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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.

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