Focus on Film
By William Weber
In 1999, at age 34, with a master’s degree and hands-on experience as a social worker in the South Bronx, Joe Hall enrolled in the elite University of Southern California Film School with the idea that filmmaking skills could expand his effectiveness in community development work. The only trouble was, he discovered he didn’t like being a filmmaker.
But he also discovered that both the film industry and his old neighborhood needed him in a different role.
“I was hearing from people at the school that it was very hard for them to get applications from a more diverse group of people—that a lot of the students are industry kids,” Hall says, “and part of that was because, for the academically successful kids, the creative kids in a place like the South Bronx, it’s a very hard to sell to convince that child’s parents to let them pursue an arts career unless there’s a really good relationship in place.”
Hall realized he could help build those relationships.
After returning to New York, Hall set about creating a non-profit educational program for high school students that would give teens a solid grounding in the art and the business of moviemaking and introduce them to working professionals who could serve as role models and mentors. He called the program the Ghetto Film School.
Started initially as a free summer workshop he ran out of his kitchen, GFS for the past five years has operated as a selective-admission, 15-month fellowship program that provides students from a variety of inner-city New York neighborhoods with the technical training, the artistic and critical thinking skills, the hands-on experience,
and – perhaps most importantly – the professional contacts needed to have a serious stepping stone toward a career in film and media.
“Our program works really well for someone who has thought about this for a long time and never could quite figure out ‘how am I going to get into the world of film?’” Hall says. “Our students really want access into those worlds. They want access into the places that are creating content. They really want to have a creative life and a creative career.”
For his trailblazing work in media education—which now includes launching a four-year film-focused public high school this past fall—Hall was named a 2009 Cable’s Leaders in Learning Award.
Ghetto Film 101
The GFS curriculum has three successive components—film history and appreciation, industry and business practices, and the creative side of narrative moviemaking.
For the 20 high school students (mostly juniors) who are accepted each year as GFS fellows, they begin their tenure in a fulltime summer program called Ghetto Film 101 that introduces them to cinematic storytelling. Instead of working typical
summer jobs, the GFS fellows earn a $750 stipend as they watch, analyze, and make movies. The goal is to learn to view film as a form of literature, to understand the language and structure of movies, and to see with the eyes of a producer of content. Over the summer, each student also creates a six-minute, no-dialogue film short, doing all of the writing, casting, directing, and editing themselves. Along the way, they have seminars and workshops with an array of directors – including Hollywood heavies such as Spike Lee, Lee Daniels, and Jim Jarmusch – as well as with film editors, sound people, and other media professionals who talk about their own careers in tandem with what the kids are learning in the curriculum.
The summer program ends with a gala fundraiser at Lincoln Center, where 10 of the shorts – chosen by the students themselves – are screened for families, friends, and GFS supporters and donors. As much as it is a celebration of the students’ achievement, the event also is a powerful example of Hall’s serious goals for the program and his equally serious expectations for its participants.
“The projects that are chosen for the screening at Lincoln Center, the way they’re chosen is not just an anonymous vote,” Hall explains. “Every student has to articulate ‘I like this project because…’. We don’t let them say ‘because it’s cool.’ They have to use the vocabulary of the profession. They have to be able to very clearly articulate what’s working and what’s not working.”
That may seem a fairly stringent approach, but Hall has his reasons.
“I think it is really important that young people have a barometer of their success,” he says. “You have to have standards and people have to see that there’s room for improvement.
“A lot of times people say to me, ‘but these kids have worked all summer and so hard, they must be devastated when their project doesn’t air at Lincoln Center.’ I tell them, ‘yes, there’s disappointment, but the way that you talk to them about it is really the key. You can get people to understand that there’s room for improvement, and you can highlight what they did well, but you can also keep them involved and get them hungry so they do better.”
Following the Lincoln Center event and the start of school, the GFS fellows begin a 12-week industry-oriented class that meets all day on Saturdays and occasionally after school. This program gives them a thorough understanding of the business aspects of film, mixing talks by industry professionals with career planning assistance and hands-on internships at partnering companies. The GFS staff also works closely with the students on their applications for college and financial aid.
“The parents always love us for this,” Hall says. “We’re helping their kids get into a really top college instead of the same kids being told by their school counselor to apply to City College, which is a great school, but we’re talking about kids who—because through our program and through our work they end up going Columbia, Smith, Amherst. Really great schools.”
