NYU Joint MBA/MFA Degree: Worth the Time and Money?

I just had a reader write in with this question:

Seth,

Someone once told me to do what I love. Simply put, what I love is film. I have been a fan of cinema ever since the first movie I saw, Peter Pan, the one with Mary Martin from 1960. It has always been my dream to somehow work in that industry whether I write, direct, produce, or whatever. That being said, I never knew how to even begin to start down that path and its kind of a hard sell to the folks.
I have already gone through undergraduate business school and left with a marketing degree and an operations mgmt degree. I am now working in the field of operations mgmt for a tech company. NYU Tisch school has a joint MBA/MFA program which I feel I would fit into perfectly. Its designed for creative people who also have the ability to think analytically and financially. On their website they specifically describe how the program is designed to teach many of the things which you said NYU did not teach you i.e. “practical training on producing a feature film, networking, marketing themselves, and the proper means to actually raise funds from private investors.” So while it will mean a lot of money and a lot of loans, I will also leave with two advanced degrees, including an MBA. Can you please give me your thoughts as to whether this would be just a waste of my time and money?

Thanks and Regards,

John

Thanks for the question John. Since you love movies, I hope to guide you in a direction that allows you to do what you love for a living.

When I was at Tisch I had a friend studying at the Stern School of Business. He was a passionate advocate that the “Tischies”, or art students, should partner with the “Sternies” or business students to help combine the two. It sounded like a great, practical idea.

But like most things in Academia, the execution of this idea has become completely impractical. This article is a detailed inquiry into the question, for people either considering a Master’s in Film or Business who wish to work in the film industry.

A friend of mine, Cary Solomon, is a 20 year veteran of the business and a big support of this site. He enrolled in a similar program at USC, the Peter Stark Master’s program in Producing. And he is even more vehement than I am about what a waste Master’s programs in producing are.

The fact of the matter is this: film producing is not rocket science. You get some money, put together a script cast and crew, and shoot a movie. I personally raised $40,000 in 3 months from private investors after learning on my own how to pitch, put together a proposal and working with an attorney to draft a private placement memorandum to legitimately receive funds from outside investors. And that’s with no business training.

That project was small but the same theory applies to a $10M movie. It’s basic investment and if you already have a degree in marketing and business, pursuing an advanced degree to learn how to do this doesn’t make much sense.

To me, a joint MFA MBA degree is kind of like welding together a Chevy Nova and a Cadillac Esplanade and trying to squeeze through a drive through window.

Case in point: many of the faculty of the MBA/MFA program do not have a degree in film. For instance Peter Newman, a long time successful independent producer of such movies as “The Squid and the Whale”, got his start as a sportscaster and has no formal training in the field. Furthermore, all of the industry experienced faculty in the program are Adjuncts, meaning they might just make a cameo appearance while you are there. All of the full time faculty are serious academics and have little industry experience.

Take for example William Green. He is a very accomplished Professor in Economics. That’s great. The bio sheet says he has experience in Entertainment, but has he produced a movie? Has he been in a room where they green lit a major movie? No, he is a full time Professor. Learning this business from an Academic is a big mistake.

An MFA in Film Production is actually be a detriment in the film business. Whether you are looking for work on a film set or simply networking, having an advanced degree in film is not respected, nor does it carry any technical advantages. There are no positions in the film business that have an MFA as a prerequisite, except Professor positions at some colleges. Having an MFA in film doesn’t make you a better filmmaker and it won’t inspire investors to give you more money.

In many cases people with Master’s degrees are seen as being heady and conceited. Consider that this is a business where many of the most successful producers and directors have no formal training in film at all.

The MBA/MFA website doesn’t address any real world examples of their graduates working in the industry. All of the FAQ involve the program logistics, etc. It’s like film school; they focus on their programs without talking about the practical application.

The MFA Curriculum

In 2012 it makes no sense to pay a premium to learn what is being taught in these courses, particularly in the isolated academic environment of a university. Producing a Short Film used to be a hard to learn and complex undertaking. Nowadays the amount of information available on how to do this on the internet alone is staggering. Paying $1000 a credit to learn how to do what most 18 year old kids are already doing doesn’t make much sense to me.

Beyond that, writing a short screenplay, basic cinematography, learning to use an Avid editing system… these concepts are scattered all over the place. If you want to produce, your job is to find people that know how to do this. If you want to learn the technical side of these skills, then either pick up a camera and some lights and learn it from the net or my course, or get in touch with a local filmmaker and they will show you.

There are also dozens of online courses available to teach these things, and doing it at Tisch doesn’t somehow make the process of learning how to set up 3 lights for a scene any better.

