Alexa Pellegrini for FilmSchool.org spoke with the Admissions Office to demystify common misconceptions about the application process and attending AFI. Anna Proulx is the Director of Admissions and has previously managed the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, which helps filmmakers worldwide produce documentaries that explore contemporary challenges. Jill Murrin is the Senior Manager of Admissions and has a background in nonprofit and community development. Giovanni Maldonado Chinea is the Admissions Coordinator and graduated from AFI with a Master’s in Screenwriting in 2017.
Note: this interview took approximately 2.5 hours and runs a total of 18 pages (Part 1 is 12 pages long). Part 2 is available to our Supporting Members, without whom in-depth articles and interviews like this one would not be possible as FilmSchool.org is 100% advertisement free. Supporting Members also enjoy access to private student clubs and forums, full access to our database that tracks upwards of 3,200 film school applications, and the full Acceptance Data statistics for each film program (such as AFI Screenwriting) that helps demystify common questions about how to construct a winning portfolio, ideal GPAs and GRE scores, and much more.
To start off, why should an aspiring filmmaker choose AFI for their education?
Well, first you really have to decide if film school is for you. I had a conversation with someone that was interested in AFI, and they asked, 'Is this the right film school for me or not?' so I had them list their top 10 filmmakers. After they made that list, I asked them how many on that list went to film school. When you compare the number of filmmakers that went to film school vs. the number that haven't [...] those that didn't go to film school are anomalies. That’s one thing to keep in mind.
Second, I think film school provides you with an education and environment that are incredibly creative. From AFI's perspective, it's kind of like a pressure cooker. There's a lot going on and we're very much about hands-on learning – you apply all the things you're learning by putting them into action.
That's probably the one thing that sets AFI apart from other film schools. You come in with a specific discipline, and that forces you to be collaborative. (Film) is a collaborative art form, so we want that to be the thing that you're learning first.
To jump off of what Gio was saying, AFI is a conservatory only for graduate students. In terms of getting an MFA, it's a time to really hone your skills and focus on what discipline you want. Looking quickly through some of the (FilmSchool.org) boards, people tend to ask questions about AFI that are sort of like, ‘Well, are they looking for different kinds of people than some of the other film schools?’
We’re perfect for filmmakers who are super passionate about their discipline. It doesn't mean that you won't learn outside that discipline. Like, as a directing student, you're going to learn a lot about what a cinematographer does – you have to learn how to work together. But we want applicants that are excited about their discipline, because they focus for two years mainly on that.
What are a few common misconceptions people have about attending AFI?
There was a time in which AFI only invited a certain percentage of the class back for the second year. That has gone away for a long time! But for some reason, the misconception continues to persist that we don't invite students back for their second year.
Right, that's number one. There are certain instances where students don't get asked back. But the only reason why that would ever happen is because you're not doing the minimally required work. Given that AFI is so hands-on, a lot of the education is reliant on students helping each other out. If you're not doing your part then you're affecting the education of others around you. You really have to mess up in order to not get asked back.
It's kind of like being on academic probation. Like, there might be cases where there's a situation in which a student needs to leave AFI, but it's not a common practice or our policy. What's another misconception, Jill? That was my big one.
Because AFI is so small, many of the discipline-specific classes are intimate workshops. There's not always the option to observe those classes – the faculty and the fellows want to make sure that they have an environment where they're able to give and receive constructive feedback.
Does AFI offer projects or courses that allow students across disciplines to collaborate?
Even in non-pandemic years, we also had the Harold Lloyd Master Seminar series where the greats of the film world meet with all our students. Every week, someone comes to AFI, whether it's the director, writer, cinematographer, editor, or production designer; sometimes it's a bunch of them from the same project. The class watches their film or TV show, and then they all discuss it and do a Q and A. Each discipline brings in people specific to that discipline as well.
There are some opportunities for students across disciplines to collaborate. AFI has a narrative workshop that takes place where they all sit together. Beyond that, they all work on films together – they're certainly learning a lot from one another.
The narrative workshop is very famous and infamous. The writer participates with a scene from a feature they've been working on and they have the actors, and the director stages it and does the blocking. You're learning a little bit of what it takes to write a scene and what stuff works on the page.
It's the space where you're going to be broken and remade. After you premiere your cycle films or production exercises to the class [...] a moderator guides the conversation about your film. You are never in your life going to receive more honest feedback about your filmmaking skills than you will in that workshop, and the catch is that you can't answer back. It’s probably like, one of the most harrowing experiences (at AFI). But later, it's the best thing that could have ever happened to you.