In January, the fellows start a three-month thesis program in which they learn about dialogue and character-driven plot, including writing a 15-minute script. Through a long workshop process, the students refine their projects and eventually select the top three scripts. Those are then critiqued further until one is chosen to go forward. That writer hears pitches from other fellows to select his or her director, and then the director hears pitches for cinematographer, editor, and others until a crew of 10 students is selected.
Then, a few days after the school year ends, the film crew gets on a plane and flies somewhere in the world for two weeks to shoot their movie. In recent years, the crew has worked on location in Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Los Angeles, and Mexico City. This year’s students will be shooting in Belfast, Ireland.
Why the exotic locales? “I think that’s a really key component in any arts program,” Hall says. “Really, any great artist or filmmaker talks about when they were traveling that that’s when their world opened up – it’s they ‘a-ha’ moment.”
But, just as with the Lincoln Center screening, not all the fellow go on the trip. “There are benchmarks and competition at every point in our program,” Hall explains. “I’m a big believer in that. I think it’s really important that if you tell people they can compete in an industry like film or video or creative content, you’ve got to let them know it’s no joke.
“When we take them to Los Angeles,” Hall notes, “and we take them to talent agencies like William Morris, they go to the mail room and I say, ‘this guy here, he has an MBA from Harvard and he’s working in the mail room and he’s hoping to become an assistant, because someday he’s hoping to become an agent. That’s your competition.”
When the crew returns to New York, two students work on editing the film over the summer and the other fellows are placed in internships with partner companies or work at Digital Bodega, a work-for-hire production company that GFS operates out of a new, $3 million facility it built in its South Bronx neighborhood. Through Digital Bodega, GFS students have been hired to produce corporate videos, electronic press kits, and other media products for a range of clients that includes New York Presbyterian hospital, the German Department of Economics and Technology, and the Independent Film Channel.
“We’ve laid the groundwork over the last couple of years to build our brand and our visibility,” Hall says. “We’re looking to have a model where graduates of the program, working through Digital Bodega, are actually generating the majority of our revenue, which then trains the next group of kids that are coming up.
“I always tell the kids, ‘the Bodega is a very powerful thing – you’re creating an opportunity for someone that you don’t even know yet. That’s a very powerful act,’” Hall says. “And at the same time, they’re getting some money themselves and some experience, and through that, we find out who are the folks we can really recommend and actually get them good-paying jobs after college.
“We’re trying to create a very clear pathway, in partnership with film companies, filmmakers, and media corporations who see the value of the relationship not just in a charitable way,” Hall adds. “We usually don’t have partnerships with people who say they want to ‘give back’. We ask up front, ‘what’s in it for you?’ We think that long-term partnerships that are organic are successful when it’s very clear there’s a win on both sides. And that’s what’s helped us build a strong model that a lot of people want to participate in. That’s what has gotten us connections to places like Cablevision and the Independent Film Channel and Sundance Channel, because they see that we’ve got a different philosophy and a different mission. It’s approaching the work.”
The Cinema School
In addition to the valuable hands-on experience offered by GFS and the funding potential from Digital Bodega, a third element of Hall’s original plan was to open a full-fledged film high school. That concept became a reality in September 2009 with the opening of the Cinema School.
“I found in my research that there isn’t really a film high school anywhere,” Hall says. “It’s amazing. Film is something that most people, and certainly teenagers, are interested in. It is the new art form; it is the new literature for the 21st century. It’s the storytelling medium for the 21st century. So why hasn’t a school tapped into this?”
Hall and his team of teachers and fundraisers worked for several years with the City of New York and the state Department of Education to develop a model that will have filmmaking as its core mission. “If you understand the basic tenets of a really strong liberal arts education – writing, research, being able to manage projects that have a lot of different disciplines that you’re drawing off of,” Hall explains, “filmmaking is a perfect way to activate all that, because you need all of those things.”
The Cinema School opened in September 2009 in a new school building as a select-admissions public school, with 75 ninth-grade students. Over each of the next three years it will add a new ninth grade until the school is a full grades 9-12 program.
