Film degrees are pricey in credential-hungry society
Faster than you can say, “You’re fired!” New York City is once again an important location in the world of reality TV.
The Independent Film Channel is poised to launch “Film School,” a ten-week project that pits four film students at New York University as they race to finish their student film, and possibly launch their filmmaking career.
Executive producer and creator Nanette Burstein, of “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” is the brains behind the operation. In a recent telephone interview, she said that she has always enjoyed creating docu-series, like her Academy Award-nominated film, “On the Ropes,” which tracked the lives of three Brooklyn boxers. She thought film school would provide an equally dramatic setting.
“Unlike reality TV that contrives drama, my goal is to find drama where it already exists, and film school is like that,” said Burstein. “There are winners, there are losers, and they are all going through drama. To watch these students go for the goal, pursue their dream, and wonder, ‘Will they succeed or fail?’ I thought would be very compelling television.”
“Film School” follows four students: Vincenzo, a 35-year-old Italian man; Alrick, a politically minded 28-year-old; Leah, an overwhelmed 24-year-old from California trying to deal with her mother’s disability; and Barbara, an introverted 28-year-old from Texas who just can’t pull it off.
Fairly early in the series, Vincenzo and Alrick emerge as the frontrunners, despite Vincenzo’s lack of funds—a problem highlighted when her line director, and her boyfriend returned from a week of fundraising in Los Angles with a check for $100, and a $20 “straight from Henry Winkler’s wallet.” Luckily for Vincenzo the couple buys his way out of the problem.
Alrick appears the most realistic about his project. This is slightly ironic, because he ended up at NYU after that was the only school to respond to his requests for an application, sent from the West African village where he was teaching in the Peace Corps. Alrick’s film is a comic book-style allegory that deals with the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times by NYPD officers as he reached for his wallet. Alrick knows his subject matter is controversial, and also realizes he will likely have to finance it himself.
“I’ve been broke all my life,” said Alrick. “When I thought, ‘Who’s gonna help me make this film?’ I knew the subject matter was such that I had to raise the money. I also knew that when [Diallo] was killed, those cops and the justice system had pretty much made it a satire. He was shot 41 times, so it already was a super-hero story—because he had to have super powers to have to be shot that many times.”
Alrick said he originally wrote about the Diallo case in college and later turned his work into a screenplay because it touched him personally, having witnessed violence firsthand in West Africa.
“I didn’t see any distinction between his life and mine,” said Alrick. “The case was important to many because 41 bullets were fired, but for black people, it was easier to see how that could have been my son, or my brother. When it happened, he and I were about the same age, and I just thought, no matter how educated I was, how many degrees I had, it could have happened to me. So I made this film to represent that. I did it to save my life.”
Alrick made sacrifices as well, including choosing his film over his girlfriend.
“You want to hope all those things will still be there when it’s done, but… the art is paramount,” he admitted. “I was working on an issue that was important to so many people, so was it more important than my girlfriend? Yes. Was it more important than being in debt? Hell, yes.”
Even without the added pressure of being on a reality show, making their final film is a financial challenge for NYU students. In addition to their $30,000 annual tuition, even a short film costs nearly $20,000 to make, funding for which usually comes out of the student’s pocket, or more likely, from their credit card. According to information released by IFC, NYU film school students usually graduate with an average of $65,000 in debt.
“The film industry is so unpredictable that you really never know—even Barbara could end up being a great screenwriter,” said Burstein. “They are going to be exposed and promoted in the series, and if they take advantage of that, they could really launch themselves.”
Alrick said he was glad to be a part of “Film School,” because, “this film was something I was already doing, so the camera came and captured it. Because I was working so hard, the cameras disappeared, and I was just taking care of business. But I also know that because of the camera, more people might see the film. From the neighborhood I’m from, that kind of success means so much.”
Alrick is currently working on another short film.
“It is the craziest business. There is no formula. That’s what makes film school so exciting,” said Burstein. “Like gambling, the house has the advantage, so you just have to give up everything and go for it, have the guts to take the risk. Some win—and we interview winners like Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese in the beginning—so there is that shot. One of four could become them… or could be fetching their coffee.”