After his junior year, film and media studies professor Charles Musser ’73, then an aspiring filmmaker, left Yale College. Although he had engineered his own major in film studies as a special divisional major, he said that there was no one on campus to teach students even the most basic technical film skills.
Musser returned to complete his Yale degree after two years, during which time he worked on an Oscar-winning documentary. He started teaching in the Film and Media Studies program in 1992, where he has since stayed. As the program has developed, Musser said he has tried to continually advocate for greater film offerings on campus.
Several developments have taken place over the last year in an effort to fortify film resources: The art major added a filmmaking concentration, the Digital Media Center for the Arts opened its access to all of Yale College, and a new student coalition, the Yale Film Alliance, hosted Yale’s first-ever Student Film Festival.
Still, Musser said the Yale administration remains far from treating film as seriously as it does other art forms, such as music or theater.
“Is Yale trying to start a filmmaking renaissance? I don’t know,” he said. “I’m eternally frustrated and optimistic at the same time.”
BALANCING THEORY AND CRAFT
Alumni, faculty and students interviewed have noted that the academic community has been slow to recognize film’s scholastic value. Harvard University, for instance, did not add a “film studies” stream to their Visual and Environmental Studies concentration until 2004. Students wishing to study film at Brown University often concentrate in Modern Culture and Media, whose inception only predates that of Yale’s film studies program by a few years.
Faculty members, alumni and students agreed that part of what makes designing film and media studies curricula so difficult is the question of how to balance the oftentimes abstract study of film theory with the teaching of film production, which can be highly vocational in nature.
Annette Insdorf GRD ’73 ’74 ’75, a Columbia film professor who taught at Yale from 1975 to 1987, and was then director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia from 1987 to 2014, noted that interest in film studies has risen across the board in American universities. She also said that the growing numbers of production-based courses in such programs is due both to increasing student demand and decreases in film equipment costs. Insdorf said film production and theory serve each other in film curriculum, and that no student should take courses in only one area.
At Yale, film professors specializing in theory and those specializing in production agreed on the necessity of offering a strong mixture of courses in both areas. Currently, Film and Media Studies majors in the production track are required to take seven theory-based courses, making up half of their credits towards the major, and those in the theory track must take at least one production class.
Still, a number of alumni, students and faculty have lamented the lack of craft-based courses in the Film and Media Studies program.
Film director René Brar ’99 DIV ’04 said he recalls a number of his college professors looking down upon film production courses in favor of theory courses.
“It is the worst kind of arrogance to think that you can understand film without ever having tried to make a film,” he said. “If you haven’t attempted that, you’re a fool who should not be talking about movies.”
For many, extracurricular hubs like the DMCA have provided technical education in areas not covered by Yale’s academic offerings.
Over the summer, the Yale College Dean’s Office announced that the DMCA would be restructured, resulting in the creation of a faculty director position and the elimination of the digital media specialist positions that Lee Faulkner and Ken Lovell, the DMCA’s former co-directors and co-founders, had previously held. While administrators said the restructuring was designed to better synchronize the center with other arts programs, hundreds of students and alumni expressed anger at the layoffs.
Kyle McNally ’07, now the vice president of production and development at actress Lisa Kudrow’s production company in Los Angeles, was one of hundreds to sign an online petition decrying the restructuring. He wrote in a comment on his signature that he “would have been dreadfully underprepared for the real world” without the help of Faulkner and Lovell, who he said “stepp[ed] in where the Art & Film Studies curriculum failed.”
“Yale College is not a trade school by any means, but the technical, analytic, problem-solving skills developed at the DMCA have been far more beneficial to my career in entertainment than a lot of the theoretical/academic Yale coursework,” McNally wrote alongside his signature.
Still, all students and alumni interviewed said they chose to attend Yale for a liberal arts education, not a vocational training program. Many of them further argued that a Yale education has actually been more valuable in the industry than a degree from a technical film school.
Sandra Chwialkowska ’05, who has written for eight different television shows, including “Rookie Blue,” said she has noticed a wide variety of educational backgrounds among television writers. She also recalled seeing academia come into play on set, noting that the lead cinematographer on the World War II period drama that she is currently writing for constantly talks about art history when planning film shots.
