For many undergraduates at Columbia, majoring in film and media studies is viewed as risky, especially for low-income students who feel unable to pursue independent film projects without compensation. Only 17 students graduated with film studies majors in 2017.
However, administrators within the Center for Career Education are attempting to reverse this perception. They say that career anxiety should not deter students from the major, emphasizing that Columbia offers support for fellowships and placement for film studies majors in multiple career paths, in and out of the film and media industry.
On their website, the Columbia School of the Arts states that “students have the opportunity to gain additional experience by taking advantage of internship opportunities with film companies, working on graduate student films, and participating in the Columbia Undergraduate Film Productions, an active, student-run organization that provides filmmaking experience to Columbia undergraduate producers and directors.”
CUFP is endorsed as an extracurricular opportunity for film majors by the School of the Arts. However, CUFP is a student-run organization, and it is the only club the School of the Arts mentions as providing extracurricular experience.
Another student film club, the Society for the Advancement of Underrepresented Filmmakers, is not endorsed by the School of the Arts, but was founded to encourage filmmakers in their professional development.
The SAUF committee has faced an uphill battle to achieve regular attendance and willing submissions.
“It is super niche and very hard to get people involved,” Camille Ramos, CC ’20, said. Ramos is cohead of the organization and a passionate film lover.
Another member of SAUF, Willa Cuthrell-Tuttleman, BC ’20, who managed to attend a film studies seminar last semester, was encouraged by how the students in her class aided her in producing her short film. Yet Cuthrell-Tuttleman found that the Columbia film studies administration was less proactive in providing resources.
One undergraduate who recently switched from pre-med to film and media studies, Vanessa Smith, CC ’21, commented that her new major appears demanding and risky.
“It keeps me up at night,” Smith said. “Because I’m a Columbia student, if I don’t create something great, what am I doing? And if you’re in film, it’s times ten. It’s a lot of pressure, but maybe out of the pressure something great will come.”
For the media industry itself, students lacking financial security are less able to spend their own time developing film projects that can boost career prospects.
However, the Center for Career Education offers exemption programs that can help waive the need to work as part of receiving funding grants. Knowledge of these programs may encourage students to apply for grants, especially arts students with low-income backgrounds.
“There is a wonderful exemption program which supports students on financial aid to waive their work expectation,” Niamh O’Brien, senior associate dean for alumni and undergraduate career development, said. “We talk to the students about, ‘How can we make this survivable over the summer?’”
Although Gauri Adelkar, teaching assistant for Introduction to Film and Media Studies, is still uncertain as to how valuable the undergraduate course is financially, she is positive that the undergraduate department can develop students into specialists.
“In terms of resources, we have great professors who are teaching us really good things,” Adelkar said. “We are learning a lot, a lot as filmmakers, but at the same time we are paying a huge amount of tuition. Considering the amount of tuition we are paying, I am not sure if there are enough benefits or resources to match that.”
Another TA, Joshua Dufour, a first-year graduate student in the film studies program, also has reservations about the value of the major. He no longer sees academic education as part of his career path into the film industry and is taking a leave of absence from his course at Columbia.
“It’s not required that you have a bachelor’s degree,” Dufour said. “For a lot of people in the industry, experience is more important than education.”
Taking into account the competitive nature of the film and media industries, many students might view the major as risky simply on the grounds that these industries themselves are the same. While CCE has statistics on their website that list how many graduates from each major have concrete plans post-graduation, the data was unavailable for film majors, as only four out of the 14 majors graduating in 2016 responded to the survey.
Nevertheless, CCE seeks to ensure that a film and media major is realistic for those from low-income households.
“If you think of the 70 students in the major, not all of them want to commit,” O’Brien said. “You get people who love film and are passionate about film but do not necessarily want careers in film.”