both faculty and students working together to find a compromise to a structural problem they faced on campus.
74. This contradicts our findings. We reached out to those students for comment and all who responded strongly refute this characterization of events, saying they were not brought in to devise and craft the MAG system along with the faculty, but merely to be informed of what had already been decided and what new rules they would need to abide.
75. From this, we can only conclude that the decision was made unilaterally: that the URSA reps and student group leaders supposedly brought in on the design of the funding structure did not meaningfully contribute to the construction of the MAG system, and that they are being used by the department to create the illusion of buy-in from the student body.
76. Since the department was not forthright with us, and students have not been given the proper chance to oppose policy changes that fundamentally disrupt and diminish their experience at Northwestern, the alumni decided to mobilize and respond.
What Do We Want?
77. Our goal is very clear: we want serious, mutually agreed-upon reforms in the department’s funding structure by FY18, and we want an open process for arriving at those reforms.
78. First and foremost, we defer to current students in the RTVF community on the details, as they know better than anyone how the funding structure affects the production scene on campus.
79. We want them to have the opportunity for a vigorous community debate to generate alternative proposals and clarify a vision for the way forward.
80. We want the RTVF department to hear the students out, and then work toward a mutually agreed-upon system to replace the current MAG funding structure that would go into effect for the next fiscal year, which begins September 1, 2017.
81. In essence, we’re seeking the fair, open, and transparent process that should have occurred in the first place. At the same time, pending the agreement of current students, here are a few suggestions we gathered from various alumni to get the conversation started:
Proposals for Change
82. Restore the grants.
RTVF alumni are more than eager to mount a defense of grant powers on both philosophical and pedagogical grounds. Full powers should be restored to the groups that had them revoked, and their grant budgets restored to FY15 levels, as alumni oppose the cut in student organization funding outright. The department may decide to cut all RTVF money for student organizations as a result of this campaign (which we would strongly oppose, but acknowledge is their right and prerogative, as they hold control over the student group budget for now). But even if they do, the department should not and can not interfere with groups like NUWFA awarding grants with fundraising campaigns outside of the department, nor should they be permitted to use the equipment cage as a de facto method of control to disempower the independent student film scene.
84. Abolish the MAG prerequisite.
If all films must get MAGs in order to use the school’s resources, the MAG committee effectively operates as a censorship board, arbitrarily cutting funding and access to equipment to projects they reject, which is not in the spirit of Northwestern University. Groups with grant powers should be allowed to develop and administer their own, unique pitch process, and award free-standing
grants at their discretion with no preconditions by the department.
85. Extend grant powers to future groups.
Many alumni share the department’s sentiments that “we have been very happy to see many new groups being established, and we would like to see more.” A simple way to achieve this would be for the department to revert back to the FY15 budget-proposal rules and allow new groups to prepare and submit funding requests alongside the older groups each spring, and allow the new groups to request grant funding and grant powers in their proposals. With a strong funding proposal and the proper guidance by their faculty adviser, a new/emerging RTVF group could be awarding its own grant the very next academic year following its founding.
86. The student film groups should form an umbrella organization that can advocate for the collective needs of the independent student film scene.
This is something the student theatre community already has. “StuCo,” the Northwestern Student Theatre Coalition, is an alliance of the nine major student theatre groups and two dance groups at NU. As their Wiki explains, the group centrally organizes auditions and petitions each quarter, coordinates which group gets which performance space and when, interfaces with the administration to resolve conflicts, and even has the equivalent of its own student-run Equipment Cage. If RTVF had its own umbrella collective — “StuCon,” perhaps, the Northwestern Student Film Consortium, a similar but different name to signal that it’s analogous (something less corny is also welcome) — that group could provide organizational support for the common practices of the student film community while also advocating for the specific needs of the student organizations (separate from URSA, which serves the RTVF community as a whole). New groups, and groups like NU Channel 1 that have historically been on the margins of the production scene, would have a much easier way to get integrated into the larger RTVF community. Having an umbrella collective would facilitate better communication between faculty and among students inside and outside of the production community, and would unite the organizations in preserving and protecting student film going forward. Lastly, just as the StuCo member groups manage to divide up the school’s performance stages among themselves, we believe a StuCon-type group could work with the Cage staff to divide up the production calendar more smoothly and efficiently than multiple, unaligned groups operating on their own.
87. Alumni donors should have a restricted endowment fund specifically for financing student film.
This is something we have already proposed to the Northwestern Development Office and intend to pursue further in winter quarter 2017. An endowment is a special donor fund where 100% of the money must be spent on the purpose of the fund, which in this case would be student-led film/media productions and nothing else. It’s also an interest-bearing financial instrument, like a 401(k); money donated into the fund gets invested and reinvested continually, making it a reliable, consistent funding source that only grows over time. (This is becoming more common among student-driven organizations; the NU Marching Band started an endowment for their program in the summer of 2014.) Most importantly, the funds would be restricted to the sole purpose of student-driven production, so RTVF alumni who donate to the school would have a clear, simple way to guarantee their annual giving will be put to undergrads making student film (or whatever bizarre VR-hologram movies they’ll make in the future).
88. MAGs should achieve their stated mission — or be dissolved entirely.
The department claims that the primary goal of the MAG is “to make it possible for many groups… to be able to check out equipment, reserve spaces, etc.” This is a worthy aim, but how is this incompatible with the traditional grant system? Why not have both? The alumni have already suggested a compromise to the department chair where leftover production funds (i.e. those that were not granted to student organizations in the spring funding proposals of the previous fiscal year) could be offered on a competitive, first-come first-served basis to any filmmaker on campus through the MAGs, including seniors in the directing sequence and other class projects. The number of applicants would naturally ebb and flow, and whoever administers the MAGs would occasionally need to make tough calls, as we all do. But this would achieve the stated mission of expanding production opportunities for all students without eliminating student autonomy in the independent student film scene. If the department is sincere in this goal, and is not simply using the MAGs for ulterior aims, then the MAGs should undergo a structural “both, not either/or” redesign through the same open, transparent process as outlined above — or, alternatively, the MAG program should be disbanded altogether.
89. Even though we are breaking out the torches and pitchforks with this campaign, please note that we’re not asking for heads on plates here.
90. We’re not calling on anyone to be fired or disciplined. We don’t even need the department to admit fault.
91. We’re also not asking for a sweeping expansion of funding or something exorbitantly expensive, like a new building or new faculty.
92. In fact, what we’re asking for is the exact same system we’ve always had: where the school empowers students to make choices on their own, and provides generous funding to encourage student independence, while the RTVF community builds a college experience that is utterly singular and impossible to match.
93. If there are legitimate reasons the funding structure had to change in FY16, we are willing to work with the faculty to figure out a mutually-acceptable alternative that isn’t as catastrophic as throwing out all RTVF history to date.
94. Northwestern students are extraordinarily good at this kind of thing, and we can definitely come up with a better solution than anyone.
95. But it requires the department to give students a real voice in how decisions get made, and to preserve and protect the rich production ecosystem that RTVF students have been working on for more than thirty years.
Last updated January 1, 2017. While we have endeavored to be as accurate as possible in our findings, we welcome any corrections to errors of fact, or any additional context that is missing from our analysis. Feel free to reach out to the campaign at any time via the contact page, and thank you for supporting Save RTVF.