"Full Tuition to Make a Home Movie": USC Film School Grapples With Reopening Amid a Pandemic

USC Campus March 2020 - H - 2020

Production students at the top cinema arts institution in the U.S. face a dilemma: take a leave of absence for the fall or dive into the limited virtual offerings while paying full freight, $59,260.

On July 1, as COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles began to surge to their highest numbers since the city issued stay-at-home orders in March, the University of Southern California (USC) alerted its students that all fall undergraduate classes would move online. Days later, on July 6, the administration at the university’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) echoed the order, informing its physical production students that fall production classes, save for one graduate level course, would move online.

While the moves weren’t unexpected given the pandemic, production students at SCA now face a dilemma: take a leave of absence for the semester and hope for a future semester's return to the school’s “hands-on” approach, or dive into the what students describe as an unclear and limited virtual curriculum that could put less wealthy students at a disadvantage. All the while paying full freight in tuition — $59,260 for an undergraduate academic year. Classes begin Aug. 17.

“We are essentially being asked to pay full tuition to make a home movie,” says a junior at SCA, when describing a class overview for the fall that asks students to use their own equipment to make a project remotely. (If students don’t own a camera, faculty suggestions include using smartphone cameras.) 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to over two dozen currently enrolled SCA students, both undergraduate and graduate, that are now grappling with how to resume their education. Some upper-level graduate students have the flexibility to only take electives in the fall, avoiding production all together. Other undergrad and graduate students are contemplating taking a leave of absence, despite the administration’s advice to continue and the difficult reentry in to the school's production track. As one graduate student surmises, “students feel held hostage by the prestige of the school.”

SCA, ranked No. 1 on THR’s list of Top American Film Schools in 2019, sits at the cross-section of two of the industries upended by the novel coronavirus pandemic: higher education and entertainment. Students normally would have access to a resources that include 10 working soundstages, industry-standard postproduction editing lab, sound mixing stages, a color correction suite, as well as a small armada of cameras, lighting and sound equipment that is used to outfit each student production. “Part of the film school and the SCA experience is that you're promised that when you enter the school you're going to graduate with tangible films that you can send to potential employers,” says senior Cameron Kostopoulos.

Upper-level undergraduate and graduate production courses, the ones that yield finished short films, come after curriculum in film theory and individual crafts, like cinematography and editing. While the majority of these student films end up being only an educational exercise — the first time many of the students have been running something resembling a working set — there is often a hope that the short films could act as a springboard for playing in film festivals, acting as a proof of concept for a feature or, in some cases, earning the talent behind them representation. (2020 graduate of the film program, Felipe Vargas, directed a horror-tinged thesis film, Milk Teeth, which caught the attention of CAA, where he is now a client.)

When the pandemic hit the U.S., students recognized early on that their education could be impacted beyond the spring semester. On April 21, a Change.org petition was being circulated asking to put a pause on the school’s production track. The petition argued that the best way to preserve students’ educational experience at SCA would be to place production classes entirely on hold. “It is a disservice to our family of student filmmakers to charge them tuition and other added fees when so much of the education [at] SCA is hands-on,” reads the petition, started by soon-to-be senior Gerardo Garcia, who then met with the then SCA Film and TV production chair Mike Fink to discuss why a pause was not possible.

On June 22, an email was sent to all disciplines in SCA from Dean Elizabeth M. Daley and the chairs of each department outlining what the largely online upcoming semester would look like. For production students, the email explained, the “preproduction phase will be largely online, then students will move to in-person instruction for working with actors and crew, and principal photography.”

Then came the July 6 email, signed by Daley and Barnet Kellman, the interim chair, SCA Film & Television Production. “Given the current increasing trajectory of the virus, we have come to realize that we cannot guarantee in-person experiences, however much we wish to do so,” wrote administrators. As for pausing production classes, the email argued, that “is not possible.” It also warned students who choose take a leave of absence that they “cannot be guaranteed placement in these courses in future semesters,” despite these courses being necessary to graduate from SCA.

Students felt they were now left with a choice between graduating on time or graduating with the professional portfolio pieces that are the program's main draw. On July 9, all production students received an email from Kellman saying that two graduate-level film production courses and two senior thesis production courses, would be “hybrid offerings.” Kellman wrote, “These courses will offer in-person production experiences, in accordance with the state of California’s regulations covering academic institutions.”

