Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Credit Risk: Student Debt’s Impact on Post-University Film Careers

Film Careers

I've been writing for sometime about the high cost of film programs and the problems created with students coming out with massive debt. The challenge is that the entry level jobs for the most part pay low wages (if the student is not being ripped off and being asked to work for "free" despite that "free" is illegal.) 

One of my former students referred to her monthly loan payment as her "Mercedes" it was almost $1,000.00.  A lot to pay after tax.  This article by really documents the problem of borrowing for film training.  Thank you for allowing me to reprint it.

Mitchell Block

Everybody's Nuts (Photo courtesy of Fabian Euresti)
in Columns, Issues
on Jun 16, 2017

“My credit isn’t what it used to be,” admits Fabian Euresti, who graduated from the film directing program at California Institute of the Arts in 2010. A child of farm laborers in the San Joaquin Valley, Euresti made shorts, including 2010’s Everybody’s Nuts, that have played at prestigious film festivals in Europe (Vienna, Oberhausen, Tampere) and the U.S. (Los Angeles, Full Frame), but he’s currently got more than $100,000 in student debt and remains without a steady job to pay it down.

“Knowing what I know now,” says Euresti, “I would have been more diligent in procuring grants and scholarships so the overall amount could be lower.” He also would have sought out internships during his studies as a means of finding work after school. But the reality is that internships “need a modicum of resources and the luxury of time,” as Euresti says, neither of which many students, particularly those of limited means, can afford.

Euresti’s case embodies the negative cycle for many film students. During school, they need to work part or full time to help pay down their costs, thereby losing out on job-training and internship opportunities; after school, their debt creates the same conditions whereby they’re forced to find jobs that pay the rent — not propel their career ambitions. As Astra Taylor, a documentary filmmaker (Examined Life), author (The People’s Platform) and debt activist (she co-founded the Debt Collective), says, “Who can afford to intern for free with $100,000 in loans?”

Euresti’s story is a familiar and increasingly common one for film and media students. Despite the existence of financial aid, film students, particularly poorer ones, are graduating with a crippling amount of debt, which isn’t just bad for their credit; it’s damaging their ability to work in the very fields they’ve chosen to pursue. The potential result is that the entertainment industry remains an occupation only for the privileged.

Michael Fink, chair of University of Southern California’s Film and Television Production, acknowledges that the highly competitive spirit at film schools emboldens wealthier students and pushes others to take financial risks in order to stand out from the crowd. “Students get excited and ambitious, and they want to have a calling card when they leave as a way to get noticed,” he says. A few years ago, there were some graduate students who were leaving USC with some $300,000 in debt because of the high budgets of their thesis films, according to Fink. “And we don’t like that for a number of reasons,” he says. “It burdens the students, and it’s not a level playing field.”

Today, costs at the top film schools are higher than they’ve ever been. Film undergrads at places like CalArts, New York University, USC and Columbia University can expect to pay nearly a quarter of a million dollars for four years of education because of additional laboratory, equipment and insurance costs on top of higher tuition fees. For graduate programs at Columbia University and the American Film Institute, total fees run over $150,000, while cheaper options such as the New York Film Academy and the Los Angeles Film School charge approximately $40,000 for a one-year program. And then you have to eat and pay rent.

College debt is up across the board in the U.S. (last year’s record-breaking average hit $37,000 per student, according to The Wall Street Journal), but film and media graduates were high on the list of degrees that suffered the most as a result of their loans: According to a 2014 study by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, film and media alumni must pay over 20 percent of their income to cover their annual debt in their first year out of college. Post-graduation, they also appear to be uniquely unprepared for the financial liability: For example, three-year student loan default rates for film and media schools such as Florida’s Full Sail University (21.1 percent), Nashville’s Watkins College of Art Design & Film (15.8 percent) and Columbia College Chicago (10.3 percent) are well above the national average of 7.4 percent, according to collegefactual.com, which compiles data from Department of Education resources.

Not surprisingly, arts-related degrees don’t generate huge amounts of income, particularly not in the immediate years after college. As one AFI alumnus told me, “It’s not like you’re spending $100,000 to go to medical school, and then you get a doctor’s degree.”

Many film school graduates speak about the struggle to balance their debt with their career paths.

