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Flocking to film school – minorities and the film industry

New York — In recent years, many of the high School students clamoring for a coveted spot in New York University’s Future Filmmakers Workshop — designated for members of “traditionally underrepresented” groups — have challenged the boundaries of what that means.

Among the more than 100 applicants competing for the program’s 15 or 20 slots, there are students who have declared “Latino-Scandinavian” or “Jamaican-French” roots, says Carlos de Jesus who directs the program. When it began, the nine-year-old training program was aimed primarily at African-American and Latino students.

The film industry itself offers the clearest picture of who is underrepresented, says de Jesus — “women, Blacks, Asians, Latinos.”

“It’s not a mystery. It’s pretty blatant,” he argues. “The film industry has been dominated, especially at the upper echelons, by white males.”

Lacking systematic entry points, training programs or affirmative action that would allow outsiders access to power, Hollywood has long been dominated by an active old-boy network. But programs like NYU’s Future Filmmakers are challenging that dominance by producing highly trained young filmmakers of all races and ethnicities whose vision may eventually change the way movies and television shows are made.

“We’re going to make a whole bunch of people ready,” said Sheril Antonio, assistant dean for the undergraduate film and television department at NYU’s Tisch School. “We’re not making people to fit,” adds Antonio who helps select students for the 12-week training program.

Keisha Cameron, an undergraduate in the NYU’s film and television program, got her start in film through Future Filmmakers. “A big part of why people apply to the program is to see the down and dirty realities of filmmaking.

By the time I got in [NYU’s Tisch School] I was ready,” Cameron declared.

In recent years there has been an upswing in the number of people of color and women working in front of and behind the camera. But one thing is certain in Hollywood, say many minority veterans and newcomers in the industry: affirmative action doesn’t exist.

“If we understand affirmative action to be addressing the wrongs and ills that have been done previously to a certain point, has Hollywood particularly been a part of initiating that change? I don’t think so,” said veteran actor Danny Glover in a recent Los Angeles Times interview.

Producer Tim Reid scoffed at the notion of affirmative action in the film industry. He says the same anti-affirmative action backlash that is sweeping the nation has caught hold in Hollywood.

“The filmmaking industry has used the political landscape to avoid doing what it didn’t want to do in the first place,” says Reid who is best known for his acting role on the television show “Frank’s Place.” (See interview of Reid.)

That was not always the case in the nation’s movie-making capital. Following a series of hearings held by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1968 on the status of people of color in Hollywood, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a five-year mandate calling for the creation of minority training programs at production companies, studios and networks, which improved career opportunities.

But almost as soon as the doors swung open for hundreds of people of color to get their big break in the entertainment industry, they nearly closed shut in 1975, when government monitoring of the industry ended. More than two decades later, only a handful of training programs still exist. Of the 2,057 entertainment companies contracting with Hollywood’s Writers Guild for example, only 12 offer writing programs targeting people of color.

`Proactive Presence’

In large measure, say some observers, the nation’s film schools reflect Hollywood — largely white and male, a smattering of minorities and an active old-boy network.

Before Tisch School Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell arrived at the bustling urban campus in 1991, the institution was virtually a mirror image of tinsel town, she declares.

She readily acknowledges that before her arrival, “the school was pretty homogenous across the board … it’s a statistical fact.

“Since my arrival we have given not only the department, but the entire school a much more pluralistic and heterogenous content. When you have a plurality of points of view, it has by necessity, an impact on everything, on faculty, curriculum on choice of students …,” says Campbell, who is African American

For example, students of color at Tisch School make up about 40 percent of the student population. “Before that it was about 80 or 90 percent homogenous [white].” Today the assistant dean for television and film is African American and the head of the school’s graduate film program is an Asian-American woman.

Having “a proactive presence” at the school and on the urban campus, is something Campbell relishes.

“What for me will be a sign of real influence is the extent to which students — Black, white, green or purple — are able to stay in the program and find a way of finding their voice and making films. That’s it for me. To keep an eye on our ability to do that for all students, not just those with the resources, but for all students.”

There are already signs that her plan is taking shape, says Campbell, citing recent student success stories. “It signals to me that we not only brought more [students of color] here, but we’re creating an environment where all of our students can work productively.

One of the toughest challenges filmschool administrators say they face is helping students convince parents that four years of lights, cameras and action will be money well spent and will lead to a job after graduation.

“It’s tough to convince families in general that the arts is a viable field, and it’s even more difficult to convince minority parents and immigrants who may be struggling financially,” said Campbell who recalls the tough time she had selling her professional parents on the idea of studying art education in graduate school.

