Controversial and ironic, right? I mean attend Northwestern University, and yet I’m actively choosing to bash it for the sake of this piece. This is all referencing Metaflix’s Top 25 Film Schools list, by the way. My view is that I don’t think that Northwestern should be featured on this list.
Now let me be clear, I absolutely love Northwestern. It’s where I’ve discovered a lot about myself as a person, taken the best classes, and forged the best bonds with the best people. My Purple Pride and love for the Wildcats (our mascot) shines so much that I’m working as a tour guide for the school, actively promoting it to prospective students: point being, I bleed purple.
And though NU is known for its academics, as it’s frequently ranked among the Top 10 academic institutions in the U.S. by outlets like U.S. News & World Report, we are absolutely NOT a film school, nor do we have a film program.
The difference between schools like USC, NYU and Loyola Marymount and a school like Northwestern is that they offer Bachelors of Fine Arts from schools that exclusively house majors dedicated to studying the art of filmmaking.
These schools are known as conservatory schools, and they often require a review of a film portfolio to be granted admission to the programs. For example, an applicant to USC’s College of Arts and Sciences would not need to submit anything other than the school’s application to be eligible for admission. Yet, an applicant to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts would need to submit an entirely separate application with separate essays and even a short film along with that application for review.
Contrary to those schools, Northwestern does not offer a conservatory-style education for its theatre or film programs, which was done by design.
You see, Northwestern prides itself on being one of the few schools that allows you to study theatre or film as a Bachelor of Arts/Sciences (instead of as a BFA, as I mentioned before); this means that the school is not a conservatory program, which means you don’t have to audition (or send a film portfolio) to get in, you only need to submit the regular application.
But this is not the only difference between these two degrees.
You see, typically, students under conservatory programs (be it music, film, theatre, etc.) will have little opportunity to declare concentrations outside of their programs because of the rigorous schedule and heavy training that these students are given.
Northwestern registers these programs as liberal arts by offering them either as a BA or a BS. This allows students to declare secondary majors within the other colleges that are not at all related to the arts.
So, for example, a student at Northwestern could be studying both theatre and computer science, something which would not be possible at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts because they only offer a BFA program and that requires a more extensive, intense courseload that’s aimed to develop one’s artistic technique, leaving little room for the ability to declare secondary concentrations of study.
As a direct comparison, our only conservatory school here at Northwestern is the Bienen School of Music, and you’re only allowed to declare a secondary concentration by enrolling in a dual-degree program, which takes five years to complete and ends with one graduating with two separate degrees from the university (one from each school).
This is the only way that Northwestern actually allows a conservatory student to study two disciplines. Even if they offer similar programs at schools like USC and NYU, my point still stands that they’re only able to do so by spending more time in college and getting a separate degree from a school that is not their conservatory school (be it Tisch or USC’s School of Cinematic Arts).
This also makes it so Northwestern can’t advertise itself as a film school. Rather, we offer degrees in communication with concentrations in either theatre or film (which NU calls Radio/Television/Film).
As such, I think it’s unfair even to rank NU alongside these film schools because, as I’ve mentioned, we don’t have a straight BFA film program, and we never will. Moreover, the intense course load and specific study of directing, cinematography, storyboarding are not necessarily offered at Northwestern because our degrees don’t require such intense study of the craft.
The kids that choose to come to NU to study the arts do so because they don’t want to be in conservatory programs like USC and NYU, as they want to combine their study of the arts with secondary areas of study.
This is why our theatre and film departments are housed within the same school, the School of Communication, because, as I said, you’re essentially getting a communications degree with a concentration in either film or theatre.
We do, however, offer filmmaking and acting classes. In fact, NU considers itself a school that offers a conservatory approach to learning by still being a non-conservatory school.
An example of this is the theatre department’s acting sequence, which will place you in a sequential set of acting classes, all with the same professor and cohort of students, for about two years. BFA candidates will typically take acting classes for four years, but we’ll only take them for two. This allows for the additional declaration of different areas of study, as is required in a BA/BS, whilst also offering a conservatory learning style.
This isn’t top say that NU hasn’t produced famous actors/directors, some famous alumni include Kathryn Hahn, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Stephen Colbert, Cloris Leachman, Seth Meyers and Richard Kind, but I am saying that it’s unfair to put NU alongside these other schools because they’re not the same type of fine arts school.
I kind of wish we did offer BFA programs, I’d love to see how much funding would be poured into the department if we did offer a traditional film school, but for now, I’d rather the spot go to another school that has genuine film program, with a real BFA.
However, if you want to study theatre or film without being tied to the restrictions of a BFA, then, by all means, apply to Northwestern. I’d make the case that we offer the best theatre/film BA programs in the country, but given that we don’t offer either a film or theatre BFA, I’d steer clear if that’s what you’re looking for.
And hey, maybe it’s a testament to Northwestern’s academic prowess by being placed on the same list as the best film schools in the country, despite not actually being/having a film school.