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Film Schools

When Matt Reynolds left film school at the University of Miami in 1998, he couldn't wait to move out to Los Angeles to begin his career. Reynolds brought with him his unfinished thesis film, which he needed to complete before he could receive his master's degree in fine arts, and his student-loan debt, which, after three years, totaled nearly $100,000. Yet, Reynolds' foray into

film-related jobs proved disillusioning. He discovered that the competition was tough, and the best jobs were for no pay. "The people who have a bigger advantage are the ones who are

able to work for free -- because those are the jobs where you can move up -- as a PA or in an internship at a bigger company," the 34-year-old says.

Reynolds, however, had no such luxury and needed to find a paying job -- fast. He soon landed a position as a driver for an audio postproduction house. However, the 70-80 hour work week left him little time to finish his own film, and the stigma of being an in-house messenger made it hard to move up within the company.

"I realized, you're ghettoized as a driver; it's tough for them to take you seriously," he says.

Reynolds' story is not unique. With the proliferation of programs at the undergraduate and graduate level -- Bruce Sheridan, chair of the film and video department at Columbia College in Chicago, estimates that between 20,000-30,000 students are enrolled in film programs across the country annually -- thousands of grads enter the work force each year with large debts and entry-level job prospects, sometimes ending up in positions they could easily have landed without an advanced degree.

"They go out with a heavy debt load," admits Bruce W. Ferguson, dean of Columbia University's film school in New York, where tuition costs run close to $30,000 a year. "If they win some awards as they go forward, they start to cut it down, but those are the people at the top end. For a lot of students, it's a large debt load that they carry with them for a long time."

Of course, whether one lands a movie-related gig fresh out of film school can depend largely on which school one attended, relationships built along the way and one's own initiative and talent. Some students today are trying to outpace the competition by finding representation prior to graduation, shooting internationally or spending more on thesis films.

But no matter what approach one takes, the film industry is very difficult to break into.

If there's one single fact that most students bemoan when they land on the industry's doorstep, it's their lack of real-world contacts -- not the quality of their education.

"When I first came to USC (in 1991), I asked every one of our successful alumni what was the best thing and the worst thing about their time at USC," School of Cinema-Television dean Elizabeth Daley says. "All of them said the worst thing was they didn't get enough help leaving."

Looking to remedy the job-placement problem, the top five film schools -- the American Film Institute, Columbia University, New York University, UCLA and USC -- have, in the past 10 years, hired student-industry relations faculty, implemented internship programs and organized industry screenings of thesis films. Some schools have sent out DVDs of student work, organized pitch fests and job fairs and published booklets of student screenplays.

"I am very sensitive to the investment that students are making," NYU Tisch School of the Arts dean Mary Schmidt Campbell says.

In the past two years, NYU has formed partnerships with ABC, Showtime and Court TV, whereby the networks partially fund and then air student films every year. The school also administers hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and scholarships to student and alumni projects and maintains an impressive presence on the film festival circuit.

NYU, arguably the most prestigious institution in the country, leverages the cachet of a laundry list of marquee alums -- including Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, M. Night Shyamalan, Todd Solondz and Oliver Stone -- many of whom reinvest in the school by hiring student interns, setting up scholarship funds or mentoring scripts.

Across town at Columbia University, students specialize in one of three disciplines: directing, screenwriting and producing. Meanwhile, at Los Angeles' AFI, there are six: directing, screenwriting, producing, cinematography, editing and production design.

In both cases, having a clear career focus can help graduates when it comes time to look for a job. How quickly they break into the industry depends, however, on what field they choose, according to Sam Grogg, dean of AFI's film school conservatory.

"For the cinematography discipline and the editing discipline, the transition is rather quick in terms of being able to move into camera department positions and assistant editor positions," he says. "For a writer, it may take several years before they sell that first screenplay. For a director who comes out of this program, if they have a thesis project that gets a lot of attention, they might move faster, but it's hard for them. It usually takes three to five years -- sometimes longer."

In addition to outreach initiatives and name recognition, an esteemed institution offers the opportunity to be part of an influential alumni network. "I say to people, 'For God's sake, go to film school in Los Angeles,'" says director (and UCLA grad) Todd Holland, whose credits include Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Wonderfalls," the latter of which is slated to debut in January. "Your friends get jobs, and they become your network."

The faculty at top L.A. schools often includes working professionals who can turn out to be valuable resources. USC grad Yana Gorskaya won her first three jobs -- editing feature-length documentaries -- largely on faculty recommendations, notably from editor Kate Amend (2000's "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport").

Gorskaya cut her first film, ThinkFilm's documentary hit "Spellbound," directed by USC grad Jeffrey Blitz, over the span of two years while she was still a student. After that, Gorskaya could easily land jobs on the strength of her own work.

"Was film school worth it?" she says. "Oh, God, yes. 200%."

As more and more graduates compete for the same number of jobs, savvy students are taking steps to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack.

