New York's film schools diversify, fuel industry


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Finding commonality among the three most recent best director Oscar winners and this year's grand jury prize winner at Sundance seems like a long shot. But Joel and Ethan Coen, Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee and "Frozen River" helmer Courtney Hunt do share one part of their varied backgrounds: They all happen to have all attended film school in New York City.

"I'm going to sound like a proud mother, but why not?" boasts Sheril Antonio, New York University's associate dean of film, TV and new media. "NYU's contributions to the larger film community are significant. Hollywood has finally acknowledged that by awarding our alumni the Academy Award for best director for the past three years."

For years, New York has been not just a popular production spot, but the place to which aspiring filmmakers flock to learn the trade, perhaps taking their early cues from Scorsese's success nearly 30 years ago. In those decades, the field for film students has grown increasingly competitive, but attendance remains on the rise -- and Gotham has become a prime alternative to the educational options closer to Hollywood. Yes, both NYU and Columbia University are two of the nation's top universities and are based in Manhattan, but high school students recently voted NYU and Columbia as part of the top 10 "Dream Colleges" listed in the Princeton Review.

NYU drew Marc Forster all the way from Switzerland. "I read an article about the school and about Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee, Scorsese, Oliver Stone -- all of these people who went there," he said last year. "I just thought, 'This sounds like a really interesting school.' "

Fellow alum Julia Loktev has found her success in niche markets, as when IFC First Take released her minimalist thriller "Day Night Day Night" in 2006. "In my case, the best part of the film school was the fact that we were rotating on each others' films, so we did every single part," she recalls. "I'm not a very good assistant camera operator, but I can do it, if necessary."

In order to prepare students for festivals, NYU teaches the basics of producing as graduation nears, followed by a showcase of student work in the First Run Festival. "At the end of their careers as students, they are indeed introduced to some real-world competition," Antonio says.

Columbia, meanwhile, has no such built-in festival, but recent figures suggest it doesn't need one: At this year's Sundance Film Festival, two dozen entries contained major crew members with Columbia degrees, and of course, Hunt got her grand jury prize. "I didn't expect it," Hunt says of the film's reception. "It was so gratifying. I've been offered opportunities to direct other things, which is wonderful."

Columbia and NYU can exclude a lot of aspiring filmmakers, thanks to high tuition and the cost of living in New York City. But a developing initiative managed by IFP called NextGenNYC will highlight 10 films by students from four colleges in the City University of New York during Independent Film Week in September.

"It's about creating a pathway for filmmakers," says IFP executive director Michelle Byrd. "It's supplementary to the good work they're doing on their own."

One other option for those who find the bigger film schools daunting is the Ghetto Film School, which was founded by former social worker Joe Hall in 2000. The GFS aims to highlight talented filmmakers in their teenage years, primarily those who in the South Bronx and Harlem, although they've had some participants from other boroughs in recent years.

Hall maintains a close relationship with Columbia and NYU, having invited the deans of both schools to speak at GFS, and considers the film program at Hofstra University to offer solid opportunities for film students.

Still, he takes a practical approach to the discipline. "You don't need the degree to practice filmmaking like law or medicine," he notes. "Unless our students are going to a truly outstanding university film school, we really encourage them to pursue other majors."