“He is always referencing painters, not camera lenses,” Chwialkowska said. “I remember feeling very frustrated as a student, and wanting that technical education. But now, if I could go back and take a semester, I would take a bunch of art history classes, or that Cold War class I never took, because that’s the knowledge I could use.”
In fact, students and alumni interviewed said that film schools — even top-ranked schools, like those at New York University or the University of Southern California — are inferior choices compared to a liberal arts experience.
Sandra Luckow ’87, an adjunct filmmaking professor for the last 20 years in the School of Art, received an MFA in filmmaking at NYU after attending Yale. She said she had an extremely negative experience at NYU largely because of how positive her education as an undergraduate at Yale had been.
Student filmmaker John Chirikjian ’17 said he has spoken to numerous friends and professionals who said that they regretted going to an undergraduate film school. Daniel Matyas ’16 noted that he got into and almost attended film school at USC, but his high school film teacher advised him against it.
“He told me, ‘If all you ever do is study how to make movies, what do you have to make movies about?’” Matyas said.
But Josh Stern ’06, the director of development at Protozoa Pictures — the production company behind films including “Black Swan” and “Noah” — said that he has noticed a certain industry-savvy amongst student interns from film schools like NYU that he worries Yale students lack. Film students, he said, seem to have better grasps on different paths within the entertainment industry and how to negotiate those paths.
Stern said that, while he values the liberal arts model and learning how to think critically, he thinks Yale ought to incorporate some more pragmatic industry education to serve the students who want to enter the industry.
“It’s a harsh transition without that kind of knowledge, and Yale ought to implement it,” Stern said. “So that students aren’t just sitting in the Ivory Tower thinking they’re the next Quentin Tarantino.”
STRENGTHENING INSTITUTIONAL SUPPORT
Still, most filmmaking on campus happens outside the realm of the classroom.
A majority of the student filmmakers interviewed said that they were not Film and Media Studies majors. Six reported that their film-related experiences had taken place entirely outside of structured courses or extracurricular groups. “Harold,” which won “Best Narrative/Experimental Film” and “Best Cinematography” at March’s student film festival, was created entirely by students who are not Film and Media Studies majors.
Jordan Plotner ’17, the film’s composer and co-producer, and Chirikjian, its director, also said that they have never taken a course in the Film and Media Studies program.
But all but one of the 12 students interviewed also said they had utilized equipment at the DMCA to create their projects, and highlighted the very impressive quality that the center houses.
As the cost of film equipment goes down with improved technology, which three Yale faculty members and one from Columbia all noted, the DMCA has acquired several new pieces of equipment, whose high quality was praised by users and has impressed many industry professionals. Matyas, a computing assistant in the DMCA, said that industry professionals are astounded when he tells them which cameras and recorders are available to undergraduates through the DMCA. He added that he has toured MFA programs in Los Angeles, where the quantity and caliber of student-accessible equipment are not as strong as what the DMCA offers.
All 12 students interviewed agreed that the events of last year — including expanded access to the DMCA, the formation of the YFA and the implementation of the filmmaking concentration in the art major — indicate heightened administrative efforts to improve film-related infrastructure and unite a previously scattered community.
Dara Eliacin ’15, YFA’s founder and producer of “Harold,” said she and several other filmmakers on campus first proposed the idea of the YFA to the YCDO in spring 2013. The YCDO helped the founders develop their organization and brainstorm ways to enhance support for film at Yale, she added.
In addition to building a website, where filmmakers can post screenings, jobs or acting and crew-related opportunities, the YFA launched the first annual Yale Student Film Festival in March, where 20 original films debuted.
Benjy Steinberg ’17, who won “Best Documentary” and “Best Cinematography” in the festival, highlighted that the festival offered opportunities to engage with and learn from alumni and other filmmakers on campus, who came together for the weekend.
But while the students interviewed said they were impressed by the recent growth in film resources on campus, they also maintained that there are still areas for growth on campus.
Within the curricular level, Musser added that the University has not had a full-time filmmaker professor in several years, which he said put Yale behind peer institutions. He said both Harvard and Princeton have at least one full-time filmmaker as part of their respective faculties.
“This has got to change,” Musser said. “There’s a certain kind of vision and leadership that only a full-time filmmaker can truly provide.”