"The most interesting development in the last few years is that a lot of these students get managers and attorneys while they are still in school," says WMA agent Rob Carlson, who represents Jon Chu, the 23-year-old USC grad signed by Sony to direct a remake of the classical musical "Bye Bye Birdie," and Jeff Wadlow, the USC grad whose film "Living the Lie" won the 2002 Chrysler Million Dollar Film Festival. "A lot of the young people that I have signed in the last two years have all come to me with managers and attorneys."

This phenomenon is partly attributable to a USC curriculum that teaches the business of the business, where students learn, among other things, the ins and outs of representation.

"The real world is a totally different world than the world of film school," says Larry Auerbach, associate dean of student-industry relations at USC and a former veteran WMA agent. "I tell the students they can start coming to us in the first year of school instead of waiting until their last year to start thinking about what they're going to do when they get out. They can start networking while they're here."

It helps that Auerbach himself is a good networker. When Carlson was tipped off about Chu and Wadlow, he called his former WMA colleague to find out more about them. The associate dean's endorsement certainly helped the students' prospects.

Chu and Wadlow stood out, says Carlson, for their reels and their poise. "Both of these guys were very well-put together, and their presentation was amazing," he recalls. "They are incredibly articulate."

The desire to stand out from the crowd has caused students to up the ante on their thesis projects. While the standard budget is about $1,000 per minute of a 16mm short's total running time, it's not unheard-of for students to deplete an inheritance or max out family credit cards to shoot on 35mm with budgets that border on $50,000.

Instead of joining the arms race, less-exclusive schools are fighting back by offering creative initiatives and individualized attention. For example, Columbia College offers a semester in Los Angeles for its students, hosted on the CBS lot in Studio City; the film school has the largest and most diverse student body in the country.

Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia boasts a nurturing environment, where students receive close, personal attention from the faculty and even have the home phone number of the dean, while a yearly international film festival brings big names to the campus.

Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles encourages students to think outside the box for their thesis films, allowing one recent graduate, Lilianne Matta, to shoot her project in Beirut, and another, Tony Bui, to shoot in Vietnam, with the school providing the equipment and set insurance for their international productions.

Still, other programs are geared specifically for working adults. Los Angeles City College offers affordable day and nighttime certificates in film and TV production (at $18 a unit for California residents, it's perhaps the best-value film education in the country); LACC also boasts such successful alumni as Mimi Leder (2000's "Pay It Forward") and Albert Hughes (2001's "From Hell").

UCLA's film department offers professional programs in screenwriting and producing, modeled from its graduate course work but held in the evenings and online. The university's extension program also offers evening classes in areas such as commercial production, entertainment finance, film scoring, postproduction, writing, directing, cinematography, marketing and distribution.

No matter what school a student attends, however, the same pitfalls await the new graduate. One of the most common is not leaving with the one-two punch of a thesis film and feature script waiting in the wings."I tell students to have something ready," USC's Auerbach says. "The night your picture screens and you get a phone call, what are you going to talk about? If you are a producer, try to acquire a couple properties; if you are a writer, it's up to you to sit down and write something."

As the vast majority of students don't get calls from Hollywood agents the night their thesis screens, they will instead try to gradually move up the food chain. Luckily for them, a film school degree today commands much more respect than it did 30 years ago.

"When you're hiring people and they have a film degree on their resume, it indicates a certain level of desire, passion and experience," says Bob Osher, co-president of production at Miramax (and a USC grad). "I know they'll put in the work."

Graduates, particularly those with master's degrees, have confidence in their ability, adds A.P. Gonzalez, head of production at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. "They are well-prepared," he says. "If they get that opportunity, they stand a much better chance of making something of it (than a person who has not gone to film school)."

The most important thing for students to do, says Loyola Marymount dean Teri Schwartz, is to "continue to develop their creative muscle. You don't have to stop doing your art just because you need to buy groceries."

Even students with award-winning films find that they need day jobs to keep them going. After taking home a gold medal Student Academy Award in 1998, NYU grad Greg Pak spent five years in various jobs before his first feature, "Robot Stories," premiered this year.

Meanwhile, he continued to write screenplays and make DV shorts. "The hardest thing in the world is to keep paying the rent and, at the same time, by hook or by crook, find some way to keep making movies," he says.

For Reynolds, now five years after leaving school, his life has finally started to turn around. Although he hasn't yet paid off any of his debt nor finished his thesis film, he has, since January, been working as a cameraman on the documentary "River Ways," a privately financed project directed by one of his University of Miami peers.

And during the four years he worked in low-rung positions, Reynolds also wrote four screenplays. One, "Mall Cop," co-written with USC grad Selena Chang, is a dark comedy about a shopping mall security guard. The script is currently casting, with independent producer Andrew Louca and director David Greenspan attached and half of the film's $1 million budget raised.

Although Reynolds is pleased that his prospects have improved, he doesn't look on the years he spent as a driver as a waste of time. In fact, for "Mall Cop's" main character, Reynolds says he drew heavily from that era in his life: "Your experience informs everything you do. It's all material."