Alexa Pellegrini for FilmSchool.org spoke with Paige Roberts, the Head of Admissions at the College of Motion Picture Arts. Roberts graduated from the CMPA with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Motion Picture Production in 2012 and was immediately hired as a filmmaker for the Florida Channel. Her appreciation for Tallahassee’s culture and desire to teach aspiring filmmakers about the CMPA inspired her to lead the Admissions Department.
Note: this interview took approximately 2 hours and runs a total of 15 pages (Part 1 is 8 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 3,300 film school applications, and the full Acceptance Data statistics for each film program such as our admissions data for FSU Undergraduate Film, MFA in Writing, and MFA in Production with accepted GPAs and demographics of accepted applicants and much more...
Why do you feel that aspiring filmmakers should pick FSU for their education?
There are countless factors to consider, but the biggest is that they have a level playing field at the CMPA. We're the only film school in the country that's mandated to have that. Part of that is that our students don't have to compete for any sort of resources -- we provide everything they need to make their films, from the lens back to funding for each project.
Each student also makes multiple short films when they study with us. And they work on dozens of their classmates' films, and they leave as professionals ready to walk into the industry onto any set into any production office. And they also walk into a very close-knit community of alumni that look out for each other, which is helpful.
What misconceptions do people usually have about the College of Motion Picture Arts?
The biggest misconception is that it's a disadvantage to study at the CMPA because of its location. We're not in a film industry hot spot, but we like it that way.
Again, our students are [...] not competing with other film schools. They're not competing with big-name industry professionals. They're the only filmmakers in the area, and so the community is incredibly supportive. They open their homes and their businesses so that our students can shoot their films. We also work with actors from FSU’s School of Theatre and from the neighboring Historically Black College and University, Florida A&M. You're not going to be missing out on any kind of networking opportunities just because you're here in Tallahassee because all of that is built into the program.
I've devoted a lot of time and effort to this program, and I truly love it. I hope that other industry players will see the CMPA for what we are: an exceptional film school that puts its students first and creates outstanding industry professionals.
What are some advantages of deciding to go to film school in the South?
There are fewer distraction here in Tallahassee, for one. Also, it’s much less expensive to live here and attend FSU.* We're in a friendly town, so our students have many opportunities to shoot in people’s homes and businesses and we have plenty of people willing to perform in our films.
The South also has a rich history, and our town is surrounded by forests, meadows, swamps, lakes, farms and pretty much any other kind of location students might seek, so there’s plenty of inspiration here.
*Editor's note: the cost of tuition per credit hour for out-of-state CMPA graduate students is $1,110.72 vs. $2,046 for NYU Tisch School of the Arts. In-state CMPA graduate students pay $721.10 per credit hour. The cost of tuition per credit hour for out-of-state CMPA undergraduate students is $721.10 vs. $1,801 for NYU Tisch School of the Arts. In-state CMPA undergraduate students pay $215.55 per credit hour.
Can you briefly outline the application process?
The application process for all of our majors is very similar. You apply directly to the university, and we have created materials that you have to submit to us.
For undergraduates, it's a resume, personal statement, writing sample portfolio, and letters of recommendation. For graduate students, we add a video pitch. And then for my MFA in Screenwriting applicants, there are several writing samples required as well. When those materials are handed in and the due date passes, one of our committees reviews them. There are [...] three faculty members on each committee.
After that, we move on to our interview process. We invite select students to campus for [...] a face-to-face interview with the committee. It's actually a fun day -- we bring several applicants in at a time and we host them, we give them a tour, we screen some of our films for them -- we kind of take the pressure off. Because really, the committee just wants to get to know these students a little bit better. If you make it to the interview process, you've already impressed the committee.
Can you please expand on the video pitch and how students can successfully create one?
So, it's a three-minute pitch. We want applicants to pitch us an original idea that they would like to see be made into a feature film. There are different sections -- first, we want them to explain [the idea] to us and talk about why it's important to them. Then, we want them to speak about what their creative process is like.
You know, a lot of students get nervous about doing it and wonder if they can avoid being on camera. While filming yourself is required, we're flexible -- as long as you appear at some point, that's sufficient!
We also like to see visual references to help explain their ideas and thought processes. We're looking for them to think outside of the box.
Can students include materials like drawings or clips from other media in the video pitch, too?
For sure. You know, the whole video pitch is about [applicants] walking us through their ideas, and any kind of visual reference is wonderful. Whether that's just like location-based images or pictures that show the mood that they're going for, that works. That also includes short clips that show the intended tone.
Does the CMPA rotate its committees?