Students were able to voice their concerns directly to the administration in an open forum on July 14, during a video conference call with Dean Daley, Kellman and assistant chair of the production division Cedric Berry. According to students in attendance, the majority of the two-hour meeting was focused on contextualizing and explaining why several decisions had been made, so students could understand the limits of SCA administration’s power, both within the larger school and in terms of state and federal laws and regulations. “We’re working as fast as we can during a crisis,” Kellman told the students at the start of the meeting, later addressing the rigidity of the program by saying “COVID-19 is not us being inflexible.”

Yet, in the students’ view, some of the explanations the administration provided seemed to contradict what they had been told before the pandemic hit. “They've always told us how important these films are and how we need these reels to enter the industry,” says Lana Nguyen, a senior who was set to direct a 480 thesis film in the fall. When a question about graduating with a lack of materials for their professional reels was posed to the administration, Dean Daley is said to have offered: “Why you get hired is because of who taught you.”

Speaking with THR, Dean Daley explains, “What we did not want to do was give them definitive answers that we couldn't guarantee were true.” The dean notes that behind the scenes, administration and faculty has spent months drafting numerous outlines for a variety of fall curricula — whether they be in-person, hybrid or completely virtual — all the while consulting with the school's board, health officials and industry professionals. At the time of publishing, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health released a draft of guidelines for the reopening local colleges and universities, but they are contingent on California Department of Public Health guidances for reopening academic institutions, which have yet to be issued. Under the current state guidelines, which were issued in March, institutions of higher education in the state are not yet permitted to open. Despite efforts to be classified otherwise, SCA— like other LA-based film programs— is considered an academic institution.

When USC announced a complete move online, they had to adjust again according to the larger university's orders. Curricula that usually take years to solidify had to be constructed in weeks by faculty working during summer break, which is traditionally spent on personal projects. “We have done absolutely nothing but pivot and make contingency plans since March.”

Both graduate and undergraduate students who spoke with THR say that a misconception the administration seems to have is that students have a desire to be on set. “It really seems like faculty and administration think that the students want to have productions in the fall,” says Garcia. “That isn't the case at all. We actually would prefer not to have any productions in the fall because it just isn't safe.”

Still, faculty and administration are monitoring state and local department of public health guidelines in the event that SCA could possibly resume some form of in-person shooting on student films. “If we could get to come back anytime in late September or October, we could still do some in-person production,” Daley says, noting that this would likely only pertain to graduate-level thesis courses. SCA has acquired “many, many” masks, says the dean, that would be used by students, and has hired a “COVID monitor” for student productions. The masks are currently sitting in storage and, Daley notes, the COVID monitor may not be used, but "we've got to have one.”

The day after the July 14 meeting, the junior students in course 310 met with their faculty members and were sent a class overview, the first concrete production course outline. Undergraduates look forward to these 310 films, where they are placed in trios and rotate between roles like director, producer and cinematographer, ending the semester having worked on three completed short films. This fall, all junior thesis films will be made virtually, with the trios serving their functions over Zoom or FaceTime. During the meeting, faculty also conveyed that SCA will not provide equipment to 310 students. Second-semester graduate class 508 will operate under similar guidelines, as students learned from faculty on July 16.

As outlined in an emailed document sent to students on July 29, the 480 class, SCA's senior thesis film course, will allow the four thesis groups to decide whether they want to produce their scripts — which were selected in the spring semester — virtually from start to finish, or only focus on preproduction for the entire semester, leaving the course with an animatic of their would-be short films.

“The most valuable part of 480,” adds recent graduate, and director of The Order, Ryan Zheng, who is preparing to make a festival run with his 480 film, “is the faculty does an incredible job crafting a simulation of the film industry and preparing us to thrive.”

On top of the struggles involved with moving a hands-on, in-person production experience online, some students are affected disproportionately by virtual learning, like international students and those with disabilities. International students, who make up 15 percent of SCA and have cleared extra hurdles to be part of the program, are now facing a number of unique difficulties with no clear solutions in sight. “As an international student, studying at SCA is a big commitment,” says second-semester graduate student Hsiao Shih-Chun. “The all-online, remote control production 508 definitely teaches students something, but it’s not even close to what I want.”

Many international students who returned to their home countries in the spring spent their semester attending class at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. For the fall, SCA faculty has been instructed to record all classes to give students the option to participate asynchronously, but for many production classes they are encouraged to join live in order to engage in discussions and critiques.

Time zones affect more than just the international student population, highlighting how the experience of virtual learning varies from person to person, and therefore presents unique challenges that don’t always have solutions. “Now that I’m having to work and operate as though everything is three hours later, my sleeping pattern has been completely obliterated,” says second-semester graduate student Julia Elizabeth Evans, who is one of a number of SCA students with disabilities. “This has been taxing on my immunity, my health and my ability to focus and do work because my narcolepsy/cataplexy is dependent on when I go to bed. I’ve been able to be a successful filmmaker with a normal sleeping pattern.”

