Letter from a Former URSA Chair

By Grace Hahn, RTVF 2016
Former URSA Chair (with David Brown, RTVF 2016)


At the time of what you could call the “establishment” of the new MAG-based structure, David Brown and I were informed by department heads that the problems with the existing grant-giving system, the one run by student groups, were (a) the prominence of monoculture (the same kinds of movies always being awarded grants), (b) nepotism (or cronyism — only “friends” of student groups getting grants), and (c) competition for equipment and crews between student group-sponsored projects & class projects (the thought that class projects were taken less seriously). I’ll break these each down in detail because, even before the MAG process was announced, these were very relevant and urgent problems that were being discussed by URSA and student groups.


I joined URSA in the Fall of 2014, which ironically was the beginning of all the talk around changing the grant structure. RTVF Chair Dave Tolchinsky was on leave for a year (making a really cool multimedia project), during which Mimi White was Temp Chair. From the get-go it was clear that Mimi wanted the best for undergraduate students, to make the transition easy as possible, but frankly had no direct interest in production before or after the changes (which, as an amazing theory professor, was reasonable to me). She was receptive to our thoughts & feedback, but our meetings basically consisted of plans being relayed to us, plans which we already set in motion. We were told that Dean O’Keefe made an all–School of Communication mandate that was the impetus for the change in structure. We don’t know what her impetus was, but regardless, the changes came from above the RTVF Department. I always wondered if Theatre was having similar struggles… but unfortunately never got the chance to talk it through with any of their reps.

The MAG discussions between URSA and faculty chairs began in Winter 2015 with a meeting that described, not at length, the basis for the MAGs and what the “ideal” future of grant-giving would look like. We were informed that the new process would be phased in for a year, during which students could receive Production MAGs for class projects only and might or might not receive Cage access. Finishing/Supplemental MAGs could be tacked on to class projects or student group-sponsored projects. MAGs were required to include two cost estimates: one with Cage access, and one without. Students, in almost every case, shoehorned their way into production courses in order to ensure Cage access. There was no premiere (or plan for any type of premiere) and there was no contingency to ensure that projects were completed. The vast majority of first year MAGs worked in tandem with a course or a student group.

Dave returned from his leave at this point. We were told at the end of that school year (2014–2015) that the MAG deadline for the following year (2015–2016) would be October 2nd. We were informed that individual meetings were taking place between the department and student group leaders and that at the end of the 2015–2016 school year, student group grant-giving would be discontinued in favor of the MAG distribution process. The new role of student groups would be providing Cage access and mentorship, we were told, like real-world production companies. This left myriad critical questions unanswered going into the summer, particularly how student group and MAG grant deadlines would coincide. David and I, at this point, took it upon ourselves to send an email to the listserv clarifying the next year’s grant process (the email is below). This was the point of peak uncertainty and confusion regarding the timeline of student group involvement & how URSA could contribute to make the MAGs better. Our job had basically become coordinating the spread of information as best we could while changes were still being made and remade. Our meetings with faculty chairs here were particularly roundabout, most of the time ending with them ensuring that we would get our answers through an email or announcement from the department, which never really came. In addition to being generally unfocused and rushed, there was a power dynamic that put me & David at the very bottom of the totem pole, rendering any input on our part useless. Due to the administration’s discontent with student reaction to the MAGs, we would feel the need to provide what little positive feedback we could in order to keep the conversation focused on solutions to the larger problems causing immense confusion and frustration for the undergrad community. This may have been misinterpreted by the chairs as URSA’s approval of the new grant-giving structures, but I can only assume this was a result of their own frustration and need for reassurance. I see this as very reasonable, frankly, because at this point the transition wasn’t going well for anyone involved.

Approaching the beginning of the 2015–2016 school year, the MAGs deadline was pushed multiple times to accommodate students coming back from the summer without a working knowledge of the MAG process. This extra week or so allowed for more time to craft and organize proposals so that interested students could put together a project before the deadline, which became October 9th. At this point, NUWFA & Studio 22 had already awarded their Fall grants and those were left unaffected. Once the Fall 2015 MAGs were awarded, student groups heard pitches solely from MAG recipients (save for Studio 22’s Bindley Grant, which was divided in two so Studio 22 could retain their standard number of sponsored films). This was around the time that we decided to hold a MAG Premiere at the end of the year, partially influenced by the need for a contingency so projects would be completed in a timely manner. By the way, this was a task envisioned by department chairs, yet thrust upon URSA, which was, at the time, busy with their own programming. In another abrupt moment of decision-making without discussion with student reps, the department decided to add another round of MAG Supplemental/Finishing grants to be awarded for the Winter/Spring 2016. Alongside this second pool, the department announced a “First-Year MAG” that was the exact same grant as the Studio 22 “New Filmmakers’ Grant,” for which Studio 22 had already released a call for submissions. So, this was, in essence, though presumably unintentionally, a competitor to the Studio 22 New Student Grant. And as a relevant side note: the Studio 22 NSG premiered at the Studio 22 Premiere & we have yet to see a completed version of the MAG New Filmmaker’s Grant recipient. At this point, the issue of crew and equipment availability became truly dire. There were many projects that operated with far too few students to make it an enjoyable experience and left many sets over budget because they had to rent camera and lighting equipment they might otherwise have gotten from the Cage. Pretty constantly in our meetings with Dave & Bill we mentioned these issues that were hindering productions. We were routinely brushed aside and told that the problems would sort themselves out, that any new process requires trial and error. At the end of the day, the initial problems that the MAG process was established to alleviate all became equally as bad or worse than before.

