By Daniel Stein-Sayles
Published: March 4, 2015
It is hard to walk down any hallway or into any office on the Brooklyn College campus these days without seeing a flyer for the school’s newest graduate program, the Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema.
These flyers are a part of a marketing campaign to advertise the new school before its opening in fall 2015.
Unlike Brooklyn College’s other programs, the Feirstein School is not located on any part of the 26-acre main campus that borders the Midwood and Flatbush sections of Brooklyn. When construction is completed, the 68,000-square-foot facility will be located on the lot of Steiner Studios on the Brooklyn Naval Yard. The school will offer a range of specialized master’s degrees, along with new facilities, equipment, and a fresh curriculum for its inaugural class.
According to Jonathan Wacks, the founding director of the Feirstein School, the amenities and education the school offers coincide with what he sees as an important mission: helping increase diversity in an industry that sorely lacks it.
“The record of the film and television industry is frankly appalling in terms of the inclusion of women, the inclusion of people of color,” said Wacks, a film director and the former chair of the Visual and Media Arts Department at Emerson College who was brought onboard to lead the school. “Given the fact that filmmaking, film, and television is the primary form in which most people absorb their information, as well as their connection to the culture, it becomes critically important to have not just one way of seeing the world.”
The school will offer two degree programs: a two-year M.A. in cinema studies and a three-year M.F.A in cinema arts. Students enrolled in the M.F.A program have the opportunity to apply to study any of five disciplines: cinematography, directing, post-production, producing, and screenwriting. The school will also be expanding its discipline options in the years following its opening by adding a digital arts track starting in the fall of 2016. The new tracks will include visual effects and animation, and business of entertainment and production design.
The deadline to apply to all of the school’s programs for the fall semester is March 14.
For the school’s inaugural class, the administration is looking for 14 students in each of its production tracks and up to 20 students in screenwriting and cinema studies. Wacks said, however, that they would not lower their admission standards merely to fill the seats.
Junior Schuylar Devonish, a film major at Brooklyn College, has done some research about the new film school and believes it will be an option for him if he decides to attend graduate school.
“I would love to be a director; I think that I want to focus more on my education…and building directorial skills,” Devonish said. “If I decide to go to grad school, I think [the Feirstein School] would be an option because it’s affordable.”
As a part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, the price for two- or three-year education at the Feirstein School is less than its private counterparts. Wacks sees the school’s lower price as an opportunity for many students who may not be otherwise able to afford other schools—like Columbia University and New York University—to get a graduate level education.
The school’s price is just one of the many draws Wacks hopes the new school will have for prospective students.
The school’s location is unique as rather than being situated on a traditional college campus, the school will be the first ever of its kind located on a working film lot, on the grounds of Steiner Studios. Steiner Studios has been home to many productions in recent years including movies such as “Spider-Man” and TV shows like HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” have been shot there.
“It creates an environment in which students who want to be filmmakers [can be] around filmmaking all day,” Wacks said.
Despite the school’s perceived benefits, Brooklyn College student James Mckenzie doesn’t believe he or many of his classmates will have interest in continuing their education at the Feirstein School, or at all.
“Everybody is kind of in this mindset, myself included, that they have been in school so long that they just want to get out and start working,” the junior film major said. “In the time here, we have kind of learned that what you learn will only get you so far. It is what you do that will keep food on your table.”
Even with a general sense of reluctance regarding graduate school, Mckenzie has heard some classmates discussing the school with other perspectives.
“There have been some people who have said that they might not have the footing when they get out of here that they expect to have so they may want to get further education,” he said.
The Feirstein School is designed to give students this “footing.” Wacks believes one of the biggest advantages of being a new school is the ability to create a brand new curriculum. The Feirstein School hopes to offer courses that are specialized, flexible, and aligned with the industry rather than ones grounded in outdated and traditional practices.
“Our program is a very specialized program,” he said. “You come in with a very specific focus and you leave very well educated in the area that you are interested [in].”
The same emphasis on new and modern for the curriculum carries over to the school’s infrastructure and technology. The school, which is slated to be finished this summer prior to its opening, will have all of the amenities of a modern campus and the newest technologies that are used in cinema industry today, according to the school’s website.
To insure that the school keeps up with the industry, an advisory council has been put together that includes many of the top names in the film and television, a potential boon for the school’s credibility.
The council includes Steven Soderbergh, Ethan Hawke, Robert Richardson, and many more, all of whom are significant names in the film and television industry.
Devonish was impressed with the experience and reputation of the school’s faculty and advisory council members and believes this can help students compete in the industry.
“It raises the level and not so much because of their name, their name is amazing, but the fact that you have someone in the industry, you have Ethan Hawke who is an actor who works in the industry, he knows the industry standard and while I think sometimes we learn it in the undergrad program I think if we are held accountable by the industry standard it will force us to be better filmmakers and it will force us to be better writers,” he said.
The term “recognition” is important to Wacks, who sees the biggest challenge for the school in its infant years to be similar to any startup company. How can they attract attention, draw potential students and faculty, and gain credibility?
“We are a startup. We are doing this massive undertaking and we are going from zero to 60 in a very short amount of time,” he said.
This concern is logical; aside from the posters he sees around campus, Mckenzie has heard very little about the school.
“I really haven’t heard much of any talk about it around the department,” he said. “If they are really building towards it and trying to hype it up to us, I really haven’t heard.”
Like any startup, the growing process for the Feirstein School will be a long one. But as the inaugural class begins to take shape and the dust settles from construction on the school, Brooklyn College will have a new graduate school of cinema.