Yes. It's a yearly commitment. Our admissions cycle starts in August and ends the following summer, and each faculty member serves during that period. They sit on one committee and then switch off to another one. You're always going to have fresh eyes on these applications.
Tell us about the various film programs at the CMPA and around how many students are in each cohort?
We have four majors. Currently, we offer a BFA in Motion Picture production and a BFA in Animation at the undergraduate level. At the graduate level, we have an MFA in Screenwriting and an MFA in Motion Picture Production.
Every year, our master's program enrolls 32 students -- 24 production students and eight writers. For our undergraduates, we admit 30 students per year. That tends to be [...] around 21 Motion Picture Production students and nine Animation students.
What are the advantages of offering such compact undergraduate and graduate programs?
Well, the hallmark advantage is the bonds that you're going to be making. Also, the CMPA's faculty-to-student ratio is incredibly low at five to one. That makes it easier to build meaningful relationships with all of our instructors.
Again, our small size means we can provide everything students need to go out and make their films. When you take everything into account, we have small cohorts to continue to provide a high-quality education.
Did you receive more applications during the pandemic?
The numbers for our Production programs were pretty static; I didn't see a lot of change. But we did have more applications for my MFA in Screenwriting than we've ever had before. Also, we had more applications for our BFA in Animation than ever before.
Is there a make or break element to the application?
We view the application holistically. But I think many [applicants] tend to look at the writing samples more closely -- that can be a deciding factor. For the required writing sample, our faculty really want to see that you can go from point A to B to C when you're constructing a story.
The personal statement also matters a great deal. We want to get to know our applicants, their voices, and how they reached their perspective on filmmaking.
How significant is the interview portion?
The interview is required for acceptance. But once you've made it to the interview stage, that means that the committee is already impressed. It's so much more of a [...] 'let's make sure that we're the right school for you' situation than anything else.
Because some students might not want to be as collaborative as we are, or they might not want to specialize in only one thing -- they might want to eventually do something different. So, the interview portion is important for both parties.
We also have a group activity that's part of the interview process. We're so collaborative, so we don't admit talented filmmakers if they can't play well with others.
What does the group activity portion of the interview involve?
Well, we don't like to share that, but it's nothing scary. We just don't want them to come in with any kind of preconceived notions. It's better to think on your feet.
Are rejected students allowed to reapply the following term? And if so, do you measure new applications against previous application(s)?
They're absolutely allowed to apply again. A lot of times, they're also encouraged to reapply because our program is so small. The committee will give them feedback and say, 'Hey, you should do this, this, and that and then reapply.'
Applications aren't measured against each other from year to year. But occasionally, the committee will remember someone who has applied multiple times. That means they're able to see that applicant's growth, which, of course, is a good thing.
For the portfolio, is a bold and experimental approach welcomed, or do you favor less creative but technically sound pieces?
We're looking for vibrant storytellers, and the portfolio is an important way to show us that you have that ability. We want to get an idea of an applicant's voice. But we're here to teach our students how to make films properly and improve their creative process.
So, we're not concerned with small mistakes. We don’t expect anyone to come in with the full array of filmmaking skills – we can teach you that. We’re looking for unique perspectives, and evidence that the applicant is motivated to learn.
Recently, the CMPA has produced excellent documentaries. Is the CMPA a good fit for aspiring documentarians and why?
It's funny that documentaries are what we're getting recognized for right now -- I wouldn't say that we're a traditional place for documentarians to come. We do have a documentary element in our curriculum for our undergraduate students. But we are expertly training them in the art of constructing a narrative, which makes our students successful in anything they want to create.
Graduate students don't have a documentary element in their curriculum at all. However, a documentary sample is welcomed in either a master's or undergraduate portfolio -- it shows their motivation and desire to learn, which is what documentarians are all about. They want to learn about something and then they make a film about it. It's always a good thing since it demonstrates the skills that we're looking for in an ideal applicant.
Can you share alumni success stories that stand out to you?
Oh, my goodness -- we have so many alumni doing wonderful things in the industry. The most notable alum right now who has become a household name is Barry Jenkins, one of our BFA graduates. He most recently did Underground Railroad, If Beale Street Could Talk, and of course, Moonlight.
The thing [...] that I really like to talk about with Barry is that collaboration is so important for our students, and it directly translates to all of their successes after they graduate. James Laxton is also one of our graduates, and he's worked with Barry multiple times -- he helped him shoot the Underground Railroad.
Joi McMillon is an alumnus and most recently did the editing for Zola and also for Moonlight. Adele Romanski won the Best Picture Oscar for producing Moonlight. We're super proud of their achievements. And they're all teaming up to do the prequel live-action Lion King.