I think the big thing about AFI is that you're going to be making these films in your first year. During that whole time, you're given the space to challenge yourself and try something you wouldn't be fully comfortable with. That means that you might fail, but if you do, you are going to fail spectacularly [… It makes you a better filmmaker.
When reviewing posts on FilmSchool.org, what are some of the biggest things people seem to worry about pertaining to admissions that they don't actually need to worry about?
Oh, there's a lot!
Well, you have to submit a film link to your application. We hear a lot about people who [...] constantly check the link to see if it's been viewed. They’re like, ‘There are no hits, they haven't viewed it,' and 'I don't understand what's wrong with my app!' but we see it in your review form. We painstakingly go through every single one of our applications and watch these films multiple times. YouTube and Vimeo have on their website that because (applicants) submit their links via third party system, and because we access it via third party system, the views don't get calculated.
Adding to that, Jill, every application is reviewed by two people. Then there's the next phase, which is the interview, and everybody is also interviewed by two people. (Film) is an art form, right? There's a science to it, but there's also a subjective nature to it. We make a concerted effort in (the admissions) office to [...] mitigate bias as much as possible.
We do the same with gender and other identity markers to make sure that we're as careful and as considerate in the applications review process as possible. As our applications keep increasing, we continue to commit to [...] doing our due diligence and making sure because we appreciate how much work AFI applicants put into creating these applications.
Has AFI received more applications in the last few years?
We have had the largest number of applicants in AFI history, with a 25% increase in applications from last year. It's also the largest pool of diverse applicants to date, with a 39% increase in domestic diversity in the past year and a 50% increase in the last two years. The overall numbers are really impressive, but some disciplines are [...] a little bit smaller, given the nature of those disciplines.
But in regards to these numbers, I always tell applicants that they should not worry about that because that's out of their control. They should focus on what is in their control and the most important thing, which is their application. David Lynch, Terrence Malik, Patty Jenkins, and all these great filmmakers have come out of (AFI) – the idea that the only way you're getting in is if you're as great as they are just isn't true. If you're as great as David Lynch, then why are you applying to film school?
AFI is looking for people with potential and passion. The [...] narrative statement could be the thing that really sets you apart in the same way that someone else's films could be what sets them apart. But every part of it is important. Like, maybe you have a really good film, but then your narrative statement has no connection to who you are as a filmmaker. That'll bump you down.
Can you give prospective AFI students an overview of the applications process?
The first step is to apply. Then we review your application, as long as we receive all the required materials. That includes your portfolio as well as your two letters of recommendation and academic transcripts. If you're an international candidate and you received a qualifying English proficiency score, we’ll review your application, too. Like Anna said, every application is reviewed twice – sometimes three times, if there's a differing opinion between the reviewers.
The second step is the interview portion. Not everyone is invited for an interview. And then from those who have interviews, we decide who gets into AFI. The third step is the admissions selection process. We decide for applicants who have had interviews if they get into AFI, if they're on the waitlist, or if they're not selected for admissions.
What programs are offered at AFI? Around how many students are in each cohort?
We have six different disciplines at AFI: Directing, Screenwriting, Producing, Cinematography, Editing and Production Design. I want to talk about numbers, but they're being adjusted.
In general, we're trying to meet the same (targets) across all six disciplines. We have a complicated rubric in which we have to hit exact numbers, since those metrics are so tied to production. That's different from other (film) schools, because we're putting students in teams. That's why we want that to be equal across all six disciplines. At AFI, you're going to work with different people [...] so that you're really learning from one another and building your network. You’re finding your creative family, the kind of people that you really want to work with.
In the past, AFI has had 28 students per discipline, other than Editing and Production Design, which had about half of that. We're actually readjusting our numbers to bring down every discipline to around 25. Again, this is a moving target to try to limit how many productions we're doing, but also to increase our number of Editing and Production Design fellows. For instance, most people are fighting over the Production Designers, and production design is one of the reasons that the films at AFI are beautiful pieces of visual storytelling.
What advice could you give a prospective AFI student who might be a little intimidated about networking or interacting with more experienced filmmakers? In your opinion, how can they collaborate as successfully as possible?
