I am at the end of my first year in the Screenwriting/Directing MFA at Columbia University. I wanted to wait to give a review until the end of my first year; needed to get the lay of the land. I want to preface this by saying that I am but one student of many and my opinion is my own. Many current and former students will have different opinions/experiences, so please, if you are considering applying to/attending Columbia ask around, you will get many perspectives.
First I'll start with what I like about the Columbia Program. Certainly attending one of the "Top Five" Film MFAs in the world is a bonus. CU is often ranked as one of the best film programs in the world. I cannot compare it with other programs (since I am not a student at those schools) but I certainly believe it is a very strong program with alot to offer.
Columbia is one of the top colleges in the world, period. It's an Ivy League University and has a big alumni association and long history that is impressive. I looks great on a resume. The campus is beautiful, with some exceptions (see below) and it's located in one of the biggest cities in the world. Some people say its one of the best cities as well, but it's not Boston. As far as I am concerned there is Boston, and there is everywhere else. It's no Boston, that's for sure. I'm from Boston, in case you hadn't figured it out.
The Film Program is located in Dodge Hall on the west side of campus, close to the train station side. We share a building with the other School of the Arts programs; writing, music, fine art, ect. The film program has an entire floor, with a small theatre and classrooms. It's intimate and lots of people hang out in the hall and shoot the shit all day. I don't, but some people do.
Class sizes are small and aside from larger, full-class courses, all of the smaller classes are about 12 people, so the class time is open and intimate.
Many of the professors are really wonderful and giving and available. I'd say about half (more on this below). Their experience and insight has been invaluable. I had complete respect for all of the faculty when I started the program and many have earned and exceeded that respect.
The school focuses VERY HEAVILY on story. Structure, dramatic blocks, narrative storytelling are king, and all of the faculty do this very well. They may teach it differently, but they are all focused on stelling a story, even when discussing camera moves, blocking, ect. This is a big reason why I chose the school and I have been satisfied with the strong story focus.
Another thing I really love is the school's diversity. Nearly half, perhaps more than half, of my current class is international and I suspect we have half or more female students. The interests and perspectives of my classmates is wide and diverse. Its wonderful. And I would like to add nearly all of them are genuinely good human persons.
Columbia has had some nice successes in TV/Film and it seems we have as much a chance as everyone else. I do not feel like Columbia is an industry school, but certainly more of an indie darling. Some alums have done big studio pictures, but the school seems more focused on indie filmmakers, festival circuit films and writer/directing social drama auteurs. They always have a nice presence at prestigous festivals like Tribeca, Sundance, Cannes, ect.
I have seen a nice evolution to my work and I am pleased at where I am after one year.
My critiques are ranging. These reviews aren't meant to paint a complete picture. Life is complex, informed opinions are complex; so they should be taken individually, as one part of the whole.
Columbia is a wonderful institution, but the SOA is kind of a bastard step child. We are not research, so we do not get the nice buildings, or the renovated classrooms. Dodge Hall is wonderful for what it is, but the building is old and most of it is not updated. The heating/ac is terrible and the windows are those old heavy kind that take three people to lift.
On that same line; Columbia has never been a "production" school and it has yet to really update its equipment to be inline with other MFAs. I understood this when applying and accepting, but certainly a "Top Five" MFA program still using 1st/2nd Gen Kino's in 50lb cases and P2 Card cameras could use some updating (*** Update, the school has upgraded to Fs5 cameras for exercises and 1st and 2nd year projects with available vintage and CP2 Zeiss primes). It was a constant complaint from many of the students. Also the good gear they do have, like their sound recorders, have all been beaten to shit and always have a loose wire or a broken pot. Production-wise the school gets a C-. (*** Updated to a B- with gear upgrades and a move to a better equipment facility)
One of the tech staff spoke to our entire class during a post-production workshop and railed for ten minutes on how "terrible filmmakers" use 4k to re-frame and that 4k capture is a waste of time. While I wouldn't necessarily disagree (I do disagree actually), they should have presented 4k capture for what it truly is, a new tool that if used properly can benefit filmmakers of every kind. This is indicative of the tech and production staff which is cranky at best and dismissive often, especially to first year students. I would not say they were a "forward thinking" bunch.
It was widely agreed that most of the faculty is AMAZING and the others are a waste of tuition. This is a bit harsh in my opinion however anyone spending $60k a year is going to have high, probably unattainable expectations. I do believe the faculty is "uneven" with many amazing teachers and some teachers that are either:
1. Great filmmakers, but not great teachers
2. Past their prime (probably amazing teachers 15 years ago)
3. Do not meet my personal needs.
Of course they have no control over number three, but they have alot of control over the rest. Many students, myself included were more interested in our second year faculty. It seems many of the students were unhappy with first year faculty, many which ONLY teach first years.
There is one faculty member in particular that told some wonderful creative, hardworking students they should quit the program. This faculty member is not respected or liked by many of the students, but does not look to be leaving any time soon. So, good luck.
NYC is expensive and that sucks. The end.
Columbia is a social-drama heavy school. They focus alot on the Sundance story model. If you want to make different types of films, and there are about 10 of us this year that do, you might feel pushed, pulled and a little bit ignored. I certainly feel that some of the faculty push students heavily towards this type of story telling, even when it is not what they want to do. I have had classes where the teacher adjusted for each student, but that is a rarity, I think. Especially with the directing staff; not necessarily with the writing staff.
However, for me this is a positive, because these types of films rely heavily on story structure and I felt that was a personal weakness of mine. As long as you know this going in, you will be fine. If you don't know this, you might be butting heads with faculty and other students.
Of course because the faculty and staff are geared towards those types of films, the awards, grants and the annual film festival winners all skew that way. The annual film festival, which showcases thesis films only brings a small selection of films to LA for an industry festival. This year the five films were all international; subtitled, social dramas.
My last critique is about the lack of mixing between the years. At anyone time, there are 200-250 students in the program; in sequential years between first-year and thesis. The program has ZERO academic mixing between the years. So the students very rarely mix. They do and many work on different year projects, but the majority of students do not get to know anyone in the other years. It's crazy to me that there are not mixed year courses or projects.
Overall, I have not had too many surprises and am overwhelmingly pleased with the program so far. I am looking forward to my second year and working towards my thesis.
Good night and good luck.
Columbia University - Screenwriting/Directing (M.F.A.)
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