While Charlotte Juergens ’16, co-president of the Yale Film Society and an independent documentary filmmaker, noted that the support system has grown over the last year, she recalled being surprised by the difficulty she faced when taking out a Creative and Performing Arts grant in order to make her documentary, a historical feature on D-Day veterans returning to Normandy. She said she found this particularly frustrating as it seemed as though her friends in the theater community were receiving the means to put on performance after performance.
“I understand that it will always be more expensive to make a high-quality film than a high-quality minimalist theater production,” Juergens said. “But my experience was that it was incredibly difficult to get even the amount of money that it would have taken to make a theater production.”
Juergens said the money she received from the University for her project accounted for a small fraction of the cost of production, adding that she ultimately turned to external funding sources, such as Kickstarter and private donations.
Four other students who said that they had been awarded CPA grants to make films expressed frustration with the program’s restrictions. Chirikjian and Matyas both said that, because the grant was designed for theater productions, it does not account for essential parts of filmmaking, including transportation.
BREAKING INTO THE INDUSTRY
Derek Webster ’99, the new Office of Career Strategy associate director for the arts, recalled graduating from Yale with career services that provided no viable connections to industries in the arts, leaving him and many others uncertain about the future.
“I graduated from Yale a wide-eyed film major with a script in my pocket and some vague idea that Hollywood was the place I ought to be,” Webster said.
Webster assumed his position over the summer, taking the place of Katie Volz, who was hired three years ago to be the center’s first-ever arts career specialist. Webster said he hopes to ensure that students hoping to work in creative industries will do so “prepared to make more mature mistakes, and skip over the ones that are really better avoided altogether,” many of which he experienced first-hand during his 10 years as an Los Angeles-based literary manager and script consultant.
Administrators and students interviewed pointed to the creation of the arts director position, and the appointment of a film industry veteran in Webster, as signs of a growing support infrastructure for film careers at Yale.
Students and alumni can find another resource in Yale in Hollywood, a Los Angeles networking hub founded 12 years ago by entertainment professionals Kevin Winston and Aaron Kogan ’00, who said that he noticed a lack of formalized Yale networks in the entertainment industry when he first moved to Los Angeles.
The organization has grown over the last 12 years; it now includes a dozen subcommittees and is the Yale Alumni Association’s largest shared-interest group. It has also hosted three conferences with top entertainment executives, with more than 350 attendees each. It also includes a summer internship program that Winston said has helped more than 300 students find positions.
Kogan pointed out that the group arranges both formal and informal networking opportunities in Los Angeles, adding that prestigious industry alums like Bruce Cohen ’83 (“American Beauty”) and Jeremy Garelick ’98 (“The Hangover”) have come to speak with interns at gatherings that YIH has planned.
Student composer Jordan Plotner ’17 secured his first Los Angeles-based job — working for composer Chris Westlake — after a Yale in Hollywood representative connected them. Plotner, who has composed for commercials around the world and for multiple television shows on Fox and TLC, recalled scrolling through IMDB and sending hundreds of emails in an effort to forge connections, and described the necessity of orchestrating contacts in order to make crucial connections.
Several alumni reported that the prestige that comes with a Yale degree can act as a catalyst for industry opportunities. Kogan said that while Hollywood is not widely considered an Ivy League hotbed, the Yale name causes industry professionals to pay closer attention.
“The immediate reaction is a net positive, and then it’s immediately shaped in one direction or another by how you handle yourself,” Kogan said. “So if you tell someone you went to Yale and you come off as pompous or arrogant, it’s going to be even worse. But if you know how to treat people with respect, it only brings positive connotations.”
Steinberg, who interned this summer for Sonar Entertainment and a Los Angeles-based production owned by Oscar-winning producer Dan Jinks, highlighted the similarities between Yale and the film industry. The people on the business side of the film industry, Steinberg said, are highly motivated, creative and intense — and, in that sense, quite like students on campus.
Andrew Cohen ’99, who is currently preparing for his first feature-length directing role for the film “House,” a new comedy with Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell, said that the Yale name played a huge role in landing essential connections. He said that he managed to break out of assistant jobs in the agency world, and ultimately into working for Judd Apatow — who would eventually help springboard Cohen into co-writing last year’s “Neighbors” — largely because he went to Yale.
