You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

How the Rigors of Academics Push Artists to Oscar Noms

Although no one academic institution can claim bragging rights to those contending for the top prizes for directing and writing at the Oscars, the DGA and the WGA, NYU and Columbia can count several alumni among the nominees. But one contender can directly credit her nomination to a now-defunct studio writing program in which she won a coveted spot, while another boasts of “sneaking in” for a couple of semesters at one of the nation’s top schools for film and television because a respected professor recognized his talents.

As competitive as these creative categories are, so are the schools that produce many of the directing and writing hopefuls. This year, NYU is represented by three alums — Bennett Miller, E. Max Frye and Nicole Perlman — while Columbia also boasts three, Dan Futterman, Graham Moore and James Gunn.

Although he did not graduate from USC, screenwriter Jason Hall (“American Sniper”) looks back fondly on a course taught by legendary film school professor (and longtime Variety reporter) Art Murphy. “It encompassed everything from script to pre-production, production, budgeting, marketing, making prints to ads. It was the best course in film school,” he says.

Frye (“Foxcatcher”) attended NYU after dropping out of college and bumming around Europe in the early 1980s — a time, he says, when the admission requirements were not stringent — and has taught screenwriting classes there periodically over the years. In his first semester as a student, still foundering with his goals, he took a dramatic writing course and found his calling. By the time he graduated, Frye emerged with a draft for “Something Wild,” which got him an agent and launched his career as a screenwriter.

NYU’s undergraduate and graduate programs as well as USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and the American Film Institute’s Conservatory all pride themselves on providing filmmakers with a range of creative skills upon which to base a successful career.

“We have a reputation as being unconventional. We call ourselves ‘insurgent filmmakers,’” says Joe Pichirallo, chair of undergraduate film and television at NYU’s Kanbar Institute at the Tisch School of the Arts. “You need to know basic storytelling principles but at the same time we encourage people to take risks to find their own artistic point of view. Invariably, some will challenge traditional ways of telling stories — and we encourage that.”

Graduate students at NYU enter the program as directors but shoot, edit, write, design, direct and produce their own and each other’s films. In their second year, students are required to makes 36 short films in three months. “Through the rigors of production, through the collaborations and detailed focus on craft and story and each individual voice, they have all forged skills and built relationships that will carry them into and through their careers,” says Barbara Schock, chair of NYU’s graduate program at its Tisch School of the Arts.

“They value originality and artistry over commerciality,” Perlman says of NYU, where she double-majored in dramatic writing and film and television production. After graduating, it was as one of the few participants in the Marvel Studios Writers Program, which operated between 2009 and 2012, that she chose to work on “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“They gave us each an office on the lot, and we got to choose a project from comicbooks or comicbook characters,” she says. “After graduating, they brought me back to work as a regular writer.”

AFI’s Conservatory is an elite, graduate-level two-year program with about 140 fellows per class, and a conservatory unlike the one depicted in “Whiplash,” says its new dean, Jan Schuette, with a laugh. But “Whiplash” screenwriter-director Damien Chazelle, a graduate of Harvard and a former student of Schuette’s there, is one of many filmmakers who come to the campus each semester to screen their films and conduct Q&As with the students.

“It’s only five semesters teaching graduate students, most of whom have already been working in the industry somehow,” says Schuette. “It’s like a finishing school for filmmakers.”

Graduates of the program come out not only with finished short films and scripts but with a multidisciplinary web of colleagues with whom they have been teamed on their projects — editors, producers and cinematographers — connections many of them maintain in their professional careers.

They also gain instant inclusion in a network of alums since the conservatory’s founding in 1969, a group of about 4,600.

“The teaching is unique, and we have a motto. If you go to AFI, you become a filmmaker,” says Schuette.

More Film

  • Martin Scorsese's 'Rolling Thunder' Bob Dylan

    Martin Scorsese's 'Rolling Thunder' Bob Dylan Doc Hits Netflix June 12 (EXCLUSIVE)

    You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, but Bob Dylan fans have been waiting for some kind of reliable forecast to know when “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” might be rolling in. Here’s that storm alert: Netflix will be releasing the documentary June 12. [...]

  • Avengers: Endgame

    Box Office: 'Avengers: Endgame' Racks Up Massive $169 Million Globally

    “Avengers: Endgame” is barreling toward a record-eviscerating weekend after opening to a mighty $169 million in its initial day of global release. That heroic haul includes a $107.5 million debut in China, an $8.4 million launch in South Korea, a $7 million bow in Australia and a $6 million day one in France. All in, [...]

  • Phyllida Lloyd’s ‘Herself’ Adds Cast, Cornerstone

    Phyllida Lloyd’s ‘Herself’ Adds Cast, Cornerstone Boards Sales (EXCLUSIVE)

    Cornerstone Films has boarded sales on “Herself,” the female-driven movie from “Mamma Mia!” and “The Iron Lady” helmer Phyllida Lloyd. Irish actor Clare Dunne, who starred in Lloyd’s all-female theater production of “Henry IV,” will play a single mother determined to build her own home with a free online plan, rebuilding her life in the [...]

  • Avengers: Endgame

    How the Avengers Became Such a Marvel in China

    “Avengers: Endgame” is on the fast track to becoming Hollywood’s most successful title ever in China, having already raked in RMB1 billion ($148 million) in just 45 hours – more than the Chinese earnings for “Wonder Woman” and “Once Upon a Deadpool” combined. It made as much in a single hour as the entire opening [...]

  • Todd Phillips

    Why 'Hangover' Director Todd Phillips Keeps Coming Back to His Favorite DP, Lawrence Sher

    “That’s my guy Larry,” says director Todd Phillips upon learning that Variety has selected his favorite DP, Lawrence Sher, as a billion-dollar cinematographer. The duo have worked together on a half dozen films, including all three installments of the “Hangover” franchise, “Due Date,” “War Dogs” and the upcoming “Joker,” with Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De [...]

  • Lawrence Sher Cinematographer

    Cinematographer Lawrence Sher Shoots Smash Comedies and Big Blockbusters Alike

    For cinematographer Lawrence Sher, the focus has always been on the director. That philosophy has carried Sher’s imagery to millions of filmgoers, including his latest work set to hit screens this year: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” directed by Michael Dougherty, and “Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips, who has also collaborated with Sher on all [...]

  • Désirée Finnegan Named Screen Ireland Chief

    Warner Bros. Exec Désirée Finnegan Named Screen Ireland Chief

    Désirée Finnegan will be the new chief executive of Screen Ireland, replacing the outgoing James Hickey. Finnegan, who hails from Dublin, joins from Warner Bros. Pictures where she was SVP, theatrical marketing and publicity, and guided strategy for campaigns across the EMEA region. In a 15-year stint at the Hollywood studio she worked on campaigns [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content