We reiterate from the start of the application process that this is the beginning of your professional career. Unfortunately, in the film industry bad news travels faster than good news. If you're difficult to work with, that gets shared pretty quickly; that goes from the AFI admissions process all the way up. AFI faculty and your discipline heads are the people that are going to refer you to the greater film world. As you're getting out into the industry, remember to have a high level of professionalism. Be a team player and follow through on doing good work, is my advice.
Right. I mean, I think the best way to summarize that is, don't be a 'bleep.' I say that jokingly, but not really. It's a small industry, so everybody knows each other.
In terms of getting to know people, I was just having a conversation with someone before this about them being worried that they're like a little bit of an introvert. It might seem really daunting to talk to someone at AFI that you don't know, but […] it’s not hard as you think. At least the people that you're going to work with are the same people that you'll meet in the film industry. All of you have one thing in common, and is that you love movies and television.
You're all going to have your opinions on what you like the most and what you think sucks, and sharing them is the quickest and easiest way to connect. You'll hear someone saying that someone else thinks that Spielberg or Tarantino [...] is overrated or that they're masters, and that's it!. Then, you're having a conversation about whether you agree or disagree, and you’re going to have fun. Before you know it, you've made, like, seven friends in the span of an hour.
AFI also makes networking opportunities for fellows, too. Like, we have a Facebook group for newly admitted students to get to know each other […] five months before they come to school. When they come to AFI, there are networking events [...] like pizza parties and other low-pressure ways of saying hello.
I'm also a little bit of an introvert, too, so my best advice is to have an open heart and open mind. At AFI, you'll meet people that are wildly different from you, and you'll meet people who have the same experiences as you. This all comes back to that collaboration component – like Gio said, don't be a 'bleep.' If you act professionally [...] you'll go far at AFI. But if you get stuck in your own head, you won’t go as far.
What do you consider to be the most important part of the AFI application?
We have a holistic approach to our applications review process, meaning that we look at each part of the application but not each part is weighted equally. But I would say the two most important parts are the portfolio and the narrative statement.
People tend to focus more on the portfolio but skimp on everything else, including the narrative statement. It's probably even more important than the portfolio because in the narrative statement, we're asking you to tell us your story. Who are you as a human being? What makes you laugh? Why are you passionate about filmmaking [...] and the discipline that you're applying to, specifically?
We certainly look at experimental films [...] and documentaries, because all of that is storytelling. But you have to remember AFI is a narrative, visual storytelling school. I can't tell you how many people come into the interview portion and they're not able to share the movies and television shows they like and the kinds of stories they want to tell!
Applicants need to like come in a room and be ready to share that and be excited about storytelling. Sometimes, that's lost in the application and we wonder if they'll be happy at AFI. It's sort of like not understanding what AFI is about.
I think that you should also keep in mind that there has to be a bit of a through line with what your narrative statement is telling us about who you are and what is in your portfolio. There has to be a sense of identity. You could think when you're applying to AFI that you want to be a horror filmmaker or a comedy person. Then while you're at AFI, you discover this whole other side to you – that happens all the time.
The number one thing that we don't want is for you to think that you have to put yourself in a box. People look at our alumni and they think of David Lynch. I keep mentioning him because he's probably a huge reason why people apply to AFI. He's inspired a lot of filmmakers, but some people are like, 'I have to be David Lynch in order to get into AFI.' It’s like, we had David Lynch. We don't we don't need another one!
AFI is not limited to that kind of filmmaking. If you are a dark comedy person, lean in hard into who you are […] and the kind of stories you want to tell. More than anything, have fun with it. The more you are true to yourself in that application, the more you'll stand out.
Let's say an applicant doesn't do great in the interview portion, but they're checking all the boxes for everything else. How much weight does the interview actually have?
The interview is meant to be conversational. It's not meant to be like a job interview or like an HR interview, and I think a lot of people approach it like that. They're ready for HR-type questions, and that's not what we're going to ask. We'll talk to you about the films and scripts that you submitted, what you want to see in your future, and why you need to come to specifically AFI. I don't think that the interview is weighted more, per se. But obviously it gives us a better sense of who the applicant is and how they will be able to communicate once they're at AFI.
As Anna said, people get thrown by this question all the time, and it's interesting because they're all filmmakers. We ask them, 'What are you watching and reading right now?' and it's like everything goes out of their brains! They're like, 'Oh, I'm not sure...' So the most important thing is to just be ready to talk about yourself as a storyteller and as a person, your hopes and dreams for the future, as well as anything inspiring you at the moment.
