Film School during COVID-19

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I hope everyone is doing well and staying safe during this uncertain time. This article today is going to be a little different from the norm! Chris had the wonderful idea of writing up a little something about how different film schools are handling the COVID-19.

I jumped on board immediately, as I know many people on this website want to enter film school, but may not have the connections to know how the many programs are reacting to and handling this crisis. What steps the different programs are taking and how schools are dealing with this may affect your decisions in the coming months or even years.

Thanks to the internet and some wonderful members of FilmSchool.org and my own network, I managed to interview students across different disciplines from a variety of universities and programs.

Overall, everyone noted how quickly the universities moved in order to make sure that their students and faculty are safe. A first year MFA student at USC film school said that “on principle, I laud USC, other universities, and the industry as a whole for being proactive about keeping students and workers safe… I’m an aspiring producer and I never want to be that person who thinks it’s ok to risk someone’s life for a movie.”

Their thoughts are echoed by many of the other students I talked with. Universities were quick to extend spring break and/or switch to an online format where people can safely social distance, with many universities implementing protocols faster than cities themselves. After this initial move, however, many students found that their individual programs had clearer and faster communication than the universities. Let’s deep dive.

UCLA - 2nd Year MFA Screenwriting Student

I interviewed a 2nd year MFA Screenwriting student at UCLA. She mostly takes writing workshops and a handful of film studies, production, and producing courses. UCLA as a whole was in a unique position as UCLA operates on a quarter system with winter quarter ending conveniently in mid-March.

UCLA dealt with COVID-19 by switching to online courses in about the 10th week of winter quarter. The second year student is pretty happy with the department’s response overall. However, many students were against the university-wide decision of having a virtual graduation for the 2020 year. Due to the push-back, UCLA is re-evaluating their decision and may possibly just delay graduation.

As a screenwriter, switching to the online format has not affected the student that much. She did note that it is harder to have chemistry and bond in the workshop. It’s not as good as being in person, but overall she feels lucky because she can take classes online.

She also TA’s an undergraduate Introduction to Screenwriting course that meets once a week. It’s workshop heavy since they are not meeting in person, but she is able to put the students in a “breakout room” in Zoom. So far she feels pretty lucky that no one has contacted her with direct issues regarding COVID-19, but is willing to be as flexible and accommodating as possible. One international student, however, did have to switch classes as they were in a different timezone that made attending workshop very inconvenient.

The student feels supported as a student and TA with many resources available to her. Summer quarter will be held online and UCLA announced that, while they are unsure if class will be on campus, they will have an online alternative for those unable to travel to Los Angeles.

AFI - 1st Year MFA Cinematography Student

I had the opportunity to interview a 1st year MFA Cinematography student at AFI. AFI has a very hands-on approach with shoots every weekend. The program is between 2 and 2.5 years long and the student does expect to return in late August.

AFI was swift to close down campus and move seminar classes online. The student says that the online courses have been great since they have had some guests that may have not been available otherwise. Although communication was slow to begin with, after a few weeks AFI found their footing and are able to keep students updated.

AFI moved all practical classes to the Fall term (or whenever classes can return to campus). Regarding production and being on set, the student says that “the administration has assured us that safety restrictions will be employed and we would not be expected back in production until Film LA says so. I believe set operations will change drastically, not just in Hollywood but all over the world and this is something we'll have to think about when we are back open.”

The student is an international student and cannot return home, but reports that AFI has been supportive and they have been in contact with not only their faculty but the international office as well.

Columbia - 1st Year MFA Film Student

At Columbia, Directors/Screenwriters are able to pick a concentration after their first year. I spoke with a student who has yet to decide on a concentration. (*edited to clarify)

Columbia was very fast to act to protect student safety and moved classes online as soon as the first possible case appeared on campus. Emails with CDC guidelines and updates were sent quickly and undergrad dorms were evacuated a week or two after spring break, but graduate students have been allowed to stay.