Steven Broussard is an executive producer for Marvel -- he's doing great things, too. Aaron Morehead directed Synchronic, which is available on Netflix, and he's directing Moon Night for Marvel.
I mean, there are just so many wonderful CMPA success stories. They're starting to happen sooner and sooner for our graduates, which is exciting. It shows that our methods work.
What kind of background do you look for in an ideal CMPA student? Is an applicant with hands-on experience, like PA jobs and internships, have a competitive advantage over an applicant who knows how to tell stories but hasn't had experience making them?
That's a good question. I'll say that we love that our students all have varying backgrounds. The portfolio requirements are broad because we want people to be able to apply to the CMPA, even if they come from different capital and circumstances. While having production experience is excellent for your resume, it's not necessarily going to give you an edge over someone else.
Having experience in the industry shows that you had the resources to go out and achieve your goals, which reflects an initiative to learn. And we love that! But then, compared to someone who has that natural storytelling ability but couldn't get those internships or volunteer opportunities, one isn't better than the other.
We try to look at everything when we make decisions. We try to uplift those voices that might not always get heard. That's why we take a holistic approach.
What are mistakes that applicants tend to make, and how can they avoid them?
We'll often see applicants use the personal statement to brag about people they've met or their past projects. That's a red flag. It's great if you've had these experiences, but they should live on your resume. There's a time and a place to discuss them.
Another thing that a lot of [applicants] do is say things that they think the committee wants to hear. In reality, the committee wants to know our applicants for who they are. We want you to be open and talk about your struggles.
So, tell us your story and what you want to do with your voice -- don't repeat the words from our website back to us.
What makes an impressive personal statement?
Don't hold back. We want our applicants to be open and upfront about what they want out of the program and what they want to do with their voices. Those kinds of things are impressive.
We get a lot of [applicants] that talk about, you know, how they got a camcorder from their dad when they were nine and that sort of thing. But those stories kind of blend in. Personally, that's my origin story, and it's the origin story of a lot of other filmmakers as well.
So, that's not necessarily what we're looking for from an applicant. In the personal statement, we're looking for that moment when you realize storytelling is what you have to do and that film is the medium your need to do it in.
Can you tell us about an application that you found exceptional and why?
I'm more than happy to be removed from the application review [process] because that means I can advocate for all of our prospective students. I'm a cheerleader for all of them, and I get to hold their hands through this whole process. I'm happy with that.
But there was one applicant who submitted their application very, very close to the deadline. They actually attend our program now. I reviewed it to ensure that it had all of our required materials before I handed it over to the committee. And it was just absolutely amazing. This person is in the program now. Their work was so individualistic and unusual, so it immediately stood out.
I flagged it for the committee -- I was like, 'You're gonna want to see this!' And they did. The biggest thing that stood out about that application, though, was that it was [...] a completely honest self-representation. It didn't feel fabricated or created explicitly for a film school program.
How much time should an aspiring student discuss their current filmmaking style and how they expect to evolve as a CMPA student?
It's great when students have a sense of their voice. It goes back to our open and honest kind of policy -- you know, saying here's where I'm strong, but here's where I suffer. To admit where you need help is a brave thing for applicants to do. The committee will pick up on that and how it affects their voice.
But we can't teach students to have a voice or know their voice. We'll teach them everything else, but their voice as a filmmaker is something that we cannot teach. Speaking about that in your personal statement is a fantastic thing, even if your voice is evolving. Being aware of your flaws is also a wonderful thing because we all have them. Telling us that you have that desire to learn and better yourself is ideal.
Do you have any tips for perfecting the resume portion?
A lot of institutions might want a prim and proper resume. While we want it to be organized and look nice, we also want you to include everything on it. We want you to include any volunteering you've done, any degrees you've completed, and anything else...even if it isn't about making films.
You know, let's say you were on the Quidditch team as an undergrad. We still want to know about that stuff! It helps paint a picture of our applicants and allows us to get to know them a little bit better.
Is there a page limit on the resume?
It's three pages long.
How does the CMPA ensure adequate diversity and inclusion among staff, administration, and students?
Right. Essentially, we're always seeking to deliver the maximum diversity [...] when we go through the application process. For example, our newest BFA class is the most diverse in the history of the college, and I'm very proud of that fact. 16 of the 30 students are people of color. And in our newest MFA class, 20 of the 32 students are people of color.
Our current faculty and staff are mainly male and white. But that is something that we are actively working on. When a faculty member leaves or retires, our top priority is to get those diverse voices in. We want to hire more women and people of color to help reflect the student body.
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