Letter from Sarah Hayden, RTVF 2008

I’m writing in regards to the changes in the funding system in the RTVF department. Frankly, I find the changes not only short-sighted, but irresponsible – how Northwestern can continue to claim to have a Radio-Television-Film major in which none of those subjects is actually taught is beyond me. The one saving grace for a waning department that doesn’t offer classes that adequately prepare students for a career in their field of study was the fact that students were able to prepare themselves on the side. Though student-to-student funding was never a perfect system, it was an unequivocally better system than the one that’s been implemented in its place.

First, some background. As a recipient of two Studio 22 grants during my tenure, one as a freshman and one as a senior, I obviously have some bias. However, I also pitched projects that didn’t get grants and ran for Studio 22 president and lost, so I feel like I have a pretty healthy understanding of both sides of the coin. I am also a competent adult, so I can see how hurt feelings in the form of not winning a grant can be difficult to endure, but also incredibly instructive. Part of the excuse for removing student groups’ ability to give out grants seems to be that one had to be in the popular “clique” in order to get a grant. First of all: give your students some credit. As treasurer of Studio 22 my sophomore year, I remember a lot of time being spent during grant deliberations making sure that the appearance of clique-driven decision-making wasn’t present. It was never far from our minds and we made a concerted effort to make sure all manner of projects were represented: comedies, dramas, period pieces, horror films, sci-fi, absurdist, you name it. Throughout my time at school, grants were given to students from all social groups. If someone didn’t get a grant the first time they pitched, they were encouraged to work on more sets, become a part of the “clique” – aka, the extracurricular film community – and try again. Probably the most glaring example of this was one student who pitched every quarter of every year before finally taking the board’s advice, working on other students’ sets, then coming back. He was finally awarded a grant his senior year in what was a fairly unpopular and by no means unanimous decision. It is no exaggeration to say that this person was one of the most unpleasant humans to pass through the hallowed halls of Northwestern. If that person was able to eventually get a grant, it stands as pretty clear – if anecdotal – proof that Northwestern students are able to see beyond their own bias and award grants based on merit, not popularity.

Further, replacing an open and transparent process with some secret cabal of students and faculty is patently ridiculous. How are three students and four teachers somehow better at judging the merit of projects than boards consisting of dozens of a student’s peers? Who is to say that professors don’t have their own biases, which they most certainly do? Who is to say that professors employed by the university don’t have underlying ulterior motives, which they most certainly do? It’s easy to imagine professors choosing projects that could not be considered controversial in order to protect whatever reputation they feel they need to uphold – I loathe to imagine trying to pitch a comedy about teen suicide to a faculty member who may not want to be seen as taking any sort of stance on the topic of self-harm. How can the MAG board possibly claim to be awarding grants based on merit when they don’t even read scripts? I am honestly offended by the notion that any project can receive any amount of money without submitting a script. And then to claim that this process somehow reflects the way that things are done in the entertainment industry – seriously, are you high? All day long, at every job I’ve held in Los Angeles, I read scripts. I read professional scripts, amateur scripts, good scripts, terrible scripts, TV pilots, feature specs, web series proposals, books, graphic novels – I read literally hundreds of thousands of pages a year. To think that your MAG system is in any way representative of the process in the entertainment industry is laughable and a giant disservice to your students. Your professors don’t have time to read scripts? They don’t have time to read a few scripts for short films, which would be – at most – 20 pages long? Your professors can’t spare literally 4 hours a quarter to read and respond to a dozen scripts? Then your professors need to work on their time management. Or, more logically: you need to put the process back into the hands of your students, who probably have even less time than your professors, considering they aren’t being paid to go to class, yet at least have the decency to make time to read scripts because they are passionate about the process.

If anything, I would argue that the professors during my tenure at school were even more biased than any student film board ever could be. In my opinion, professors have always preferred and given preferential treatment to the headier, “intellectual” projects and scripts made in class. I had a professor tell me that he wasn’t even sure he could grade one of my projects because he didn’t agree with my thesis and thought it inappropriate. It was a 5 minute documentary on smoking cigarettes – hardly a controversial subject. I didn’t get into CWMP while I was at school, which was a rather heavy blow at the time. With the blessing of hindsight, I’m able to see that the type of writing I was interested in and the type of writing I excel at was not the type of writing that was preferred by the faculty who made the decision on who did and didn’t get into the program. In fact, to my knowledge, there is only one person from that cohort that could be considered to be professionally creatively writing for the media, so how does leaving decisions on the merit of projects to the faculty end up being less biased than leaving the decision to students? You guys know that “comedy” and “marketable” and “crowd-pleasing” aren’t dirty words, right?