The student mentioned that they were in pre-production when everything was halted. Students are no longer permitted to shoot, even with their iPhones, due to liability issues. Class requirements have been revised and even when production is allowed to resume, the completion of said projects are only optional. All classes have been moved online.

Students have registered for next semester with the assumption that they will return in the fall, but with contingency plans if not. There have been a few Zoom meetings to discuss the COVID-19 impact on the program and it is clear that the faculty and chair are doing their best, but it hasn’t been a smooth transition.

The student notes that, “The situation is unprecedented and universities already move slow as molasses normally, so this just compounds the issue… I do have the certainty that production will resume when it is safe to do so, as will classes… What is undeniable is that they are being extremely careful with our collective health and overall safety, which is appreciated.”

Everyone is concerned about the costs of the program and changing financial landscape. Students were able to receive a very small partial refund this spring, but students are unsure of what to expect this fall.

USC - 2nd Year MFA Production Student // 1st Year MFA Student

I was lucky to interview two students from USC film school: one is a first year MFA student and the other a second year MFA Production student. The first year MFA student said that many first year students who had internship offers were just rescinded due to COVID-19. The student is excited to have time to work on their thesis script, but are worried about whether they are getting their full tuition’s worth of experience.

The 2nd Year Production student noted that USC was very proactive in combating the spread of COVID-19. USC established a grant system to award up to $3,000 to students in need of financial assistance and even set up counseling sessions for students who are feeling emotionally or psychologically harmed by the outbreak.

Both interviewees mentioned students trying to get tuition reimbursement due to the less than ideal learning environment, but have not heard anything from the USC itself. The second year production student said that, “I think USC did what they could, and while I would love them to reimburse some of the tuition, I also don’t think it’s their fault that this virus hit”. Both students have heard others say they may not come back in the fall if classes are still remote.

The first year student wrote that they were producing a student’s thesis that was supposed to shoot this summer, but were told to scrap this. SCA, “doesn’t openly address these changes or at least acknowledge the difficulties they’ve just imposed on soon to be grads… in a single sentence at the bottom of an email, she’s been told to either scrap her plans or prolong her graduation (thus paying more tuition).”

The second year student is a Student Assistant for two undergraduate courses, one which had to revamp its syllabus entirely due to the online format and have the students shoot on their iPhones at home. On a happy note, he wrote that, “Surprisingly, some of these videos have actually been some of the most creative videos I’ve seen all semester. I think that goes to show that limitations are often an ironic gift in fostering creativity.”

UT Austin - 2nd Year MFA Screenwriting

My final interview was with a second year MFA screenwriting student at UT Austin! At UT Austin, initially, spring break was extended by a week with an intention to return in person. However, they quickly shut down in person classes for the rest of the term and summer classes will be online as well.

In the student’s department, the faculty had a meeting and graduate students were encouraged to attend and ask questions. The university is handling COVID-19 as well as they can with “maximum accomodation” for their students.

As a screenwriter, all of this student’s workshops take place over Zoom. Only one class - media studies - had to change with regards to what films are available at home or online. Writing workshops continue to be 3 hours long due to the time needed. The student also noticed that, “professors trying to get guest speakers for class. I don't know if they were lined up before or if going online encouraged more people to reach out, but it's been nice.”

~ ~ ~

I hope this was a helpful look into how various programs and schools deal with the worldwide situation and what it is like to be a student during COVID-19. It is a difficult time for all, but it seems like many students and schools are doing their best to be flexible and accommodating. Best wishes and good health to everyone! Thank you for reading.

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About author
Kira
Kira writes stories about diverse young women who make their own way in the universe as troublemakers, crime-doers, and shit-stirrers. Within months of graduating from UCLA’s MFA Screenwriting program, Kira staffed on two web shows that will air in March 2020. She is a staff writer, winner of the Writer's Assistant Network Pilot Competition, and Women in Film scholar.

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