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Film Schools Open Path to Hollywood Diversity

We’ve come a long way since the 1990s when many film school programs were still predominantly white, male and lacking significantly in terms of an ethnically and racially diverse student body. USC’s graduating screenwriting program in 1995, for example, consisted of almost four times as many men as women. Its film school faculty was also mostly male — and there were only three female instructors.

“When I first got to USC, I said, if I have to see one more male coming-of-age film I will scream,” says Elizabeth Daley, the longtime dean of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “They were all the same story about young male angst. And I thought, ‘Can I just see some young female angst?’ ”

Thankfully, times have changed. The student body ratio in both SCA’s graduate and undergraduate programs is roughly 50-50 and its game design and development program currently has more women enrolled than men.

USC students take notes in Professor Howard Rosenberg’s “Television Symposium” course.
Courtesy of caleb coppola

“Starting back in the mid- to late nineties, one of the first things we did was to get women alumni and faculty members to call prospective female applicants and encourage them to apply and be part of things,” says Daley. “We also agreed, as a faculty, that no list, when it came to hiring, would ever be brought in that didn’t have a woman’s name on it. They didn’t have to hire her, but that (list) had to show that they had looked. And it made a real difference to get more women faculty — the program was more welcoming to women. You just have to put your mind to it and say somehow we’re going to make this happen.”

Many other leading film schools are following suit. At American Film Institute, the number of women in the directing discipline has grown from 21% in 2010 to 38% in 2015, and 36% of AFI’s fellows are international, coming from countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Israel and Poland. The MFA in writing for screen and television program at Pepperdine University’s Seaver College is currently about 60% female; about 30% of its students hail from minority groups. At Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University, the number of students applying from Asia (particularly China) has grown substantially, jumping from 60 in 2010 to 290 in 2016. And “The Birth of a Nation” filmmaker Nate Parker, who is African-American, is launching a film school at Wiley College in Texas, with plans to open in the fall.

Given the Oscars’ whitewashing debacle this year, it’s more important than ever, says Daley, that film schools, a collective “pipeline” to the industry, take measures to ensure that its student body reflects the world at large. This includes offering scholarship money whenever and wherever possible so that film schools — many of which are expensive — are not just the domain of the rich, white and privileged.

“When I started out and I asked students, ‘How many of you see yourselves as directors?,’ it was the men who tended to see themselves as directors — and not that many women. Now, there’s just no distinction whatsoever.”
Paul Schneider

“Just as women bring a different perspective to the film industry, Latinos bring a different perspective, African-Americans bring a different perspective, international students bring a different perspective,” she says. “We’re living in a global, multi-racial, multi-ethnic society and the films that people are going to produce need to reflect that, otherwise you’re not serving your audience.”

Paul Schneider, chairman, department of film and television at Boston University, has noticed a significant change since 2002 in how female students envision themselves working in the entertainment industry, a result he says of the school’s ever-increasing diversity.

“When I started out and I asked students, ‘How many of you see yourselves as directors?,’ it was the men who tended to see themselves as directors — and not that many women,” he says. “Now, there’s just no distinction whatsoever. At this year’s student film festival, four of the six films chosen as finalists were directed by women. Last year, the winning film was directed by a woman. We seem to have broken through the barrier that’s still bedeviling Hollywood.”

What’s also changed over the years among both Caucasian and minority groups — and mostly the parents of teenagers prepping to enter college — is the perception of filmmaking as a prudent career move.

“When I first got here in the ’80s I can remember parents telling their kids that they should study business or they’ll never get a job,” says Robert Bassett, dean of Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. “Today, it’s really the opposite. The valedictorians are now filmmakers. That’s a huge change.”

“A lot of parents are less than thrilled that their son or daughter is going to come to film school,” adds Daley. “They’d much prefer they went to become a lawyer or a doctor. It’s like their kids are joining the circus. We’ve tried really hard to make parents realize that the industry has very high-paying jobs and that the average entry-level salary is pretty damn good.”

Boston U. film students gather around their lighting class instructor.
Courtesy of Cydney Scott/Boston University

Still, Daley says she can understand why African-American or Latino parents might look at Hollywood today and wonder why their children would want to work in a field where they are not adequately represented.

To that end, SCA has worked hard to counter the status quo, creating a Spanish-language website and brochure for prospective students — “We know the students applying speak English, but their parents may not,” says Daley — and recruiting at high schools that are largely Latino and at traditionally African-American colleges such as Morehouse and Spellman.

“We’ve tried to make it clear in our recruiting materials that we want more diversity,” says Daley.

And nobody appreciates this effort more than the film students themselves.

“Filmmaking is so much about perspective,” says Puja Aparna Kolluru, a native of India who earned an international scholarship to attend Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., where she is studying cinematography. “Having so many different people from around the world and from so many different backgrounds has been really eye-opening for me and also my classmates. You need that point of view when working in film. You need that kind of environment. Sometimes in class, students will write stereotypical Indian characters and I can tell them, ‘No, they are not like that.’ So diversity is a very good thing — for everybody.”

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