University Challenged – Educational Approaches To Filmmaking

Today’s guest post is from James Fair.  I follow it with a note of my own in regards to the same subject.  James is a lecturer and filmmaker based at Staffordshire University in England. He graduated from Bournemouth University and University College Dublin. He believes that recent activities within his three universities point towards a fundamental difference in educational approaches towards filmmaking.

Two events happened quietly in the back rooms of a couple of English universities last week that indicate an interesting direction that is emerging within film disciplines of British universities; Staffordshire University decided to partner the 72 Hour Movie (link: project at the Melbourne International Film Festival and Bournemouth University closed the first round of entries from alumni for a £100k budget film project (link: ). These extra-curricular projects are flagships designed to illustrate just how relevant their courses are to industry, to future students and industry alike.

Nothing is unusual there, as many universities internationally have sought ways to engage with future students and industry in a variety of disciplines for years. However, these two projects are emerging at a time where the film academia seems to be polarising in Britain and Ireland. The fundamental question is: do we need to make movies to know movies? For example, last year University College Dublin stopped the popular ‘hands-on’ production modules of their MA Film Studies and focused upon strictly academic theoretical areas. Meanwhile, Staffordshire University launched the almost-entirely practical MSc in Digital Feature Film Production. Strategic decisions that point in opposite directions!

Bournemouth University used to print ‘practice without theory is empty and theory without practice, blind’ onto the Television & Video student’s handbooks. Yet the introduction of fees into some British universities appears to have brought about a fragmentation of film studies. Whilst practical and vocational qualifications are expensive to run, they seem to yield a good return on graduate employment and satisfaction. Meanwhile, ‘traditional’ film studies appears to be lacking an industrial relevance, as if it is of academic value but little else – attaching a narrative to the history of cinema yet making no contributions to where it may be going in future. Cynics will argue that the practical courses are gimmicks, selling shovels in a gold-rush. Optimists will argue that Bournemouth and Staffordshire are attempting to create models for a sustainable future in British filmmaking. The answer probably lies somewhere in between!

But the actions of last week suggest an increasingly polarised future. Should universities take the low-expense route and examine what lessons we can learn from the past or should they expensively engage with practical examples and aim to engage with where this digital evolution may be taking us? The halfway house seems to have gone; the barbell effect seems to be emerging in British and Irish universities in much the same way as it is in industry – either all budget or no budget!

It would be genuinely interesting to hear a debate about the role that academic institutions can play in the future of filmmaking, if any at all. This is not the old ‘film school’ debate; this is about whether universities should be actively engaging with industry for solutions during this paradigm shift or whether they should be an omnipotent observer. Maybe there’s room for both, as the title ‘university’ suggests?

Note from Ted: Here in the USA, I think this question is as relevant as relevant can be.  The schools churn out film grad after film grad yet the industry has fully crumbled.  We have no support for the arts here and no way for the market to support these grads either.  The schools still make money encouraging unrealistic dreams.  There are hundreds of solutions, but even the commercial infrastructure that is in place don’t want to engage in the discussion, else it reduce what little livelihood remains.  We have nothing resembling a thinktank that can help unite the artists, industry, financiers and government.  What better role could the academic institutions play than furthering these discussions?

Update Sat. 3.27: It was nice to see Ira Deutchman at The Conversation speak of his desire to turn Columbia University into precisely the sort of place where such questions could be asked.

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