Attending the Tisch School as an undergraduate and graduate costs students $19,265, with an additional $8,700 for housing and other expenses. But beyond tuition and room and board, is the other big ticket item– producing student films.

Campbell estimates that the required graduate-school film can cost about $6,000 but the average for student films, which are about 20 minutes long, is between $10,000 and $12,000. Except for small film allowances provided by the school, students must raise the money for their own projects.

Cinderella Stories

Geoffrey Fletcher, an African-American graduate student, recently learned that his 23-minute student film “Magic Markers,” will be produced by John Singleton. Greg Wilson, an undergraduate who is also African American, will have his award-winning film “The Last Call,” aired on Showtime early this year. And the “talented” crop of Spike Lee Fellows enrolled this academic year with scholarships funded by director Spike Lee, have already caught Campbell’s attention.

Just five years ago, students like Fletcher would have been the exception. Today, Cinderella stories are fast becoming the rule at Tisch, boasts Campbell.

“I can say with a great deal of confidence that there are several more like him. That’s a good feeling.”

Fletcher’s account of the “negotiations” for the feature-length version of “Magic Markers,” is matter-of-fact and punctuated with slow smiles.

He “breezed through” meetings in New York and Los Angeles with “Boyz N the Hood” producer John Singleton, “unflustered and relaxed” — not because such deals are routine, but because the experience seemed so unreal. says Fletcher, who will spend the next several months writing and expanding the script.

“Magic Markers,” a true, “surreal love story,” about two college students, is a dramatic departure from the types of gritty urban Black films Singleton has produced. But Fletcher says the fact that the movie is different and personal is why Singleton responded.

“He’s [Singleton] purposely trying to branch out and do some different projects. If you do an issue that concerns you deeply, people will care about it, given the fact that it is executed properly,” says Fletcher.

Fletcher, who describes himself as a filmmaker who happens to be Black, hopes that his films will have cross-over appeal. “My films concern Black people, but people can look at them and not perceive them as being only about a Black experience.

“I didn’t grow up in the inner city and unless I did a lot of research, I couldn’t do a film based on that,” says Fletcher, who graduates this year.

While most film-school students rarely experience the success that Fletcher and Wilson have already enjoyed, being a film-school trained director enhances the odds of making it in the industry.

The result: applications from prospective filmmakers is up. Since the 1970s, film degrees have increased nearly 300 percent–10 times as much as college degrees overall. Insiders say that in 1989, 35 percent of all first-time directors had attended film school. By 1992, the figure had increased to 72 percent.

Of the 700 undergraduate applications to the Tisch film program, 300 were accepted for the 1995 academic year. For that same period, graduate film:school applicants totaled 840, of whom 39 were accepted.

Spike Lee (New York University), Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola (University of California-Los Angeles) and George Lucas (University of Southern California) are among the noted directors who have led the charge to film school.

“What film school does is provide students with a platform for becoming captains of the industry,” says Raki Jones who teaches at the historically Black Howard University School of Communications which includes a film department.

Two decades ago, film programs were viewed as glamorous. Today, Jones said, film education is seen as a means for “channeling creative expression” and launching solid careers.

Film school is the jumping off point for would-be filmmakers — the place to learn and hone the craft, says Campbell. It’s also the place to begin making deals and networking with movers and shakers.

After Fletcher’s “Magic Marker” was nominated for the prestigious Mobil Award it was included in the batch of promising films sent to California for circulation.

It was a high school acquaintance with connections in the industry that Fletcher credits for “cranking out copy after copy” of his film which eventually found its way to John Singleton. “[Singleton] was one of the first people to respond,” recalls Fletcher.

New York University’s annual, week long International Student Film Festival is one of the biggest draws for Hollywood talent scouts and students from around the world eager to be discovered.

But scouting film schools for new talent, can be “a real hit or miss kind of deal,” says Eric Easter, who writes about filmschool education for the Washington, DC-based Black Film Review magazine.

Unlike the record industry, the film business has shied away from tapping the film schools. “They’d rather stick to what they know best–film festivals where one or two new filmmakers may get discovered. You almost have to make your mark by getting an agent, which can be pretty costly for many Black filmmakers,” said Easter.

Opening Doors

Frank discussions about making it in an industry that doesn’t endorse a particular point of entry, values name dropping and measures success in a host et ways, aren’t always easy, but they are frequent at Tisch, says Campbell.

Graduates and industry leaders are often called on to help bridge the gap between school and the real world of filmmaking. Notable are Spike Lee, who tells students about how he set up a production company in Brooklyn, Ang Lee, who tells how he made the rounds at film festivals hawking his acclaimed film “Wedding Banquet” until someone noticed, and Jeff Sagansky of Sony Records, who speaks about the “non-traditional” path to the industry.

