Streetwise: Rethinking Motion Picture Arts Education

By Sheffield, Sandra Lee | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Streetwise: Rethinking Motion Picture Arts Education

Sheffield, Sandra Lee, Journal of Film and Video

As a recent graduate (San Francisco State University, MFA, Cinema) and new teacher, the subject of motion picture arts education is still fresh and alive in my thoughts from both perspectives. In fact, I knew before attending graduate school that I wanted to teach and applied only to programs that emphasized motion picture arts production and studies as well as offering significant opportunities for graduate student teaching and mentoring. As a result, I have ruminated on these combined topics for the last seven years.

At present, I am in post-production on a documentary for a local public television station and teach film/video production and studies part-time. I am also at a crossroads: should I pursue more professional "real world" production experience or a full time faculty position? This is not an easy decision. If I spend another few years working in the industry it is likely to appear that academics wasn't my first choice. Furthermore, faculty positions under the very best of circumstances are difficult to obtain. The fact that there is demand for motion picture arts teachers makes this a rare opportunity for applicants.

Increased student interest and the boom of new motion picture arts technologies have prompted the current motion picture arts education growth trend, especially in the area of production. However, the upswing has actually been steadily gaining momentum since the late 1950's-when the Hollywood studio apprenticeship system collapsed and aspiring auteurs began turning to colleges and universities for an education and the necessary training. At that time, only a handful of schools offered any sort of motion picture arts degree and none offered any specifically in production.

Within the past few decades, students seeking motion picture arts degrees in both studies and production combined have increased nearly 300%. That is a rate of 10 times higher than any other degree. Furthermore, over 650 colleges and universities now facilitate programs in the motion picture arts. Of those schools, more than 120 offer undergraduate programs with a production emphasis. Plus, over two-dozen schools now award a Master of Fine Arts degree in motion picture arts production.

Today, close to 75% of all directors working in the film/television industry have received some formal education and training. By next year, industry analysts expect that over 90% of all new working directors will have attended some sort of motion picture arts production program.

The Economics of Media Education

Unfortunately, the proliferation of motion picture arts programs and degrees does not seem as fortunate for students as it is for teachers. According to the US Department of Labor, there are only 247,000 wage and salary jobs in the combined motion picture arts and television production and services industry. Hence, nearly half of the current film/television professionals would need to retire or quit their jobs immediately in order for the over 110,000 students currently enrolled in motion picture arts academic programs to find employment related to their degrees. And that statistic doesn't take into account all of the students enrolled at two-- year institutions, non-accredited programs or the legions of previous graduates who are now motion picture arts wallflowers.

Moreover, 70% of all film/television jobs pay less than $10.00 per hour. And, nearly 60% of all people working in the industry work freelance, on a contract basis or parttime. This is seven times higher than the average for all other professional occupations. Because employment is irregular, the majority of those professionals also report that they are unable to earn a living solely from their film/home-video/television related work.

If you consider that the US Department of Commerce estimates that the average American adult watches approximately 7.5 hours of film/home-video/television a day, then there is certainly a good case for continuing to increase the number of motion picture arts critical studies and appreciation courses.

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