Independent producer Diane Becker (We Are X), who graduated from AFI in 2006 with $141,000 in debt, doesn’t regret the choices she’s made because through her connections at AFI she’s found a career making feature documentaries with acclaimed companies such as Passion Pictures and Motto Pictures. But she’s had to make some tough tradeoffs: abandoning work in indie fiction, not having a second child and forgoing retirement savings or a house to live in. “What I’ve done is highly risky,” she says. “I’ve chosen a path where I can’t fail because of the responsibility that I have to pay back these loans.”

Like Becker, many film school grads say their debts have dictated their professions. One 2006 graduate from Columbia University’s MFA film program said he had to find more stable work in reality TV to subsidize his over $100,000 in loans. “While it’s in my field, it’s not exactly the most creative work,” he admits. “That’s the compromise needed to keep paying off the debt. I joke that as soon as the debt is gone, I will be a full-time filmmaker again.”

Another film grad, Christopher Jason Bell, who left Long Island University CW Post in 2008 with over $70,000 in loans, says he chose to work as a security guard immediately after graduation rather than get paid $100 a day working as a production assistant on a film set. Though he’s made micro-budget features and finally got a job working at a studio’s film archives, he admits, “I do tend to feel like I’m a bit closed off from the film community because of my debt.”

Filmmaker Spencer Parsons (I’ll Come Running), who now teaches production at Northwestern University and graduated from University of Texas at Austin’s film program in 2000 with $60,000 in student loans, took a different strategy. He intentionally ignored his loans, letting the total debt compound to about $80,000 to focus on filmmaking instead. “My attitude was that I had to give this career a chance,” he says. “Otherwise, what would be the point of the loans?”

Parsons acknowledges that his path was a “calculated risk.” As full-time faculty at Northwestern, he’s been able to pay the debt down to the original $60,000 in the years since. And he’s continued to work in the world of film production, unlike many of his friends. He says, “I can’t tell you how many people I went to film school with who had to go into real estate at some point.”

Representatives from university and college film school programs acknowledge that debt can be a heavy burden on their students, but they also maintain their commitment to assisting and advising them. According to Bruce Sheridan, professor and current cinema chair at Columbia College Chicago, the nation’s largest nonprofit film and media school, materials and workshops inform students on how to complete their degrees at the lowest cost possible — standard advice includes focusing first on getting subsidized federal loans (such as Federal Perkins and Stafford Loans) or federal unsubsidized loans (unsubsidized Stafford Loans) over the last resort of private student loans. At the departmental level, faculty and staff regularly counsel students on available scholarships and issues of financial responsibility. Still, Sheridan acknowledges, “Few institutions do it as well or consistently as I believe they could, Columbia College included.”

USC’s Fink is surprised by the number of students who don’t even apply for scholarships and aid. At well-endowed schools such as USC and Columbia University, there are endowments and both needs-based and needs-blind scholarships that help defray tuition expenses. At USC, for example, the George Lucas Family Foundation recently made a commitment of $20 million to help students from diverse backgrounds. But there are also over 50 scholarships and funding opportunities available for current School of Cinematic Arts students listed online, from the Gene Autry Fund for Student Support to the Frank Volpe Endowed Scholarship.

Like Fink, Maureen Ryan, chair of Columbia University’s film program, says her program has been able to increase scholarship support at the same time as setting strict caps on the amount of money that students are allowed to borrow to complete their degrees, including their thesis films. “Our faculty is aware of the tuition costs and advocate for as much financial aid as possible for our students,” she says.

At Columbia, however, a group of graduate MFA students recently organized together to protest what they felt were “semi-hidden” fees in their post-coursework thesis years, which amount to roughly $15,000 per year. “The actual details of how they were charged were extremely unclear and misleading,” says one current MFA student. Though the base tuition was $5,000, there was an additional $10,000 in fees, which the students felt blindsided by.

After the students launched a petition, created a Tumblr (CUFilmAction), and began speaking with the dean and the faculty, some of their concerns were heard: They were able to raise some emergency funds for those poorer students who were in danger of leaving the program, service jobs were increased, and Columbia website now clearly lays out the extra costs and fees for third, fourth and fifth year MFA students.

But another currently enrolled Columbia MFA student says that despite individual faculty and administrator’s best intentions, there are systematic problems that allow for the persistence of excessive costs to students. “Everyone has their hands tied somehow,” he says. “The faculty is on our side, but they’re scared of losing their job. The dean is scared of the president, and the president is scared of the board of trustees. These are political choices that someone has to advocate for, but it’s hard for them to come from students, because there are a lot of wealthy students, the turnover is quick, and it’s hard to reform something so big in just four years.”