Film school is also about where you choose to earn a degree. The film program at NYU is considered one of the best in the nation and Campbell declares that the name Tisch School will “open doors” for its graduates.

Tisch students have been told by industry executives, says Campbell, that a degree from the school is “their best calling card — it opens doors, it gets your script read, it will get your telephone call returned, it may get you an agent.”

While film programs at four-year institutions are more well known, film and video programs at two-year institutions shouldn’t be overlooked, says professor Robert Hall of Orange Coast College (OCC) in Costa Mesa, CA.

There was a time when would-be filmmakers would have to flock to New York, Chicago or Los Angeles to study and practice their craft. Not anymore, says Hall. Film students with two-year degrees are successfully competing for and getting jobs.

“Today you’ve got 35-40 national cable delivery systems and they all require people working in film and video production,” says Hall. So, students who used to have to live and travel in the right town, can now find work in any county in the country at independent video production companies, shooting weddings, filming court depositions.”

OCC, located just 50 miles south of Hollywood, offers an inexpensive vocational degree in film and video. Its students win prestigious awards and use top-of-the-line industry equipment and production studios to complete class projects. But when industry leaders go looking for rising stars, the community college is generally not on their agenda, says Hall, coordinator of the program.

“I think that may change as our reputation spreads and our students win more national awards,” he said.

In March 1995, three of Hall’s students competed against four-year colleges and universities to capture a college Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for their documentary, “Second Chances: The Bone Marrow Transplant.”

“We were stunned when we discovered we’d won the college Emmy,” said Brad Long, who has since graduated. “We were up against the best film students in the country.” Long recently completed his first assignment as a production coordinator on a feature-length film.


The 30 Most Popular Films by African-American Film Directors Ticket Sold Film Year (000's) Stir Crazy 1980 37,700 Harlem Nights 1989 14,200 Boomerang 1992 13,500 Eddie Murphy Raw 1987 12,800 Let's Do it Again 1975 11,600 Bustin' Loose 1981 11,500 Boyz N the Hood 1991 11,500 Sister Act II 1993 10,700 Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 1978 9,800 New Jack City 1991 9,700 Malcolm X 1992 9,600 Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song 1978 9,300 Passenger 57 1992 8,900 Shaft 1971 8,500 Car Wash 1976 8,400 Which Way is Up? 1977 8,100 Uptown Saturday Night 1974 7,900 Super Fly 1972 7,900 Cotton Comes to Harlem 1970 7,100 The Last Dragon 1985 7,000 Greased Lightning 1977 7,000 Mahogany 1975 6,900 Jungle Fever 1991 6,500 Do the Right Thing 1989 6,500 A Piece of the Action 1977 6,100 Menace II Society 1993 5,500 Poetic Justice 1993 5,400 House Party 1990 5,300 Beat Street 1984 5,000 Ghost Dad 1990 4,900

SOURCE: Greener Grass Productions. “African-American Film Statistics and Marketing Strategies,” 1994


* According to the Hollywood bureau office of the NAACP, 25-27% of all theater tickets are purchased by Blacks.

* Premiere magazine reported that 19 releases by African Americans reached an audience of 40,000,000 or roughly 4% of 1993’s total ticket sales.

* There are 26,000 theaters in the United States. The average Black film is showed on only 380 screens.

* Hattie McDanie became the first Black to win an Oscar for her supporting role of “Mammy” in “Gone With the Wind” (1939).

* Dorothy Dandridge’s performance in “Carmen Jones” earned her a best actress nomination in 1954. She was the first Black actress thus honored.

* Sidney Poitier made history in 1963 when his portrayal in “Lilies of the Field” won him an Oscar for best actor.

* Isaac Hayes won an Academy Award for his music n “Shaft” (1971).

* “One Potato, Two Potato” (1964), was the first film to tackle interracial marriage.

* The first Black horror film was “Blacula” (1972).

* Hollywood’s first Black editor was Hugh Robertson.

* Maya Angelou was the first Black woman director with “Georgia, Georgia” (1972).

* “The Homesteader” was the first film directed by a Black director (1918), Oscar Micheaux.

* Oscar Micheaux made more than 35 films in 30 years.

* The first all-Black Hollywood films were “Hallelujah!” and “Hearts of Dixie” (1929).

* “Harlem on the Prairie” was the first Black Western (1938).

SOURCE: Greener Grass Productions. “African-American Film Statistics and Marketing Strategies.” 1994

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COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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