How the film department wronged me and why media arts grants will hurt the film community

    In June 2016, Radio/Television/Film students received news that upset or angered almost every graduating senior – the RTVF department mandated a restructuring of how student film projects are chosen, funded and produced.

    Department-awarded Media Arts Grants (MAG) are now the major funding sources for student filmmaking. Subsequently, student film boards are currently prohibited from awarding grants for projects, with the exception of Studio 22’s annual Bindley Grant. This news affected me on a personal level, as I had spent the last year tirelessly fundraising so that the Northwestern University Women Filmmakers Alliance (NUWFA) could award what we felt to be a crucial grant in Northwestern film without depending on department funding.

    The reasons for these changes remain without a clear explanation. Some rumors spreading among faculty and students include the desire to compete with other top film schools, faculty frustration regarding student prioritization of extracurricular films over class projects, and complaints from parents of students who have felt victim to an unfairness in the extracurricular film system, one which admittedly functioned on competitiveness and demanded the hardest work from students.

    For the past few decades, Northwestern student film productions have been divided between two funding systems: (1) department-awarded grants accompanied by a production class and (2) “extracurricular” student organization grants, comprised of ten Studio 22 grants, one grant from the Multicultural Filmmakers Collective and one NUWFA grant each year. Although awarded by students, extracurricular film grants were indirectly funded by the department, with the exception of Studio 22’s Bindley Grant, an annual $7,500 donation from the family of Northwestern alumna William Bindley. NUWFA has historically awarded one $1,000 grant to a female director or writer whose vision supports positive female representation. Each year, this has been the only major film production at Northwestern with a mission attached to its funding.

    As of now, NUWFA does not have departmental permission to award grants using internally raised funds. Meanwhile, Studio 22 has permission to award its Bindley Grant because it has been donated specifically for its purpose. In the 2015-2016 academic year, I personally engaged over 100 funders and raised $8,000 for the specific purpose of awarding additional NUWFA grants in the face of departmental funding changes. Now, NUWFA is being forced to misuse those donations.

    Last November we partnered with Northwestern’s Alumni Association in a Giving Tuesday Catalyzer campaign that raised $2,526 and promised donors that their gifts would “directly support the visions of the recipients of the 2016 NUWFA Grant.” Competing with major Northwestern organizations with extensive networks, our small, young group raised more funds from more donors than any other organization, including the most young alumni and graduating seniors.

    Now that NUWFA cannot award grants, several donors have expressed regret in donating, and many feel entitled to a refund. Our major gift donors included an executive at the Women in Film organization in Los Angeles as well as Jill Leiderman, the Executive Producer of Jimmy Kimmel Live, a Northwestern alumna, and a dedicated supporter of NUWFA. During the campaign, I spoke with these donors regarding funding changes in the department and the purpose of the campaign. All of our Catalyzer funders felt it uniquely important that the NUWFA grant continue to be awarded by its student board.

    NUWFA’s mission is to unify, promote and support female filmmakers and educate and offer opportunity to both male and female filmmakers at Northwestern. It is an important mission, and one that affects every film student at Northwestern. The NUWFA grant has played a crucial part in aiding the production of films by women and encouraging women leadership in the RTVF community. The student-run board works beyond funding the grant and aids its recipients in developing, budgeting, and creating their films. We want more students to work on sets led by women. Further, we want to foster a deeper community of women helping women, a habit that I know to be invaluable in Hollywood.

    Naturally, we felt entitled to a unique conversation with the department. Over the course of the year, my film board received sparse and confusing information about the internal decision making within the department that would so severely affect our mission and activities. For a long time, the department seemed to be considering whether to continue funding the NUWFA grant. Still, it was difficult to understand the reasoning behind decisions, and explanations from faculty members were inconsistent, ambiguous, and generally lethargic.

    The NUWFA co-presidents scheduled several meetings with department members and sent detailed letters regarding the plans for Media Arts Grants and the future of the NUWFA grant. To begin with, we wanted the department to understand how involved student film boards become in the projects to which they grant funds. After all, faculty members had historically resisted cooperation with student film boards, and were as unaware of our funding processes as they were uninvolved. When the faculty decided to plan and implement changes, they did not first investigate the system they aimed to shut down.

    Meanwhile, I kept fundraising with high ambitions so that the NUWFA grant would continue to benefit the film community regardless of departmental policy changes. Eventually, having failed to engage the department in meaningful conversation, we politely informed key faculty that we would continue raising funds internally to award at least one NUWFA grant each year. They did not respond.

    As somebody who wanted to study film but not to pursue it as a career, I spent a lot of time observing the logistics, politics and social implications of student film. Immediately I noticed what I still believe to have been the most valuable aspect of NU film: the independence and self-governance of passionate students. The department is upset that students have put most of their energy and time into extracurricular film. How beautiful it was to me, that at a top university flooded with incentives to chase careers and ditch any activity that doesn’t boost your GPA, film students overly-dedicated themselves to self-led projects for the sake of art, experiential learning and community. Nothing could have better prepared my peers for the ever-feared industry in which they’ve just arrived.

    When I first entered the film program, I was told by faculty that while we lacked the access to industry in L.A. and New York, the collaborative nature of our student film program was unique and profoundly important at the moment our students arrive in L.A. The department assured me personally that while I couldn’t intern for studios during the school year or schedule lunches with executives between classes, the other top film schools around the country were damaged by a more sinister kind of competitiveness. Northwestern generally prides itself on the ability of its students to work together and to value helping one another over individual prestige. From my perspective as an undergraduate, this supportive energy was abundant in the film community specifically as a result of student-run film boards.

    In fact, to be successful in extracurricular student-run film required a high level of selflessness, humility, and willingness to help others. From what I observed, those who were afraid to ask for help, those who wanted full control of a project and those who aimed to get ahead of others failed to find what they wanted from student film. If you were unreliable, untrustworthy, rude, or lazy, your chances of success were diminished in a system free from administrative influence. This, to me, meant fairness.

    Editor's note: a previous version of this story, when discussing “extracurricular” student organization grants, neglected to mention one grant that came from the Multicultural Filmmakers Collective each year. NBN regrets this error, and made the change at 11:20 p.m. on Nov. 28.


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