“[Apatow] was teasing me about going to Yale and being a ‘motivated student,’ i.e. geek, but he loved it,” Cohen said. “There’s a brand recognition with Yale that is shorthand for ‘This guy is smart and works hard.’”
Even still, careers in the film industry are by nature unstable and insecure.
Matyas has had six film industry internships in Los Angeles during the last three summers. Despite his experience, he said he does not have the job security going into his senior year as do his friends who work in industries like finance, where many are offered future positions a year or more before they graduate.
“It’s the nature of creative industries,” Matyas said. “There’s just no guarantee that you’ll be able to return.”
As an undergraduate, Stern interned first at Focus Features, a major film distribution company, and then at a management consulting firm. He recalled the then-CEO of Focus advising the interns against entering the film industry, which he warned was in decline. Stern recalled that the consulting company, on the other hand, constantly made him feel like a member of a secure and privileged group. He went into his senior year with a job offer, which he took; but, two years after graduating, he found himself missing film work.
Stern said it was only when he then made the transition into film development, where he continues to work, that he realized there were more secure business tracks within the film industry.
“At Yale, there’s this ‘vacuum’ into banking and consulting, and the security that provides,” he said. “You need to be really strong to not get sucked in, and you’re at an age where that’s tough.”
The contrasts in daily life as a consultant versus an assistant in the film industry, Stern said, were striking.
“I went from traveling widely, thinking about really complex, big-picture things, to focusing on ensuring that my boss was getting his lunch on time,” he recalled.
Starting as an assistant, as Stern did, is widely considered the primary way into the business side of film. Many recent graduates who aspire to producing, distributing or development careers, or others who hope to someday direct, try to get a foot in the door by getting jobs in the mailroom of creative agencies such as William Morris Endeavor, International Creative Management or Creative Artists Agency. Typically, entry work in these agencies entails sorting mail and working as a “floating assistant” before eventually becoming an assistant.
Dara Eliacin ’15, who is now working in the mailroom at WME, said she is enjoying her work so far.
“Everyone who wants to go into the industry goes to work in an agency first,” she said. “It’s kind of like film school.”
But other alumni recalled unpleasant experiences in the agency world. Screenwriting professor Marc Lapadula said he has seen students turn away from the industry altogether after feeling exploited in grueling, unpaid internships.
Cohen recalled working at CAA — the same agency where he is now represented — shortly after graduating. There, he said, he “learned how to be organized, deal with difficult people, work in a fast-paced environment and lie.”
“I wanted to work in the belly of the beast,” he said. “But I was so bummed and bored about my job, and I thought, ‘I have to do something or I’m going to go crazy.’”
He directed a “spec ad,” a fake commercial designed to show advertising agencies in hopes of getting hired, that he would use to show to Adrian Lyne, the director of “Flashdance” and “Fatal Attraction.”
That job would propel him out of the agent world, which Cohen called a welcome change.
Brar was also dissatisfied with his first industry job after graduation. Working for Ridley Scott’s feature development company, Brar said he grew restless with the “glacial” pace, which he said took more than three or four years to see a project from start to finish. At the same time, he said he felt stifled by the time commitment, which necessitated reading multiple scripts per week as well as keeping up with a seemingly endless stream of pitches, leaving no time for him to pursue his own projects. Rather than try to climb the development ladder, he said that he chose to go down the independent filmmaking path.
Ben Boult ’14 is also pursuing the independent path, and said he graduated with enough savings to try his hand at freelancing for a year. While he noted that while he has been booking more and more shoots in the last few months, he felt quite alone and disheartened when he first started.
“It’s starting to feel more viable, but there have been other days when it has felt less so,” Boult said. He added that he keeps a detailed spreadsheet with the names of every contact he has ever made in order to keep track of his own network — a necessity when trying to book shoots or find a pair of experienced hands on set.
Several industry alums emphasized that regardless of the infrastructure that Yale provides, ingenuity and a dogged work ethic will lead students to create quality films on campus and beyond.
“The thing is, if you want to make a movie that badly, you’re going to find a way,” Chwialkowska said. “Every project will be better than the one before. It’s really as simple and as difficult as that.”