An email from the Department of Radio/Television/Film (RTVF) in May 2016 hit then-sophomore Orli Spierer with a sense of dread.
An email from the Department of Radio/Television/Film (RTVF) in May 2016 hit then-sophomore Orli Spierer with a sense of dread. It wasn’t bad news, though. The faculty had awarded her a Media Arts Grant (MAG), funding to direct a dramatic short film she had pitched about three weeks before.
“All the [other] films already had crews, so I couldn’t find people to work on my project,” Spierer says. The department had notified her about the grant late into spring quarter, and potential crew members had all been snatched up during early spring. Spierer had never directed a film at NU before, and she hadn’t even written a script when she received the money. Overwhelmed with the task of making her film on such short notice, Spierer abandoned the project. The money was never accepted, the film never made. The consequences for Spierer were slim to none. “It definitely felt like nobody was holding me accountable, which is why it was so easy just to not make it,” Spierer says.
Her project is one of dozens that failed under the new MAG system. Since 2015, the department has shifted extracurricular grant distribution from student-to-student funding to faculty-to-student funding. Students seeking funding for an extracurricular film have to apply to the RTVF department directly rather than to a student-run film board.
A vast number of RTVF students have criticized the new funding system – a petition to reform the system reached 162 signatures (RTVF graduating classes are 35 to 90 students) by spring 2018. Complaints on the petition include, “the loss of well-managed set opportunities, the large number of unfinished projects, and a lack of diverse representation.”
“We understand that the administration has created this new funding system in order to further production, but it has become increasingly clear that the implementation contains critical, detrimental flaws,” the petition reads.
The failure rate of films has surged under the new system. During the 2016-2017 school year, out of 14 grant films, only four films were ready for premiere at the end of the year. Under the previous film grant system, students pitched directly to boards like Studio 22. Students made roughly 10 films each year, and when boards chose a film to produce, upperclassmen on the board mentored and walked students through the budgeting process, script development and equipment rentals.
With the new MAG system, there is no guarantee of mentorship or accountability, despite claims of faculty support. For instance, Spierer’s advisor never followed up after she abandoned her project. The lack of support leaves filmmakers like Spierer, now a senior, stranded when they receive the grant. As RTVF junior and petition signee Chloe Fourte says, “There’s no system of checks and balances to make sure projects get done.”
As the RTVF department slashes student boards, the theatre department’s board-friendly program flourishes. When stacked against other colleges, Hollywood Reporter ranked the Northwestern theatre department No. 8 in 2016, and this year the Princeton Review ranked them No. 2. “[The theatre department] gives students autonomy and the chance to explore arts administration in a way that we likely will when we graduate,” Fourte says.
Film boards such as Studio 22 and Northwestern University Women Filmmakers Alliance (NUWFA) now face many limitations to funding their grants. There are only three department-recognized film boards for RTVF, which limits the amount of support boards can offer. Within the theatre department, there are 12 boards under the Student Theatre Coalition (StuCo) umbrella. These operate with little faculty department oversight.
“The whole idea from an educational standpoint is that we are exercising the muscles of ‘What makes a good season?’ and ‘Why do we choose a play?’ and that it would be something different if we were doing it all to impress a teacher and meet their standard,” says Communication junior Sean Finnegan, the current co-chair of StuCo.
Students criticize the lack of care that the RTVF department puts into choosing their grants, leading to projects that never reach the post-production stage. “The student theatre community has boards that make sure things happen ... but within the film department, [boards] are being phased out so now nobody even knows if projects will get done,” says RTVF senior Jessica Zeidman, a signatory on the proposal.
“The MAG application took me one hour to fill out,” Spierer says, “I didn’t even have to submit a script.” Conversely, theatre boards often go through multiple rounds of applications, interviews and deliberations before choosing their season.
One reason for the implementation of the RTVF MAG system was concerns of nepotism – that student-led funding only led to friends giving their friends grants. But as Zeidman states, the problem has only gotten worse now. “The only people that work on each other’s MAGs now are their close friends. It’s become a system of favors ... whereas people used to work on sets to get more involved with the Studio 22 or NUWFA community.”
A major way the theatre department avoids favoritism is its wide variety of grant systems. With theatre’s more functional structure, there is even a MAG-like system known as the “Student Theatre Project Series” which the department funds for more experimental or low-budget projects that are faculty-led. The theatre department has a mixed system with both student and department funding through StuCo and the Student Theatre Project Series respectively. Currently, there are over 30 theatre productions at NU each year.
Students have also criticized the new RTVF system for its lack of diversity and female-focused works. “Because there are so many theatre boards with specific missions like Lipstick [a theatre board focused on tackling women’s issues], there’s a lot more focus on elevating those voices ... Because film boards have been so limited by the department we have witnessed the unintended obstruction of diversity,” Zeidman says.
In the 2017 fall MAG cycle, the department awarded only one woman a grant, compared to eight men. The enormous gender disparity has raised complaints from Zeidman and other members of NUWFA, whose mission statement is dedicated toward promoting female-led work and an inclusive decision-making process within the MAG system.
The one suggestion that comes up over and over again? “I’d like to see the department returning some form of student-to-student funding,” Zeidman says. “They should trust the students again to do that.”