Film students struggle to fund their art

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By John Gemmell

Ryerson has one of the most competitive film schools in the country. So why are so many people dropping out?

Five thousand dollars may seem like a lot of money to spend on a school assignment, but for Ryerson film students, it’s a pipe dream to produce their final project without at least matching the dollar value of their tuition. And that’s if they pull through the four-year program without having to beg for change outside Tim Hortons.

The school of image arts’ film studies program is the second-most competitive to get into at Ryerson after theatre acting – less than five per cent of the 1,145 applicants were accepted this year.

And if they follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, not all of these new cinephiles will receive their degrees. Of the 50 students that entered the program in 1997, 36 stuck around to sport the royal blue regalia at convocation last June. So why are so many students leaving one of the most competitive film schools in Canada without a degree?

Tuition for film studies is $5,400 a semester, plus $70 in student fees. The school recommends budgeting $2,000 for materials and projects in first-year.

Recent graduate Iain Robinson spent $5,000 on his fourth-year project, an 18-minute film entitled The Cocoa Revolt. Five months before shooting, he combed through the script to erase any redundancies and fine tune his product to minimize costs.

“You know when you’re writing that you don’t have the budget for bridges exploding. You can tell a lot of stories without a lot of dialogue,” Robinson says.

“A lot of people in fourth year were competing, saying things like ‘Oh, my film cost $8,000’. There’s no need for that,” says Robinson. “You budget your film, you do things as cheaply as possible, get a good producer, and use classmates for your crew.”

Robinson was able to finance his education by living with his parents and working part-time at Home Depot. He also won the Terence Grier Entrance Scholarship – a year’s tuition – and the William F. White Equipment Grant. He was able to get free film processing from Medallion labs and 2,000 feet of film from Kodak.

Just as Robinson was putting the finishing touches on his final work as a Ryerson film student, Andrew Forbes was packing his bags and crossing campus for the last time.

Forbes dropped out and returned to Winnipeg after two years in the film program. He was yawning after 20-hour work days and unexcited about the lifestyle he saw himself leading after graduation.

“Everybody was freaking out about costs,” says Forbes over the phone from a Rogers Video store in Winnipeg, where he’s working now.

“It’s tough to estimate [how much you’ll spend]. Eventually you say, ‘fuck the costs.’ and just go with it. Most of the time people go for quantity over quality,” he says.

Forbes chose to work with more expensive film rather than video, the cheaper alternative, because “it’s the medium and the art form.”

We worked in the equipment cage in the image arts building during his second year, which enabled him to get his hands on any material he wanted.

“When people say they can’t get equipment it’s unfortunate, but it’s their own damn fault,” says Forbes. He wants to get back into the film industry but has no immediate plans to enroll in any school.

But it was this strife over the equipment cage – among other things, like not having enough credits after second year – that prompted David Malcolm to leave Ryerson’s film school and start working in the industry five year ago.

His $20,000 OSAP debt and a dislike for some professors were also factors in his departure.

“[Leaving] Ryerson was the best thing that happened to me,” says Malcolm.

He’s since moved up the ranks and is now an assistant director on television productions in Toronto. Although he doesn’t have a great affinity for film school, he still sees it as a great testing ground – a place to make mistakes before they cost someone else money.

“Your first day on a big set you realize that you know nothing,” says Malcolm. “If I was hiring someone, the biggest thing I’d like to see on a resumé is that they’re been on a set, whether it’s a student production or otherwise.”

For Alex Lisman, RyeSAC’s v.p. education and a third year film student, it’s all about money. The expense of tuition and living downtown are beginning to trample over his yearning for an education.

“I’m reconsidering what I’m going to do in fourth year. The summer will tell me where I’m going from here,” he says. “It might make more sense to work in the industry and generate income instead of returning to Ryerson and getting into even more debt.”

Lisman would like to see cheaper production methods offered at Ryerson. He says alternatives are going to affect how flexible graduates will be since the majority of feature films and some TV shows and commercials are shot on film.

“They’re really having to cut and crunch to provide the basics of the program,” says Lisman. “I think they’re doing a decent job with the equipment they have.”

Lisman wants to see increased competition between student’s suppliers to help curb expenses.

In a second-year film technology class last week, instructor Garrick Filewood told students about LIFT, the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto (

LIFT is a non-profit film co-op funded by members and the municipal and provincial governments. It provides students with discounted supplies such as film stock. LIFT also rents equipment, publishes a crew list to members and offers production grants.

Dave Elliot is in that class. He is enjoying film school, but the money he can save on equipment will alleviate any debt he will have after graduating. Unlike professions such as business and engineering, there are no guaranteed jobs for film graduates.

“Everybody in the industry told me [Ryerson’s] the best film program in Canada,” says Elliott, who’s barely making ends meet. “Film school everywhere is expensive,” he says.

Elliott transferred to Ryerson after completing a year of fine arts at the University of Calgary. He gained experience working as a production assistant at Illusions Entertainment in Calgary, but is hoping Ryerson can help him make the contacts he needs to break into the industry.

He doesn’t want to work part-time for more than 10 hours per week for fear that it would interfere with school assignments. He’s planning on getting more loans in the next two years – unless he finds a summer job that pays $10,000.

Elliott’s greatest expenses so far, aside from tuition, have been $240 for his first-year film project, a five-minute short. He shot 20 minutes of film, bought a $300 light metre that he’ll use until he graduates and a $450 Firewire computer drive – a portable storage disk for full frame and video that every film student has been encouraged to buy this year.

“There’s no way to alleviate the cost without government funding,” says Elliott. For now, Elliott is content to shell out the big bucks to finish his degree.

“Film school allows you to make your own films,” he says. “You’re not in that position if you don’t go to film school.”

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