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NYU film course mixes business with pleasure

Three-year Masters program awards MBA along with MFA

Enrolling in film school used to be a pursuit of one’s inner artist, not one’s inner accountant.

But the lines between creativity and commerce have increasingly blurred in the film biz, especially the independent production realm, and three years ago, New York U launched a joint MFA/MBA degree program to meet those overlapping needs. Its first class is set to graduate this spring.

“I want my students to have careers. And today that means being much more savvy about business,” says John Tintori, chair of NYU’s graduate film program, who helped create the joint track.

While USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program gives students practical business training, its students come away with just an MFA degree. In the joint NYU program, students take core business classes, such as accounting, finance and marketing, in their first year at the university’s Stern School of Business. The second year is spent at the university’s Tisch School of Arts — alma mater to such talents as Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and Ang Lee — where they learn everything from camera skills to narrative storytelling. In their final year, students take elective classes from both schools.

“The indie film business has always been an incredibly speculative one with a very difficult risk-to-reward ratio,” says Peter Newman, a film producer who oversees the MFA side of the joint program. “We are trying to encourage students to find and develop ways to make the business end of indie film more pragmatic and sensible.”

The criteria to gain admissions to the program are stiff. Undergrad GPA, GMAT scores, written essays and previous work experience are all taken into consideration. At the same time, “we are looking for storytellers who will thrive in the collaborative environment of filmmaking,” Tintori says.

Of the 100 or so applicants who have applied each year since the launch in 2008, NYU has accepted about four students per year, with plans to boost enrollment to six, Tintori says. Tuition for the three years totals about $149,000, comparable with what a student pays to receive a law degree from NYU.

The original idea behind the program was to help business students interested in careers in Hollywood to better understand the creative processes, Tintori says. But it also became apparent that filmmakers needed a grounding in business.

For the inaugural class’s third year, NYU recruited high-profile members of the indie film community as adjunct professors, including producers Ted Hope, Christine Vachon, Peggy Rajski and John Sloss.

“We want to teach kids how to get their films financed, made and distributed,” says Sloss, who along with Vachon is teaching a class titled Art & Commerce. “The goal is to create an amalgam of business and the creative.”

For student Heather Jack, who previously spent three years working in development for Jerry Bruckheimer Films and is now on track to be among the first wave of grads in May, the program helped fill voids in her experience.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time on sets,” says Jack, 30. “So I’ve learned actual filmmaking. And I didn’t have any financial background. My experience at Stern has given me the tools to manage change throughout my career. That just gives me so much more autonomy.”

Ryan Heller was a Boston-based guitarist when he decided he was burned out on the music biz and wanted to pursue a career in film.

“Like the music industry, I see a transitional sea change in the film business,” says Heller, 31, also in his third year. “The barriers to entry are so low now. What the program teaches you is how to get your films out there. The program allows you to enter one side (of the business) or the other. If I choose to be purely a filmmaker, I always know I have my MBA in a drawer if I ever need it.”

The first snapshot of the program’s success, of course, will be just how well graduates like Heller, Jack and two others do in the real world come May.

As Sam Craig, the director of the entertainment, media and technology program at the Stern School, puts it: All the training focuses graduates to “look at film as a business that must succeed in a highly unpredictable market.”