We take everything into consideration — it's like, 'You know, I didn't love their interview, but I'm blown away by their application.' That's also a conversation as well, right? The interview is important, but it's not the be all, end all if the rest of the application is amazing and vice versa. We'll invite people for interviews when we see something in them. Maybe their narrative statement was wonderful, but their films weren't the best, so we interview them to see what they're really about.
What common mistakes do you see on the AFI application?
Again, I think one mistake that a lot of applicants make is not explaining their passion. For example, in a cinematography application, don't talk mostly about directing. We're looking for people that get really specific about their preferred discipline.
I think a lot of people approach the narrative statement like it's their resume, and that's not what we want. If you regurgitate your resume in there and at the end of it, we're like, 'Oh, we didn't really get to know you,' it's not a great narrative statement. It doesn't show us anything about you as a storyteller.
If by the end of those three pages I can tell you where you're from, your likes and dislikes, and what types of stories that you want to tell […] then that's a great narrative statement. That sets you on the trajectory of us reading the rest of your application, right? Because once you see that story, we’re like, 'Wow, [...] I want to watch their films and read their scripts!'
I think that a lot of times, people also tend to frame the narrative (statement) around why they want to go to AFI. It's three pages max, so the part about AFI should be a paragraph at the most. We all know why you want to come to AFI, so what I want to be reading about is you [...] on a personal level. And again, if you're rambling on and on about a different discipline, that's really telling. Focus on the [...] stories and things that have informed you that you think you're going to bring to your discipline.
Do creativity and experimentation compensate for technical errors or a lack of experience in one area, or should applicants focus on presenting structurally sound, less risky materials?
As Anna mentioned, one of the most important things is to realize AFI is a narrative school. Narrative as in, live action with actors. That's what you're going to be learning [...] and teaching. There's a fine line between taking risks and showing something that's not necessarily narrative-driven. We have to be able to see the narrative piece in your work!
I'll use directing applications as an example for this, because those seem to be the ones where people take risks a lot. People that have portfolios that show us solid narrative pieces generally tend to be better off than people who submit like, a music video or an experimental piece and don't tell us anything about it. That's not to say that you can't take risks in your application, because storytelling isn't always linear. Anna, Gio, do you want to build off that a little bit?
I think that this question applies more so for Directing fellows as opposed to the other five disciplines. For instance, Cinematography actually has a place in their portfolio that's not required, but you could submit like, a documentary or other additional things.
I would say that how everyone tells a story is very different. You know, you can do whatever you want, just as long as the film has a basic narrative structure. It's hard for directors, right? Because everyone wants to be a director, and they all feel like they need to stand out. But your story structure isn't always the best way to stand out.
We really need to be able to see your narrative directing ability, which we put all over our admissions requirements. We say it all the time in our information sessions. (Directing) is the most competitive discipline and yet, people submit things that don't show us those abilities. If someone submits something wildly experimental that doesn't fit at AFI at all, like a music video, or even sometimes an excerpt of a longer film that starts or ends at a weird point -- it makes it very hard for us to be able to bring that person in for an interview.
It’s narrative first. For certain disciplines, that comes across a lot easier. When you're writing a script, it's a script. How you get from the beginning to the middle to the end is up to you. Like I was mentioning earlier, having a narrative is the most important part of that.
But if you play it safe, then why are you coming to AFI? Even in the program, you know, we want you to challenge yourself. If it's a way for you to show us who you are and what your style is, and what kind of filmmaking you want to do, (taking risks) is important. You can take risks by doing nonlinear storytelling, or by being kind of metaphorical or allegorical, or however you want to tell a story. What I submitted (to AFI) was definitely experimental, but it still had a story [...] that was just riddled with symbolism. It was very art house-y.
And what was your film about?
I mean, I don't want anyone to think that this is what they have to submit, because obviously, you want to do your own thing. But what I did was, I got really into the seven deadly sins. I had this A Christmas Carol structure to my story where a man came home after his mother called him, and then he was taken through this weird, kind of spiritual hallway where each door had a specific color assigned to a deadly sin he was guilty of. He was judged in the afterlife. The way I told it was not necessarily straightforward — it was kind of told in small moments.
I had no preconception that I was going to get into AFI. It was my number one choice. I had applied to all my other schools with the attitude of, 'I'm never getting into AFI, anyway, so I'm just going to be myself, and whatever happens, happens.’ Ironically, I think that that's the reason every other school said no and AFI said yes.