The threat was constant, and increased over time, that student group collaboration, a large part of what students had credited for their successes and passion for production in RTVF, would continue to diminish. We ended 2016 with a premiere of the MAG films from the past year, where 9 of 20+ awarded MAG projects were screened. David and I left the conversation to be continued and navigated by Erin Manning & Rae Pennington.


The downside of these structural changes in the grant-giving process is being felt almost exclusively by undergrads. A few specific areas of production are directly affected by these changes, almost all in a negative way. Crewing up is impossible — there are too many projects, too many students are leading sets who, very frankly, don’t know how, and the impact of these sets is far from rewarding and engaging: it’s more taxing for students to explore their passions and make movies. David and I see this as a massive risk factor for the quality of projects but also, more importantly, the safety and well-being of students. In addition, equipment access has become increasingly difficult for students to coordinate. The Cage, as we all know, has only a limited amount of equipment, particularly when it comes to camera & accessories. Whether students are trying to shoot their film on a RED One or a 5D, there are only so many camera bodies to go around and the number of MAGs awarded each round makes it nearly impossible to schedule each quarter allowing every single project to use the camera that they would prefer! And that’s just camera! A number of projects of the 2015–2016 school year were forced to spend an incredible amount of money on rentals in order to obtain the visual identity that they were hoping for and that simple fact took significant amounts of money away from production design, post-production work, and general set operation. This accumulates to a massive issue of students being discouraged or unable to finish their projects in an efficient and effective manner.

In that same vein, a number of production processes are indirectly affected by these grant-giving changes. Student groups intentionally and passionately filled a role that provided training for new students through student-group sponsored sets, grip training, and mentorship events. Diminishing the prominence of student groups in the process of production, save for the one or two sponsored MAG productions each quarter, is tantamount to abandonment of students of any year and major who want to get involved in production but have no experience. Student groups have wholly mitigated this potential issue of student involvement in the past and, very frankly, it’s quickly becoming a problem area where department-sponsored projects cannot fill the void.


I think that everything in the aftermath of the grant-giving changes discussed above isn’t even necessarily about the changes themselves: the ensuing confusion and frustration is just symptomatic of a communication problem. Very few people in RTVF know how to talk to each other. At every level. It’s like telephone —the story changes as it goes down the line & back up, thus making a complete overhaul of any system impossible. Giving faculty the benefit of the doubt, they were trying to efficiently and effectively change an already working system, but they couldn’t get their message across in a timely manner, thus thrusting a situation upon students rather than working through the problem with students. It’s my firm belief that this structural change required conversations with RTVF undergrads, student group leaders, and administration in order to solve whatever problems existed (the majority of which, as far as David and I are concerned are explained above). Instead, we had conversations in name only, that were mostly the one-way conveyance of rash and unhelpful decisions made be parties completely unfamiliar with the initial processes of grant-giving and, as a result, the fallout was swift, nearly uncontrollable, and entirely dismissive of the undergraduate filmmaking community.

Email to RTVF Community re: the introduction of the MAG system

———- Forwarded message ———-
Date: Mon, Aug 10, 2015 at 1:21 PM
Subject: Regarding RTVF Film/Media Funding for the 2015-2016 School Year
To: RTVF@listserv.it.northwestern.edu

Hello RTVF!

These are your friendly URSA Co-Chairs David & Grace and we’re here to give you an IMPORTANT message regarding film and media project funding for the 2015–2016 school year.

It goes like this:

The Media Arts Grant (MAG), a yearly funding pool from the Radio/TV/Film Department, will from now on serve as the primary source of funding for production and post-production for RTVF student projects. And, even more importantly, there is only ONE opportunity to apply for this grant for the 2015–2016 academic year. Students can apply for grants from $200 to $1,500 and applications will be due October 9th, 2015. The application, as you will see in a forthcoming email from the department, will consist of a budget and project proposal. You must have a faculty advisor, ideally a Radio/TV/Film production faculty member, support your project. Cage access is not guaranteed for projects and will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

If you received a Media Arts Production Grant during the 2014–15 cycle, you ARE NOT eligible for production or post-production grant funding in 2015-16.

Projects with funding from RTVF student groups during the 2015–16 year ARE NOT eligible for MAGs.

Senior Directing Sequence projects ARE NOT eligible for MAGs.

Class projects and independent projects ARE eligible for MAGs.

Please keep an eye out for an email from Studio 22 Productions detailing how this will impact their grant-giving timeline for the 2015–2016 academic year.

If you have any questions regarding the Media Arts Grant application process or funding, please direct them to rtf@northwestern.edu. If you have any other RTVF-related questions, please feel free to contact us at ursa.nurtvf@gmail.com!

Here’s to the start of another awesome year for NU Radio/TV/Film!

See you all in a month,
Grace Hahn & David Brown
URSA Co-Chairs

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