“This is the only high school where every student is engaged in a four-year film curriculum,” Hall says proudly. That curriculum includes a six-week midwinter institute that’s completely focused on production, he noted. “For the ninth grade, it’s animation,” Hall says. “Everyone is being introduced to the history and the technique and skills of animation, and everyone is making an animation project in the six weeks.
“Eventually it will lead to senior projects that are competitive, like in the Ghetto Film School, with people submitting scripts in 11th grade, and those scripts being chosen, being given a budget, etc. Our goal is, when you finish the film curriculum in this high school, you will come out with above a bachelor’s level film education.”
One of the challenges Hall has had to confront since the beginning is getting people – whether potential funders, sponsors, and industry partners, or educators and parents – to understand that the Ghetto Film School is a serious, career-focused arts program for smart, young filmmakers who just happen to live in inner-city New York. GFS is consciously and decidely not a social welfare initiative for disadvantage youths, he says.
“I’m a social worker by training. I’m very familiar with how the intention and motivation behind some arts and media programs is a therapeutic intervention with a group of kids that people see for their deficits,” Hall explains. “But we have never accepted any money or a grant where the parameters were that we had to describe or define the kids as at-risk. We’ve never done that.
“Actually, if you’re talking about media and creativity and entertainment,” he adds, “I think a young person in a fairly wealthy suburb of, say, Kansas has a lot more disadvantage than a kid from the Bronx, because in the Bronx you’re a subway ride away from world-class museums and media companies. You have all kinds of access to many things.
“I always say that if we were to try to do this in Kentucky or Kansas, it would be much harder,” Hall notes. “We just had a day at the Museum of Modern Art with our high school and fellows program kids. Part of the day was a screening of Where the Wild Things Are and [director] Spike Jonze came and did a Q&A with all the students.
“How could you do that in Kansas? I mean, how do you get Jim Jarmusch or Spike Lee to come to Kansas and talk to your kids?”
Where will that leave the Ghetto Film School program?
“That’s in interesting question for our board,” Hall admits. “One idea we have is to
make GFS a place where people who are interested in a top-notch film education would go instead of college. So, the kind of student filmmaker who wants to go into film but is not going to go to college – whether it’s because of academics or they don’t want the whole liberal arts requirement – you get in on a creative application and when you come out you’re prepared for that world. There’s not really something like that in the U.S.
“We’re also thinking maybe that the fellows program morphs into a two-year program that becomes a recognized, reputable film-education school attached to a business model like Digital Bodega. You don’t get that if you go to an undergraduate film program.”
The way Halls sees it, this two pronged approach covers the main two gaps he saw back when he went to USC.
“The Cinema School feels like something Spike Lee would be interested in,” Hall notes. “He’s really into formal education. He got a master’s in producing film at NYU. And then the Ghetto Film School in the future is more like Spike Jonze. He didn’t go to college. He barely got out of high school. And those are the two kinds of kids that we want to serve, and we’ll have different institutions that are able to deal with them.”
Focus on Filmmaking
Asked what advice he has for other educators who run film or video programs for high school students, Hall has some strong opinions.
First, he cautions, stay focused on teaching them about film and art.
“There are a few hundred self-described youth-media organizations,” he says. “I think a lot of times they are looking to create alternative-type media things, like documentaries. And certainly, in a neighborhood like mine, that’s the way these programs get funded. If your program is funded for violence prevention or, a lot of youth-media groups will get funding from a foundation that does environmental justice, then every kid has to make a PSA about asthma.
“The expectation has to be clear that what we’re teaching you is filmmaking. The kids know right away if a program in a school is funded by DARE that when the first conversation is about ‘have you ever used drugs,’ the kids immediately know this isn’t about filmmaking. This is an agenda. They get that stuff.
“My thing is, if you’re calling something a film program or film class, then it has to really be that, because kids will respect that.”
In addition, Hall says teachers should base their program on their kids’ strength.
“Narrative is the way to go,” he says, “because you’re learning techniques in narrative filmmaking that are really transferrable to a lot of things – like research and communications – it’s all good stuff.
“Also, teenagers already come with a lot of knowledge about narrative films and narrative filmmaking. They don’t know it yet, because they’ve been an audience member. They haven’t been a producer of it. But tap into that. You get them in a discussion and they say, ‘hey, I’ve been watching movies for a long time.’ It’s a universal language.”
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