The administration seems to have lost sight of the fact that working in the entertainment industry should not only be the aim of gaining a film degree, but is also signing up for a lifetime of working in one giant “clique.” Learning early and often that you are not special and you will not get everything you seek and that you are not the only person on earth with a modicum of talent is the best thing I could’ve learned in college. I also learned that playing politics is important – that if I didn’t get a grant, I could improve my chances by helping other people complete their own projects and increasing my visibility around campus. That now, as an adult, cultivating the relationships I made on Studio 22 sets in college is the straightest line to employment there is, because these people already know me and will always remember that I was competent even as a 20-year-old. Kowtowing to the complaints from helicopter parents that their kid isn’t winning any grants doesn’t change the fact that, come June, when their kid moves to Los Angeles, life is going to be even harder and the competition is going to be even stiffer and there won’t be anyone to whom they can get their parents to complain. The bottom line is: life isn’t fair. Not everybody is good at what they want to be good at. Implementing the MAG system at the expense of the extracurricular film grants does a disservice to everyone in the program. You know where a great place to learn whether or not you’re a good writer is? In class, with the guidance of alleged professionals who literally grade you on whether or not you are good at something. So please, by all means, give everyone in a production class 500 or a thousand bucks to make a project and see what develops. I love the idea of the MAGs being a sort of finishing grant for classwork, a chance to make class projects that aren’t patently terrible. But do that in addition to student-to-student funding. If you want a forum in which the administration can have some say in what projects are made at school, great, but why take away the agency of your own students in the process? Don’t punish a group who gives out $2200 and $5000 and more to students who have already proven through their classwork that they excel at what they are trying to do because you want to save face with a bunch of parents who can’t cut the cord.

Limiting the amount of money awarded is also batshit insane. Frankly, $1500 isn’t anything in 2016 – it was barely anything in 2006. Sure, a more expensive film doesn’t automatically equally a better film, but some walking around money sure makes it easier to create well-executed, interesting projects. When I was at school, we were making incredibly ambitious projects that often cost between $8k and $15k to produce. Hell, my own project ended up costing about $10,000, about 70% of which came from student-to-student funding. A limit of $1500 is telling your students: don’t shoot on film, don’t use a Steadicam, don’t create a CGI robot to wreak havoc on a warehouse, don’t blow shit up in the woods with an expert supervising, don’t hang someone from the rafters, don’t pull fake intestines out of a tree, etc. Basically: don’t do anything cool that might bring some attention and prestige to our program while teaching your crew something new in the process. Definitely don’t make anything that will get you a job after graduation. Don’t make anything on par with schools like USC or NYU, which should be our equals but are continuously outstripping us at every turn. Instead, settle for the fact that Northwestern isn’t even ON many published lists of the Best Film Schools anymore. Lists aren’t the be-all-end-all, but it’s incredibly embarrassing that Northwestern can’t even make a list in which for-profit schools are eligible options for voters. How do you sleep at night knowing you’ve driven the school’s reputation so far into the ground that it isn’t even considered on par with something like Full Sail University?

Listen, I get it. You don’t want to spend money on undergrads, and that’s fine. You’d rather make room for MFAs in undergraduate classes, MFAs who have somehow decided that paying you $60k a year to be enrolled in undergrad classes is somehow worth their time and money and not at all a scam. You’d rather have every project funnel through the faculty so that you can try to take credit for the creativity of your students and somehow trick yourselves into believing that you’ve cultivated their talent rather than that your students are talented in spite of your best efforts. That’s all fine. But don’t sit there and pretend like the MAG system is beneficial to anyone but the administration. I’m all for improved classes and being able to apply for money for class projects and actually getting class credit for all of the weekends spent on set. But you don’t have to rob student groups of their autonomy in order to do so, especially while hiding behind some flimsy excuse about “cliques” and “fairness.” There is obviously a way for a mutually beneficial system to exist, one that marries the benefits of the MAG system with the benefits of student-to-student funding. Showing alumni that you don’t give a shit about some of the only aspects of Northwestern that they found special and important is a dangerous path to walk. The only reason I’ve gotten work out here in the real world – and the only reason I continually fight to help fellow alums get work – is because groups like Studio22 and NUWFA and Inspire taught us to think on our feet and get creative. There are certain intangibles that can’t be taught by a professor, and those intangibles are what make Northwestern alums special and particularly employable. Moving forward, I can’t imagine that I would be able to recommend young NU grads for jobs because I don’t know that they’ll be able to perform in the way that every graduate with Studio 22 or NUWFA or Inspire on their resume was guaranteed to perform.

You’ve already shot yourself in the foot by implementing this system while actively ignoring the input from current students and not even trying to gather opinions from the very alumni that contribute to the school’s all-important rankings through both donation and graduate hiring. The least you could do is listen, and let the alumni help you keep from bleeding out.