Feirstein’s First Class
Graphic by Sara Reiss
The city’s first public graduate film school unleashes its first M.F.A. graduates to take the film world by storm.
When Brooklyn College’s Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema first opened its doors in fall 2015 on the campus of the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Steiner Studios, the view from its open-concept common area was a clean shot of the Manhattan skyline.
Just three years later, new construction has obstructed a good deal of that, much to the dismay of many of the students, faculty, staff, and administrators. It’s ironic because the development that’s been going on inside New York City’s first public graduate film school is poised to alter vistas far beyond the East River.
Last June, 53 students became Feirstein’s first graduates to hold master of fine arts degrees in five tracks: directing, producing, cinematography, post-production, and screenwriting. Another eight students completed master of arts degrees in cinema studies.
They are set to take the industry by storm, having their coming-out party at a time when the number of productions in New York City is on a major uptick, Hollywood is doing some serious soul-searching in the wake of the hashtag movements OscarsSoWhite and MeToo, and a new generation of filmmakers—and their consumers—is experimenting with different forms of storytelling and new media formats.
This year’s graduates range in age from their early 20s to their late 40s. Some 50 percent of Feirstein students overall are women, and 46 percent are students of color. More definitively, what they have in common, says Jonathan Wacks, Feirstein’s founding and former director, is that they were chosen not so much on the basis of their skill level but on the strength of their ideas.
Administrators knew that flipping that traditional admissions paradigm could be risky. “But I think it was the right way to do it,” says Wacks, an award-winning director and screenwriter who had previously served as the chair of the Visual and Media Arts department at Emerson College. “There are very few classes where someone is lecturing at you. So the ability of the students to bring fresh ideas to the conversation has been crucial. And it has worked.”
The formula has resulted in a first graduating class that is well prepared and well decorated, earning awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Tow Fellowship program. One student was accepted to a very selective Ph.D. program at New York University. Another, who came in with no production experience, was recently chosen to direct four episodes of a show that won a competition sponsored by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. Earlier this fall, a student had his film featured in an exclusive BAMcinématek film school shorts showcase.
The entire class showed off their mettle in a number of end-of-the-year festivities that included a film festival and table readings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—attended by industry professionals—in which the graduating students screened their thesis films and scripts, and an academic conference for the cinema studies students to present their thesis papers.
Video edited by Salim Hasbini
They had honed their skills in a 70,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility that includes a Foley stage, a motion capture studio, and a 4K surround sound screening room. Hollywood director and producer Stephen Soderberg—one of several heavyweights enlisted for the Board of Advisers, which also includes actor and director Ethan Hawke and director Darren Aronofsky—said it is among the best facilities that he’s ever seen.
The program has come at a price tag of around $60,000, pennies on the dollar compared with comparable graduate film schools in the city like those at NYU and Columbia, where students can expect to spend upwards of $100,000 for an M.F.A. At Feirstein, most students have received some scholarship funding, plus the directing students get $10,000 toward their senior thesis.
What’s more, as the only graduate film school on a working film lot, Feirstein has taken advantage of the productions with which it shares space. Construction professionals have built a set for the students, electricians have conducted workshops for them, and editors who have invited students into their editing rooms.
Along the way, all involved have had to check themselves, as Wacks puts it, tweaking the curriculum and rethinking equipment choices, among other decisions. “In many ways, the first three years were somewhat experimental because we were building the bridge while we were walking on it,” says Wacks.
“These guys were pioneers,” he continues, referring to the recent graduates. “When they came to this school, there was no facility, there was no faculty, there was nothing. They enrolled on the basis of a website. They graduated with the confidence level to go out and do what they came here for.”
Video by CUNY TV