Letter from a Former Studio 22 Chair

By Maxwell Saines, RTVF 2013
Former Studio 22 Co-Chair

My whole life I’ve known that I want to work on the business end of entertainment.

While many, if not most, of my RTVF peers came to Evanston giddy with the excitement of getting behind a RED camera or writing what could be the next Blacklist script, I was always more fascinated by the piecing and packaging of the different elements of a film, the development of a show, the deals; growing up, I would scour IMDb and the trades for hours a day.

On my tour of Northwestern, I was told that that there was a place for people like me at the school. A specific program in the pipeline was even touted in conjunction with Kellogg, which at the time was the number one business school in the country. When I arrived at campus, I was told that this program was still nowhere near fruition, but that, in the meantime, if I was interested in producing, I could get involved with Studio 22, Northwestern’s premiere student-run film production company on campus. I petitioned as a PA the first chance I had, for a film called Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.

Sophomore year, I pitched to produce a project with a friend and was awarded one Studio 22’s $3,000 Spring grants. Both the director and I had worked on a handful of Studio 22 films previously and admittedly sought out members of the board to ask what it was they wanted in a pitch, but I think by most accounts, we would have been referred to as “outsiders” to the Studio 22 community, so we considered ourselves extremely lucky to have been afforded the opportunity. Being outsiders, there was no inherent crew attached to our project, but with the implicit faith put in us by the Studio 22 executive board, we were able to assemble a collection of extremely talented individuals as crewheads and an excited and energetic bunch to round out the rest of the crew. The set developed a bit of an infamous reputation, frankly, but I hope that most came out of the wacky experience (which, through one of the worst storms I had experienced at Northwestern, ultimately required falling to many of the contingency plans to our contingency plans) with an appreciation for what we had accomplished. On a personal level, I was incredibly excited to flex a muscle that I had hoped to use a bit more frequently in the classroom. My enthusiasm for the role must have been noticed, as at the end of the year, when board petitions came around, I was asked if I would be interested in applying for the role of Finance Chair.

Throughout my time on the board, both as Finance Chair and later Executive Co-Chair, it became very clear very quickly that the administration had concerns about the existence of Studio 22 as an independent, student-run organization. My Co-Chair and I, as our first course of action, reached out to our faculty adviser and every administrator who would meet with us (and some would not) to hear about the ways in which S22 was perceived to have functioned well or poorly. I remember at our first board meeting, we encouraged the board to attend a one-off town hall meeting that the department was holding in response to some growing student discontent. Our purpose in attending was solely to hear the concerns of the students and reconvene at our next meeting to see if there were any ways in which we could help or take action to alleviate some of the tension.

I was dismayed to discover that the school’s representative, an adviser from the department, when confronted with many of these issues, including the lack of openings in writing classes, the lack of equipment in The Cage, and the general “us versus them” mentality that the administration was perceived to have, blamed many of the departmental woes on Studio 22. Before continuing, it’s important to note that facing this angry mob was a thankless task, and this adviser being the departmental fallman who was willing to do so is greatly appreciated. And the concerns he raised that night consisted of nothing I didn’t later hear from other members of the administration for the rest of my tenure on the board.

These concerns ranged from students not completing their homework from weekend “Studio 22” shoots, to Studio 22 monopolizing the school’s production funding for the RTVF program, to overworking students and not providing the real world experience of a unionized crew with adequate breaks. When push came to shove, pretty much all of the student grievances were in some way attributed to Studio 22.

I privately sent a somewhat scathing letter to this adviser, explaining how much work we had put into making sure that the faculty didn’t have any concerns, only to be ambushed unexpectedly as a scapegoat.

I found it to be totally out of line to blame both the cultural and budgetary issues of the RTVF department on Studio 22. The entire grant-giving budget of Studio 22 was under $23,000 dollars a year. It is important to note that $7,500 of this is donated directly by Bill Bindley, a generous alum who hoped to promote independent student filmmaking. An unknown percentage of the remainder is covered by alumni donations specifically earmarked for Studio 22. Our premiere at the end of the year made enough in profit to cover the rest of our annual operating budget outside of grant-giving (ASG covered the cost of the events we held that year as well). This brings the total of departmental funding we received to somewhere between $0 and $15,500. The high end is certainly no small number to scoff at, but it is certainly not enough to hire another faculty member, not to mention the fact that the same straw-man argument applied to Studio 22 could be equally applied to the “Indian Cinema Seminar” over spring break that same year where ten faculty members were flown business class to India while staying in a nicer hotel than the students on the very same trip.

