Film Schools Turn to Television, Digital Shorts To Stay Relevant

Students are learning to finance their own films, make web videos or broaden their horizons into gaming so they can get paying jobs

Twenty-seven-year-old Teddy Diefenbach switched from a graduate film and television production concentration at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts to the interactive media division, in part because he hoped he'd be more employable.

“I want to do creative work, but I also want to have a professional plan,” he told TheWrap. “I wanted to work on a skill that I could find work doing.”

Diefenbach (left) is not alone. Increasingly at American film schools, the usable skill is something other than film.

Also read: The Jobs Crisis: USC Screenwriting Grad Works at Best Buy to Pay His Bills

Since top film schools can  cost upwards of $40,000 a year, many students enter the workforce with substantial loans. That makes the need to find gainful employment all the more pressing. 

In the digital age, institutions including New York University, the University of California, Los Angeles and Boston University have torn down the old barriers between teaching television and film production, and merged film and interactive departments.

The internet age has led film schools to encourage students to think about narrative in different ways than their predecessors did.

“Twenty years ago, people went to film school to become the best filmmaker they could become so they could go out and make films,” Bob Bassett, dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, told TheWrap. “Today, they have to be much more calculating about developing their skills, because those skills are what lead to paying jobs.”

Also read: Lucas, Spielberg Honor Katzenberg at USC Animation Center Dedication

In all cases, there is an increased emphasis on crafting films that can be viewed on YouTube, Funny or Die, or other digital platforms.

 “It’s not just learning to work on a mini-budget or simply recycling a television episode and putting it on the web,” Paul Schneider, chair of Boston University’s film and television department, told TheWrap. "It has to be content that really is outside the box."

Both BU and Chapman University, for instance, now routinely encourage students to create shorter and more interactive film projects.

At NYU, the most cinephile of all the American film schools, the emphasis has turned increasingly to television.

“Television has become a more viable path for many students,” said Joe Pichirallo, chair of New York University’s undergraduate film and television program, told TheWrap.

No longer is NYU the rarified province of the heir to Spike Lee. Now the message is: you may be able to do your best work on the small screen. 

Said Pichirallo: “From ‘Breaking Bad’ to ‘Mad Men’ to ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ some of the most creatively exciting stuff is on television. Those kind of stories are hard to get made in the feature film world, but there is more of a willingness to take risks on television.”

There are also more jobs. Cable is booming and with Netflix and Hulu crowding into the field, a rising appetite for original programming is trickling down into more opportunities for directors, cinematographers and editors who are starting out.

The same is true in the world of gaming.

Credit the University of Southern California for helping to shake things up with the launch of its interactive media department in 2002. Tracy Fullerton, chair of the department, said the past decade has been one of explosive growth for the program, with enrollment swelling to 100 graduate and undergraduate students and a new building scheduled to open next year.

“We’re really thinking about what it means for our students to become media makers in this new world,” Fullerton said. “Our students are actually in demand by companies, in the sense that they do internships and sign letters of intent to come back. These companies are looking for a fresh way of thinking.”

Also read: YouTube Sensation Freddie Wong: 'Hollywood Is Out of Date'

To that end, Fullerton said that USC has begun teaching a class that brings together students from its animation and interactive media divisions with those from its more traditional disciplines with the goal of giving them more experience with gaming and other emerging platforms.

Taking that class could end up being a sound business decision for many USC students. Students from the interactive media division have skills that allow them to more easily navigate the shifting job market.

Of course some things at the nation’s leading film schools remain the same, school administrators say.

“The emergence of digital technology demands a new approach to the educational enterprise, one that is fluid, dynamic and more interconnected, but great storytelling has to be the driver,” Teri Schwartz, dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, told TheWrap.  

It's just that those great stories may unspool on YouTube rather than the multiplex.