Film studies aim for respect Careers: Film majors might not find Hollywood in their sights. But the production skills they learn belong in Maryland, where movie making is a growth industry.


After rising and falling in popularity during the past 20 years, film studies have yet to find a firm place in academia.

The Johns Hopkins University -- more typically associated with studies of science or the classics -- let six students major in film for the first time this past academic year. The number is expected to double this year. But these days for every such new film program, another dissolves.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, for example, the Radio, TV and Film Department was broken up and parceled into other departments as a result of budget cuts earlier this decade. College Park students still study film in comparative literature or journalism classes.

Douglas Gomery, a UM professor who teaches courses on the history and economics of film in the journalism department, says it has always been an uphill battle to prove that film is a legitimate academic discipline.

The committees deciding university curricula "often look at you as if to say, 'Why would we need a department of comic books?' " Gomery says. "But you'll never get an argument about the seriousness of physics or Shakespeare."

To be sure, certain respected film programs with well-connected Hollywood alumni -- such those at New York University and the University of Southern California -- remain untouchable.

But in recent years, other film departments across the country -- including those at the University of Oregon, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Ohio State University -- have joined Maryland's on the casualty list.

Aside from questions about the educational value of film studies, one factor driving them out of colleges is the expense of courses in film production.

Most film programs are two-pronged. Some courses focus on film theory and history, teaching students to analyze the films of great directors the way literary scholars analyze the novels and essays of great writers. Some courses in film production teach students how to hold a camera and work with sound.

This is where the programs get pricey.

Jerome Christensen, the professor in charge of Hopkins' new major, estimates that the used cameras Hopkins provides its students for their film production courses cost more than $5,000 each. Courses in the technical aspects of sound are so expensive that Hopkins is delaying them until the end of students' programs.

"It costs more to teach film editing than Milton," Christensen, a tenured English professor, says wryly.

Despite the expense of film studies, Christensen believes it is a useful pursuit. "Filmmaking provides surprisingly practical experience that can be used in other arenas," he says. "Learning to raise money [to make a film], seeing a project through from beginning to end -- these are valuable tools."

Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University, echoes Christensen, noting that Columbia's film majors go on to law school, business school, doctoral programs in the humanities and an array of careers that might not be linked to film.

Hopkins' film major is modeled on Columbia's, which began in 1990 and is scholarly: writing-intensive rather than production-oriented.

Insdorf acknowledges she has struggled to prove the academic legitimacy of film, but unlike Gomery she feels the tide is turning for the better.

"Film is now 100 years old," she says. "We can finally confer on this medium a history."

Insdorf believes this history -- and film's huge role in American culture -- provides the subject with more credibility in the academic world. And, given that enrollment often determines the fate of university programs, student interest is a factor.

Columbia has conducted several polls of high school students to find out what they look for in a university. They show that "high school students know they want to study film at some point when they get to college," Insdorf says.

Though the Maryland Higher Education Commission in Annapolis does not keep tabs on students in film programs, its officials say such programs make sense for this area.

"Baltimore in particular is becoming known as a place to make movies," says John Sabatini, the commission's head of Planning and Academic Affairs. "It seems natural for educational institutions to become involved."

At Towson University, becoming involved in local film production -- through student internships -- is expected.

Towson's film program is a concentration within the university's mass communications department. The program has been expanding and diversifying for almost 20 years and involves about 200 students a year, says Barry Moore, an associate professor who has taught courses on directors Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, among others.

"There's been a resurgence of interest in film and TV," he says. With four faculty members teaching film, Towson usually offers 16 courses a year on the subject, and the classes are consistently filled.

They include video production, 8 mm and 16 mm film production and studies of certain filmmakers, such as Stanley Kubrick. Towson also has a large visual-media lab where students can work on projects.

Moore is particularly proud of Towson's emphasis on internships that enable students to work on commercials and movies being shot in the area. "Field work is as important as classroom work, and we try to provide both," he says.

The director of the Maryland Film Office, Michael Styer, says such programs help to market Maryland's burgeoning film industry.

"I think it's great," he says. "Often students will end up writing scripts set in this area, usually Baltimore, but other Maryland locales as well. These student films encourage more low-budget films to be made in the area. The long-term effect on the Maryland film community is definitely positive."

But some film-industry veterans are not so encouraging about the value of film programs for those seeking careers in the industry.

Ned Gusick, vice president of production at Jacobs-Mutrux, a production company at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles -- studied film as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in the late 1980s. At the time, film studies were part of Wesleyan's art department.

Having worked with many film school interns during the past decade, he believes the programs that focus more on the scholarly aspects of film, rather than those that focus on production, better prepare students who want to pursue film careers.

"Too many film programs spend too much time making students run around with 16 mm cameras and showing them how to read a light meter, and not enough time on helping them learn to tell a story," he says. "These programs might as well just have students make a music video.

"Very few people understand how to talk about a film or design a movie. Imagine someone being an architect without ever having worked on a blueprint of a building," Gusick adds.

Claudia Citkovitz, who teaches screen-writing at NYU's School of Continuing Studies and who worked as a film executive for almost 10 years before leaving to work on her own scripts, has a chicken-soup attitude toward majoring in film: It might not help, but it can't hurt.

She majored in English at the University of Chicago, which did not have a film program at the time but does today. She feels the study of English literature is more advanced than film studies and taught her principles that were easily applicable to her film career.

Citkovitz got her first job in the industry -- as an assistant at a literary and talent agency -- because of her strong writing skills, not because of her knowledge of film.

"I think the passionate, dedicated study of movies at the undergraduate level is a great thing," she says, "but it does not necessarily give students an edge in the job market."

Pub Date: 7/20/97

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