Letter from Madison Berry, RTVF 2014

Dear RTVF & SoC Administration,

My name is Madison Berry, and I am an RTVF graduate from the Class of 2014. I am writing in regards to recent changes made to the structure of student film production, in order to express my concerns as an alumna, as well as my gratitude toward the RTVF program.

The RTVF community during my time at NU was one of the most vibrant group of creators I have encountered anywhere in life. The passion, hard work, dedication, and tenacity of these students was inspiring. The sheer amount of on-the-ground work Northwestern students put out in order to get the job done on what was an amazing crop of films over my four years is nothing short of incredible. Almost more importantly, it was done as a community — students woke up early to be on sets for their classmates, they pushed themselves to do the best work they could for one another, and took true ownership over what they made happen each and every weekend on set.

I truly and fully believe that part of what made this level of dedication possible was the structure of student-to-student grant-giving. These institutions created what I believe is a truly unique balance unlike any other program at NU’s peer institutions. Film boards like Studio 22, NUWFA, MultiCulti, Niteskool, and others asked for the best from their community, and the community answered mightily. Expectations were set high, because students had to not only answer to their school, but one-on-one their peers who put them through the paces to get their best work caught on film (or memory card). In turn, students expected these boards to do their best to facilitate good films and provide excellent resources. This reciprocal responsibility could have been shaky, but instead it was spectacular. Each wheel in the cog rose to its highest level in order to make the whole machine run smoothly, and I think the work put forward at the end-of-the-year premieres speaks to that.

I don’t think my time at Northwestern would have been nearly as rich and fulfilling without these film production boards. This is not to dismiss what I learned in classes. The dedicated faculty at NU provided me many challenges and drove me to put my best foot forward, and I learned so much from them both in and out of the classroom. I am excited by the prospect of the department becoming more directly involved in student filmmaking, and I will speak to that in a moment. First, however, I wanted to share exactly how key my time with a specific board — Studio 22 — was in my time as a student.

As an aspiring filmmaker, Studio 22 pushed me to be better. I pitched as a producer for two films (neither of which were given grants). In order to complete the pitch packet, polish the script, and pitch directly to the board, my directors and I were asked to do some serious footwork. The result was a detailed understanding of the ins-and-outs of the filmmaking process before we even got near a camera or a call sheet. They asked us questions I had not even considered, and truly expected incredible work. We answered and learned as much as I did in a whole quarter of Producing or Production classes.

As a producer, Studio 22 was invaluable. I co-produced the 2013 Bindley Grant, a mammoth undertaking. Having access to $7,500 in grants allowed us to do a truly epic film, one that I cannot imagine doing with more limited funds. While a big undertaking for students, I learned so much about what it truly takes to make a $11,000 film — and I know my crewheads and crew would say the same. Having Studio 22 there to help us through every stage of the process was necessary. With so many board members, there was always someone to answer our call and, more importantly, to hold us accountable. We made a better movie with their oversight.

Finally, as a member of the 2013-2014 executive board, Studio 22 changed how I see filmmaking entirely. The weighty responsibility of doling out grants truly pushed us to make our selections with care. We were entrusted with selecting films fairly, selecting a diverse array of opportunities for our fellow students, and ensuring that each film we chose could achieve its vision under its circumstances. This was sometimes a very stressful process, but that just made us want to do our best. Having that direct responsibility changed how we looked at these films, and we strove to do our very best work. It was key to how we worked as a board.

I would not be the person I am today without all three of these facets of Studio 22, and I believe others would say the same—not just of Studio 22, but of NUWFA, Niteskool, MultiCulti, and others. I believe ALL of these organizations are key to the RTVF experience. I also believe they ALL function at their highest potential when they are responsible for at least some portion of grant-giving. They have to answer to their “constituents,” and they ask the very best of their recipients in turn. Speaking from ample experience, there is absolutely nothing more invigorating than the artistic community this creates.

I certainly believe the MAG has a place at Northwestern. I am thrilled that the department is taking a hand in funding more student work directly. However, based on many information sources, I am extremely worried by how the role of student-to-student funding organizations is being altered so dramatically. As an alumna, the face the the RTVF community is taking a turn that worries me — MAG grants simply not getting produced, for example, is very disheartening to me. This was never an option in my time at NU with a well-oiled system of symbiotic responsibilities, something that prepared me immensely for the “real world.”

I also worry that the MAG does not seem to reflect the true needs of the production community. The pitch process for the MAG is far less thorough and goes through far fewer experienced film student hands before being accepted. Fewer students who have hundreds of set hours to their name are guiding others through the process. While this opens up opportunities in some ways, I believe it will cause the quality of student film experiences to suffer. Finally, the lower levels of funding additionally may make ambitious projects much harder to produce. There is always a place for small films at NU, but the larger sets provide students a chance to be involved in professional-level sets that serve as irreplaceable job experience.

When MAG grants only account for up to $2,000, this makes large films only available to students with the means to fund them. This has a truly distressing impact on the educational equity of Northwestern. That is a huge disservice to the diverse group of students working in RTVF, some of whom rely on larger grants, or larger access to multiple grants, to complete the ambitious works they dream of.

I am confused and frankly upset that the MAG and student-to-student production boards cannot coexist peacefully, through either split funding or for production boards to fundraise for their own additional grants. I would be thrilled to see funds further diversified among student groups and other resources. I understand that Studio 22 having a large share of grant funds is not ideal, and I am eager for change and for fresh ideas. But to know all funding comes *only* through the MAG is counter to everything that I believe made the hard-working RTVF community so fantastic.

As an alumna and donor, I want my funds to go directly to the experiences that most shaped me — in this case, film production boards. How do you foresee the role of Studio 22 and others as decades of alumni know it playing into the future of the RTVF department? Can we continue to earmark donations for student-to-student grant-giving? How do we give directly to the student filmmaking opportunities that made us the diverse, successful, and enthusiastic alumni community SoC has today?

I understand that the college experience is not static. As a CWMP graduate, I feel very passionately about my time in my cohort, but also understand the limitations the program created. I enjoyed seeing it develop in a new direction. This change, however, is a fundamental alteration of the NU RTVF experience, and that worries me greatly.

NU enriched me in many ways. I am excited that it will continue to do so for generations to come, and I am especially excited to think of the truly unique experience RTVF students receive when given student production board opportunities. I hope the department will reconsider its complete overhaul of the funding process, and work to further the communication between students, faculty, and alumni.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Madison Berry, RTVF 2014
Burlington, VT