Another large concern for production students across all levels has been tuition. Undergraduate tuition at USC for the 2020-21 academic year will be $59,260, a 3.5 percent, or $2,004, increase from the previous year. Graduate tuition is lower, at around $39,000, but more students are paying their own way. Tuition is determined by USC, not the film school, and approved by the board of trustees. 

Dean Daley is steadfast in her belief that students will receive an equitable education for the fall semester when compared with a normal in-person curriculum. “They are going to go out ‘COVID ready’ as we call them — we used to say ‘set ready’ and now we say ‘COVID ready,’” she says, adding that the students are receiving more one-on-one time with faculty, as well as virtual learning sessions with notable industry professionals and alumni, including Judd Apatow and Melissa Rosenberg.

Dean Daley has said that the SCA administration is heavily focused on fundraising, but this has not calmed the student fears around financial aid. “We’re doing the best we can. It’s the only thing right now that we’re trying to raise money for,” said the dean during the July 14 video call. Dean Daley tells THR that a student emergency fund has been set up by the school with donations from alumni. Students can apply for aid (up to $1,500) through SCA, with aid meant to go toward rent, food and utilities, among other concerns.

“I was seriously considering a leave of absence due to financial pressures caused by COVID-19,” says a junior. “Now I feel like I am cornered because my financial situation is the same and will not change before tuition is due.”

Administration will waive students' equipment insurance and labs fees. For graduate students this will total $750 and for undergrads $250. Students would normally have access to postproduction software in the school's expansive subterranean labs, but for the fall semester will install editing and sound software AVID and ProTools on their personal computers, at discounted rates.

Under normal circumstances, SCA requires that only the school’s equipment is used to produce projects in order to ensure that students, who come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, are given the same resources. “Being in a school like SCA is, in a sense, an equalizer,” says Kostopoulos, who was set to direct a senior thesis project in the fall semester. “We all have the same resources and a support system, and when you lose that, you lose the whole reason you go to film school.”

Daley tells THR that faculty would likely advise students to shoot on their cellphones in order to create a level playing field. “Whether you are talking about Kathy Kennedy or whoever,” she says, addressing the equipment concern, “they are all saying, 'Just tell them to do stories. We don’t care what they were shot on.'”

For undergraduate and first-year graduate students, because the production track is sequential, returning at a later date is only possible if there is space in a future class due to another student dropping out or taking their own leaves of absence. “Where it becomes complicated in the production program is that, because you move from one course to the other, we cannot guarantee you that you're going to be able to get into that course the semester you return,” Daley says. For junior students entering into 310 in fall 2020, if they take a leave of absence, spring 2022 was given as the next available semester where a seat could be guaranteed to them.

For other students, taking a leave of absence is not an option due to financial aid and scholarship that necessitate continuous enrollment. “I'm stuck in a new apartment lease,” says Nguyen. “I have financial aid and scholarship that are time sensitive for four years and they don't extend beyond that. With my situation, I don't think I could take a leave of absence.” On July 15, USC announced it will award up to $8,000 in scholarships ($4,000 per semester) to students who would normally receive financial aid for housing but decide to stay home this school year.

Still, some students have already decided not to return in the fall, citing issues that lie far outside of SCAs purview like the since-rescinded July ICE announcement barring student visas if individuals are taking online-only classes. “It’s just not safe,” says another international student who has decided to take a leave of absence. “My home country is handling COVID much better and film productions are starting up again, so I can hopefully continue working on my reel [here].”

Every student THR spoke with says they understand the difficult position the pandemic has put SCA in but also expressed the desire for more transparency. “There isn’t one person to point a finger at, and it is clear that the administration is working hard to make something out of this bad situation, but communication could have been handled better,” says Riley Street, who was set to direct one of the 480 films.

“What I would love most is if the students could embrace what is possible,” says Dean Daley, who has also been tasked with running USC's School of Dramatic Arts. “The danger is — and we all do it— we spend the time thinking about what we don’t have and what we can’t get. And that doesn’t necessarily take us further to where we need to go."

It’s been three months since Garcia posted his petition and two weeks until classes begin. He says his desire remains the same: “At the end of the day we just want the best education for what we're spending.”

Aug 5, 1:00 p.m.: Updated with the current status of LA County and California Department of health guidelines for reopening the country and state's colleges and universities.