I went to Northwestern because I wanted to make movies. It’s the only thing I’ve wanted to do since I was 11 years old.
During a campus visit to Northwestern, I sat in the studio in Louis Hall and listened to current students tell me how amazing the RTVF program was. They described how, contrary to the more traditional film schools, students didn’t have to wait until they were in upper-level courses to have the opportunity to make films. At Northwestern, as early as the fall quarter of freshman year, one was able to join a vibrant, diverse, creative community that supported them with equipment, a little bit of grant money, and peers who were willing to impart their knowledge. When I arrived on campus, that was exactly what I found.
Through independent student productions, I was lucky enough to work on projects more varied and ambitious than I ever could have imagined: comedies, dramas, musicals, VFX driven tentpoles, papier-mâché dinosaur puppet lesbian love stories, etc. Studio 22 even got me to think beyond my more traditional genre appetites. It was only after producing a horror movie for Studio 22 that I was inspired to take Deb Tolchinsky’s excellent Horror Production class – a class in which all of the projects were some of the strongest student work produced while I was at the University. All of those students had cut their teeth on sets for Studio 22 and brought that experience back to the classroom. Classwork and independent student productions were not in opposition to each other, but both essential parts of creative growth in the RTVF experience.
Studio 22 was not merely a rubber stamp for friends of the court. Even after winning multiple grants, there were many movies that I would have loved to make, that we simply never got the chance to. Our scripts weren’t good enough. The ideas not fully fleshed out. We weren’t able to effectively pitch them to a room of our peers who wanted nothing more than to help us make movies. But that rejection forces a level of self-examination that is not only better for the art, but essential to being a professional creative.
I had one professor respond exceptionally well to the way I handled myself as a producer on a class project. This person invited me to their office to discuss ways that they could help me with my career goals. Once I was seated across from them and discussing my aspirations to produce feature films (as opposed to teaching), this professor not only had no real connections or advice, but couldn’t even begin to suggest how I approach doing such a thing.
When I moved to Los Angeles after graduation, I was woefully unprepared by class work to understand how the actual business of entertainment works. But because of Studio 22, I was confident that I knew what it took to persevere, to problem solve, to make a movie. Sure the budgets were bigger, but the process, the challenges, the egos, were all the same. Navigating cliques, trouble shooting and working extremely long days prepared me for every job I’ve had, whether it be as an assistant, studio executive, or producer.
Of course, it’s not the University’s primary purpose to be a trade school, but given that Northwestern has such a strong alumni presence in the entertainment industry, it’s shocking how much the University itself lacks the reputation to go along with it. My Northwestern degree may have opened a door for me, but it was absolutely the preparation, work ethic and problem solving that I learned through Studio 22 that allowed me to walk through it.
In The Hollywood Reporter’s 2015 rankings of Best Film Schools, Northwestern ranked 23, behind schools like Syracuse, San Francisco State, Columbia College Chicago, Boston University, and Emerson (as well as traditional powerhouses UCLA, USC and AFI). In the write up on that list, Northwestern was (very deservedly) lauded for its theater program. Dean Barbara O’Keefe was quoted as saying, “We need to bring every part of our program to that level of visibility.”
In the 2016 rankings, Northwestern wasn’t even on the list.
There are many challenges facing the media landscape at the moment. Regardless of how the business and art form evolve, one of the most important responsibilities the University has is to teach its students how to articulate their creative vision to their peers.
Given the lack of diverse voices currently present in the mainstream film industry, I find it hard to imagine that the University feels that its role in creating a solution is to eliminate their support of groups like NUWFA, Inspire, and MultiCultural Filmmakers Collective. And yet, that’s exactly what they’ve done.
The response to the changes in funding structure has been vocal, emotional, and sometimes overly critical, but it has never been irrational. We, as alumni, feel this way not because of what the University was, but because we always saw what it could be.
I’m confident that the creative community that I found at Northwestern, that convinced me to attend the school in the first place, is capable of coming up with a solution that allows both the MAGs and student-to-student funding to co-exist.
It’s a shame the faculty doesn’t feel the same.
Malcolm Gray, RTVF ’08