To the adviser’s credit, he took my email as an opportunity to open a dialogue with the department. The department chairs’ largest concerns seemed to be with the levels of transparency and equity in the Studio 22 pitch process. We had already taken some measures to improve this but, after these discussions, did a complete overhaul of the entire pitch process.

The larger changes included:

1) Introducing a new round to the pitch process consisting of blind script submissions.

a. This prevented board members from even subconsciously demonstrating bias when evaluating a script.

b. More importantly, though, it provided an opportunity for students who were incredibly strong writers, but with less Studio 22 and/or directing experience, from being eliminated based on experiential concerns. Should a writer be selected to the next round, they could then opt to attach a director to pitch with them. We facilitated writer/director mixers to help streamline the process of writers meeting directors.

2) We eliminated the concept of $1,000 and $3,000 grants, and introduced a universal $2,200 allotment. Besides being cute and on-brand, this change could be attributed to the student feedback we’d received indicating that:

a. No one felt that $1,000 was enough to cover a short film budget (or at least that these films could always have been improved with more funding).

b. Different dollar amounts inherently led to a belief that one grant was superior to the other.

c. And most importantly, it created one pool of applicants for each pitch round, rather than two, which more easily allowed for an overall meritocracy (and yes, there were multiple years where the board felt there were stronger projects from the $1k pot than the $3k pot and vice-versa).

None of these decisions were taken lightly and all were heavily workshopped. There were many iterations of this process that were brought to the student body that were rejected; even in its final form, one could argue it was still flawed. What one could not argue is that a large, deliberate effort was not undertaken to get student feedback through town hall meetings, mass emails, surveys, and countless private conversations. Another indisputable fact was that for every round of pitches we held that year, the administration and faculty members were invited to watch and give feedback. For two rounds, no one attended. After a tumultuous relationship for half of the year, we were finally able to convince one faculty member to stop by for fifteen minutes of pitches, though they only stayed for a handful of the pitches and none of the deliberations, as these, taken quite seriously, often lasted through the night and into the early hours of the morning.

This shift to the MAG process demonstrates the same issues I have been seeing since my time on the board. The administration is quick to point fingers at what could be called an imperfect process, but not as willing to put the time, thought, and energy into creating a better system, or empowering the students to do it themselves. I am unclear how the new process provides more equity or transparency when all it does is shift the power from a decentralized group students to a centralized group of administrators. Besides completely disenfranchising the student groups, this new process, from what I’m told, consists only of one round – in which a pitch packet is submitted. No scripts are read, no discussions are had with the creators, and no engagement is made outside of the allotment of funds.

But more importantly, there is no reason whatsoever that the MAG process couldn’t co-exist with Studio 22, NUWFA and Niteskool in their current forms. If there is concern about providing opportunity to all, the MAG system will do this just as effectively with or without restricting Studio 22 and other organizations of its kind. The only logical conclusion to reach as to why the administration has taken these actions is that they fear students would still gravitate to student organizations over the new MAG process, if the two were to co-exist.

So I ask this question: why is it that rather than putting in the time and effort to create a viable alternate to Studio 22, the administration is making a killing blow to what is arguably some of SoC’s most positive legacy?

I say all of this not to be provocative, but simply to point out that the school’s concerns with student-to-student funding have been an issue for at least the last few years (though I’m sure far earlier). For a student to have questions or concerns about the pitch process, or the day-to-day operations of these groups, is completely valid. But after receiving feedback from hundreds of people who engaged with Studio 22, I have never once encountered a student who felt the best course of action was to strip Northwestern of its student autonomy. And as anyone who attended the town-hall meeting I’m referring to will tell you, these students were not afraid to share their feelings.

I now live in Los Angeles, where the SoC alumni network (aptly nicknamed the Purple Mafia) is unimaginably supportive and intimate, given its vast size as well as the level of success many of its members have. Since graduating, I have heard heads of networks and agencies, Emmy-winning writers, actors, and countless others speak of their fondness for their time at Northwestern. But they don’t seem to discuss their favorite classes or even their dorm or fraternity. They speak about the Niteskool they directed, the WaaMu they produced, the Studio 22 film they wrote. And while I will forever cherish my time at Northwestern, it saddens me to know that my fellow Wildcats won’t get to experience what I feel made Northwestern so special.