What kind of backgrounds and experiences does AFI look for in an ideal applicant?
Oh, we don't look for a certain background. In order to get into AFI, you just need a bachelor's degree. There's no prerequisite to get an advanced film degree, but because we're a master’s program, we don't teach any introductory classes.
We've had it all: Dentists, lawyers, engineers, doctors, photographers, architects, Broadway stars, professional poker players, and therapists. It's going to inform something about you [...] and give you a window into the human condition. Those are the things that come into play with this method of artistic expression.
I would also say that the majority of people that apply to AFI and get in have a film background, whether that be an undergraduate education or a graduate degree, or maybe they've found themselves working in the industry. If you don't have any hands-on filmmaking experience, you should definitely try to get that, even if you don't get into AFI. Take the spring and summer before you apply to work on set. AFI runs our sets professionally because we want to make sure that once you graduate, you can walk on to a professional film set and see no difference.
Yes, AFI gives you the legit set experience! In your application, you should not be making light of your getting around permits and skirting the system. Clearly, sometimes that happens. But it's not something to brag about to AFI.
And how much experience you need depends on the discipline. Editing and Production Design and Cinematography are more technical, so you do need to have a bit of more of that aspect in your life compared to Screenwriting. For Screenwriting, we do wish more people who are creative writers and are thinking about switching (to screenwriting) would take at least one extension class – to learn the format. That does have a little bit of weight, in terms of Screenwriting admissions.
What are your biggest pet peeves about the application process?
My biggest pet peeve is when people wait till the last minute to submit their applications. After they submit […] we send out an email to their recommenders. They have a certain time frame that they have to get their recommendation letters in, and if they don’t, their applications are incomplete. The earlier you do your application, the more time you give your recommenders to help you.
Many people are asking faculty members at undergraduate institutions, and the requests coincide with a very busy time of the (academic) year. Either things don't upload right, or they don't get their letters of recommendation in on time, and then we have to pull their application. It's a really sad thing, because they've spent all this time working on them.
I'll also mention something specific to international applicants. The English proficiency score is not a new requirement. I've been at AFI for almost seven years, and it's been a requirement for at least that whole time. But so many international applicants will wait until the last minute to take these tests and then they don't pass. We can't give you a visa if you don't take it, so we can't review your application.
If you're an international student and interested in coming next fall, my advice is to take those tests now. If you pass, great! The score is good for two years. But if you don't pass, you have enough time to study and do a retake.
Can you think back to an application that left an amazing impression?
Well, I think the mistake there is thinking that there is a cheat code to getting into AFI. That falls under the category of putting yourself in a box. What worked for me won't work for someone else.
Right. Just put yourself out there – that’s what I always say. Don't write what you think we want to hear. Write like you're having a conversation with us. Those types of applications are usually the best.
Yeah – I think we're all wary about giving a specific example, because we know that someone's going to read this and go, 'Oh, so this is it this is the answer to getting into AFI!' But it's like, no, [...] doing what someone else did [...] is not going to work for you.
How does AFI ensure that there is sufficient diversity among staff and students?
We follow guidelines set by the Department of Education, so we have to report IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) questions.
We're also increasing the ways in which we ask questions and gather data (for diversity), so it's exciting that we're on the path to becoming even more inclusive, even with data collection. As I mentioned, in the last two years we've had a 50% increase in domestic diversity, but we also have just an incredible international pool of diverse students from all over the world.
I've worked at other universities in film and television admissions, and a big part of this is also gender diversity. I can honestly say that AFI's admitted pool for Cinematography has historically been a challenge for female applicants. This year is the first time we've accepted more female applicants than male applicants. We’re developing a lot of initiatives for women in filmmaking, so it's exciting seeing them come to fruition.
Here are some metrics: 59% of accepted applicants identified as female, and an additional 3.5% identified as either trans or gender queer. And out of our domestic applicants, about 55% are diverse. Again, that's based on IPEDS questions that we have to ask, so that's kind of limiting in terms of demographics. The Department of Education [...] has a list of things that we have to report to them, so once these people enroll at AFI, we have to look to see what they answered for the IPEDS question.
AFI actually has specific ethnicity and race questions, so [...] like Anna said, we can start gathering more data to have more inclusivity about how people identify themselves.
Thank you for reading!
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