“If they continue on this route,” adds another student, “they’ll end up with just a group of rich people.”

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sundance Film Festival 2017: What Are The Odds for Documentaries?

This really useful article confirms how challenging it is to have your film shown at Sundance.  
Thanks to Peter Hamilton for writing.

2017 January 6
by Peter Hamilton
Link: http://www.documentarytelevision.com/theatrical-documentary/sundance-film-festival-2017-odds-documentaries/

The Sundance Film Festival will screen 45 feature-length documentaries.
A total of 1,701 feature documentaries were submitted.
  • 823 were from the U.S.
  • 878 were international.
The success rate for feature docs in 2017 was 2.6%!


And Then Comes Distribution…
After Sundance selection and buzz, the next needle to be threaded by documentary producers is distribution:
  • How many of the 45 Sundance documentary selections will win a respectable theatrical distribution deal?
  • Or a television or SVOD deal?
  • How many of these films will receive a proper theatrical launch?
  • How many will pay for distribution in cinemas, drawing on Outreach funding provided by their backers?
  • And how many of those lucky winners will go on to recoup their investment in production and marketing?
BBQ’ing with Robert Redford
  • I attended one of the earliest Sundance Film Festivals when I was co-authoring a Case Study analysis of independent film marketing and distribution.
  • David Rosen led our ground-breaking Study: it was funded by the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project and published by Grove Press.
  • I chatted with Mr Redford at a BBQ at his home, and I can remember that I was startled by his huge forearms. He had played pro baseball. (Years later, I was honored to meet my tennis hero Rod ‘Rocket’ Laver. His forearms were even bigger.)
  • The Sundance Festival was then in its infancy. It was almost a Redford family project. There was an attractive naivete about it all. ‘Independent film’ was an emerging social movement that captured some of the creative energy left over from the anti-Vietnam War and counter-cultural tides of the Sixties and Seventies. ‘Indie’ was a quality that was waiting to be defined and branded.
  • Who then could have imagined the frantic business that Sundance has become today?
PBS: Odds for Acceptance
  • The signature PBS documentary slot POV recently accepted 16 films out of around 1,000 submissions, for an acceptance rate of 1.6%
  • Read more about POV in our detailed October 2015 coverage.
Inauguration Special
  • Regrettably, Gregory Crofton’s ‘theatrical feature’ Case Study of ‘2016 Obama’s America‘ is relevant on many fronts this Inauguration month.
  • That rightwing ‘bio-doc’ grossed $40+/- million, and its producer David Bossie is a player in Donald Trump’s inner circle.
Additional Research: Gregory Crofton

8 Mistakes Filmmakers Make That Kill Their Careers

Elliot Grove's essay on mistakes filmmakers make that kill their careers is both perceptive and on target.  I hope you'll find it helpful.

by | 14 April, 2013 |
Published Link:   http://www.raindance.org/8-mistakes-filmmakers-make-that-kill-their-careers/

As your filmmaking career starts to grow, it’s crucial that your actions don’t strangle it in its infancy.
By avoiding the mistakes that so many filmmakers make you have a far greater chance of succeeding well beyond the first 2 years of the launch date of your career.

1. Doing Too Much Yourself

Business owners as well as filmmakers fall into this trap as they attempt to minimize costs. It can mean that you will get bogged down in the day-to-day nitty gritty, keeping you from stepping back and taking a good hard look at the future. Future planning, and with it, the ability to anticipate problems, are two important areas successful filmmakers have to keep control of. Doing too much can mean that the fire-fighting cycle just keeps repeating over and over again.
Coupled with that is the guilt associated with neglecting family and personal relationships. This often leads to exhaustion and collapse.

Why not call for extra help before you need it, and not after the cracks have begun to show, and usually, it is too late.

 2. You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Most independent filmmakers start their career because they are really good at something. Some are really good at directing action, others have a flair for working with actors, and others are just good solid all-rounders.

What many filmmakers forget is that it is a business which involves a host of different skill sets. They forget that filmmaking requires the basic business management skills such as: sourcing new clients and work, marketing and publicity, recruiting new crew and staff, and managing the cash flow questions that any small business has. Add into this the creative mix and you have the potential for a meltdown.