I also find it strange that the course titled “Producing the Independent Feature” is only 2 credits and electives take up 12 credits. If you are there to produce then you shouldn’t be taking a theoretical class.. you should be producing.

In fact I took a producing course at NYU and it involved us sitting in a class taking notes on budgets and location permits, etc. It was absurd. I learned how to do all of those things in the field when I set out to produce my own feature, through trial and error and learning from people more experienced than myself.

The MBA Curriculum

When I started raising money for my movie, I hired a company to create projections. They took all the data of 5 similar films and created a great looking spreadsheet. The attorney incorporated the projections into the PPC/Business plan and I set out talking to rich people. After a lot of conversations I found a couple of people who believed in me enough to invest.

At the end of the day, after all the stats and legalities were underlined, I had to highlight one point: you are probably going to lose all your money in this investment.

Film is high risk, particularly the way it’s traditionally been done. A lot of money put into production, even more into marketing, and then a lot of money to exhibit and distribute. And nobody really every knows what is going to perform.

That’s why studios rely on stars and franchises, still. It’s a very simple business once you understand the basics.

But do you want to be one of those people who tracks box office? Is this the best expression of your love for making movies?

It’s absurd that the course titled “Entertainment and Media Industries” is only 1.5 credits in this curriculum. It should be the entire curriculum.

The fact is, entertainment and media is one of the fastest changing industries in the world. A camera that cost $70,000 in 2006 now costs $25,000, a huge depreciation. More viewers are consuming media online than every before; but these courses and an entrenched curriculum like this doesn’t move fast enough to keep up with all these trends.

These days it is actually more realistic to earn a return on a movie by distributing digitally, through the internet. The low cost of high quality digital equipment makes it easier and cheaper than ever to get good images. But most schools, even Tisch, are still teaching the old model of filmmaking. That’s what you are going to get in this program.

The theoretical notion that applying traditional studies in Stats, Gloabal Finance, etc. into the ever evolving entertainment biz just doesn’t pan out in reality.

To that end I wish the MBA/MFA site would provide some real world examples of successful graduates. Instead all they have are some shout outs from Variety magazine and one film produced by a graduate.

Conclusion

I would suggest watching how “Nightmare on Elm Street” got made. (Rent the movie and look at the “behind the scenes”).It was a nightmare, literally, for the producers, who had to hustle and eek out some money to get the thing made. Studying finance, economics, etc. had nothing to do with it. It’s actually a very inspiring story.

Such is the story with the beginning of most film careers. Obama may have risen through the ranks by earning a degree from Harvard, teaching law, entering politics, etc. In film it just never happens that way. If someone actually did earn an advanced degree in film and business then become a successful producer it would be the exception to the rule.

I would encourage you to take “Film School Secrets”, get inspired and realize how easy it is to just start producing your own projects without a degree. As a business minded individual, I strongly hope you see that incurring a massive amount of debt to get this degree is not worth it. In fact I think you may want to shoot yourself if you look up 2 years from now and you are still taking notes on financial projections and budgeting and haven’t actually had the chance to just shoot something, be creative, and have fun.

Rather than weighing yourself down with more degrees, I suggest leverage your existing knowledge and financial resources into making a movie now, not later. I believe you will be glad you did.

Thanks for the question, John. Let me know if this is helpful.

 


2 Responses to “NYU Joint MBA/MFA Degree: Worth the Time and Money?”

  1. Rohan says:

    Hi there,

    Well I agree with your reply John… but I guess things gets change when it comes to my motto..
    I am working in Indian film and TV industry as a Producer and an Executive Producer…
    But from the time of my teenage I am very fascinated by the Hollywood films and Hollywood film industry… I really want to be a part of it…
    That’s true that you don’t need any degree to just produce a film, but this is so true that you need a huge network and unlimited contact list to do that… Here in Indian (or say any) film industry, when a person is not any biggies, everything works on his/her contacts or personal relations… and for getting close to this one need to have a good professional circle… and to get to a circle, one has to be with them for quite a long time… So I think, if not for education or not for degree but to get along with these professionals you need to go to a particular film schools or organisations or some similar places…isn’t it…? Please John, correct me if I am wrong… or better say guide me as well…

    Cheers,
    Rohan Jaggatap.

    • says:

      Hi Rohan,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I do not know what it is like in India, but I imagine it is similar to the US. Here in the film business if you want to work as a technical capacity, it is all about your work ethic, attitude, and contacts. But the idea that you need school to make these contacts is not true.

      Who do you meet in school? Typically other people in a similar position looking to “get a foot in the door”. One Professor has hundreds of students looking to “get a connection” through him or her.

      It is better to get on a real film set and contribute… meeting people is not that difficult. You might meet a couple of cool people in school, but real professional contacts come from being on a real film set. That’s what I discuss in the course.

      Seth

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