Running and more importantly, developing and expanding your movie career, is like growing and developing any type of business. It is unlikely that you will have the expertise to do everything needed yourself.

Successful filmmakers learn to recognize their own skills and knowledge and take action to fill the gaps in their career plan.

3. Quitting The Day Job Too Quickly

A filmmaker or screenwriter’s passion in what they are doing is usually so high that they enjoy some initial successes and revenues. They then quit their day jobs and hire premises and staff – only to face psychological and financial ruin when their early successes have been a minor blip on the long hard haul to a successful career.

Everyone needs money in order to survive. Make sure you are able to cover your monthly expenses before you ditch your day job. Often people try to get film work, but don’t know how to get work without experience.

Done correctly, you might be able to apply for funding or enjoy certain strategic tax benefits depending on your personal profile and the geographical territory you live in.

4. You Haven’t Got Anyone To Talk To

Filmmakers have career issues which often require discussion and debate. The difficulty facing most filmmakers is that they find it very difficult to find anyone they can relate to.

Certain legal and technical challenges can be discussed with an accountant or lawyer. But issues of creativity are not the issues you want to discuss with inappropriate people.

Having no network is potentially very damaging. Discussion with a trusted advisor or friend is where one finds new ideas and perspectives. Having your project and ideas endorsed is also nourishing for one’s ego. Lukewarm receptions can indicate that your ideas are not developed enough.

A small network of trusted people able to ‘get’ you and to listen and discuss ideas with you is an essential part of a filmmaker’s success. If this is your first visit to Raindance’s website, why not subscribe to our free weekly newsletter – it’s a great way to share ideas.

5. Working With The Wrong People

Filmmaking is a passionate business. It is also almost always very last minute. Add on top of that, the chronic fatigue. Under these circumstances it is tempting to hire people for production and other jobs quickly without properly interviewing and checking references.

Remember, no matter how good someone is, if there’s a difference in values, then the only questions that matter are “When will the row happen?” and “On what subject will it be?”

Always be asking yourself: how much real experience do they have? Is it relevant to what you need? Are their skills and experience complimentary to yours? Do you have mutual respect? How important will you be to them? Do they know their own limits? What networks and contacts do they bring? Will they let you talk to their previous employers/collaborators to get a feel of how they work?

As always, don’t agree to work with anyone until you feel comfortable. Make sure you don’t fall for one of the cons filmmakers fall for. And make sure you have written contracts in place for any creative collaboration.

6. Lack of self awareness

Many filmmakers are afraid of admitting their fears and inadequacies because they don’t want to lose the mantra of praise that they want to follow them everywhere. They won’t take any criticism from anyone because they don’t trust them and because they believe they know better. When confronted they usually nitpick ridiculously fine details and refuse to entertain the creative or practical suggestions from anyone else.

This makes it very difficult to develop a team, and as the word spreads, they find fewer and fewer people willing to collaborate with them.

Successful filmmakers are brutally honest about themselves. Get some vital feedback from that special and trusted friend.

7. Staying In The Comfort Zone

Most filmmakers work with the same team members over and over again. There is nothing wrong with this – except – who is challenging and testing you and your ideas?

It’s an easy trap to surround yourself with ‘yes’ men. Working with people who challenge you may be uncomfortable, but it’s a whole lot easier then attending a disastrous screening of your movie because no one around you had the courage to say “hang on a minute – what about XYZ?”‘

Hip, innovative filmmakers pick up those cool ideas from outside their conventional thoughts. They learn to accept constructive criticism and learn how to deal with negative criticism.

Mixing with others will increase your chances of doing this. The more diverse your contacts (whether by sectors/age/ethnic group/gender), the more you’ll also be able to “narrow the angles” on potential incoming problems. Someone in your group will have had experience of issues that you haven’t – better to learn from others’ mistakes than get extra battle scars yourself!

8. Not Knowing Why You Want To Make Movies

Filmmakers make movies for many different reasons. It doesn’t really matter why you want to make a movie. Some make movies because they want to make money. Others make movies to get a message across. Others make movies because they are attracted by the allure and glamour.
Decide what your ambitions are before you head off and attempt a career in filmmaking. Realize that your real reason for making movies will predetermine much of what you try and achieve.
By avoiding, at least to some degree, these eight common mistakes your filmmaking career has a much more decent chance of success. Analyze each of these eight areas and take appropriate action.
Best wishes!