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How to get in: USC School of Cinematic Arts 

Article by Ben Feuer, Photos by Ben Feuer (except the one of Sean Connery, obv)

 

Let’s get this straight right off the bat -- USC is not your father’s film school.  Even if your father is Sean Connery.

 

WHY TO GO:

In our August 13th 2015 visit to USC’s campus and conversation with admissions counselor Lucy Leon, we covered the gamut of USC’s exciting, dynamic and sometimes dizzying set of new horizons and opportunities, and we’re here to give you the straight scoop on what the Trojans have been cooking up.

More than any other MFA/PH.d program in the United States, USC is tuned in to the rapidly evolving media landscape.  Although they still retain a dominant position in the (Hollywood) filmmaking pantheon because of the size of their alumni network (12,000+ at last census, including hundreds of prominent directors and writers), USC’s eyes are clearly trained on what they consider to be the future: episodic, new media and interactive.

One great example of this is USC’s allowance for interdisciplinary study – you can cross-enroll in any of USC’s 7 majors, which means even if your focus is game design you can pick up a bit of cinematography along the way.

USC’s screenwriting program is becoming more and more television oriented, following both students’ taste and the overall job market.  That said, if you’re still a feature-head no one is going to stop you from doing your portfolio that way, it’s just less common than it was when spec scripts were selling in the high six figures on a semi-regular basis.

USC was never a particularly strong independent cinema program, and despite their prominent featuring of Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler in their promotional videos, USC is not going to be a place where you develop your independent voice as a writer – it’s too regimented, too busy and far too technical a program for that.

 

The gaming division, on the other hand, has a decidedly indie vibe, with Jenova Chen https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenova_Chen one of the more notable graduates.  The emphasis is on fun and storytelling, and the interactive divisions, especially the newest one, Media Arts and Practice PH.d (which focuses on embedded / infotainment content and experimental interfaces), receive a lower volume of applications and are more high-touch than their filmic counterparts.

If all this choice seems a little overwhelming, then you’re getting an excellent sense of how the program can be for younger and less focused students.  This is NOT a place for people looking to ‘find their way’, particularly at the MFA/PH.d level.  Students should come in with a game plan and be prepared to make a lot of noise to get their needs met – with a massive 1700 students enrolled, USC is not going to cater to individuals as well as a smaller program like AFI, USC, or Columbia.

There’s also one more touchy subject to bring up – money.  USC is extremely cagey about how much film students spend ON TOP OF TUITION, partly because it varies student to student, but mostly because the raw facts are shocking.  Class fees range from $25 to $150 per class, production courses carry an insurance fee of $1000 per semester (very approximately) and incidental project costs on class films range from $500 to $1000 per semester, although many students spend more.

Then there’s the thesis.  It’s not uncommon to hear of USC students spending $15,000 to $50,000 on their thesis films, and every year someone will break the bank and spend $100,000 or MORE (West Bank Story and Turbo being two notable examples).  No one is saying you HAVE to spend this kind of cash – USC discourages it – but the fact is that it does provide a competitive edge, so students keep doing it.  USC offers ‘modest scholarships’ (their words, not mine) based on need only, and production costs are not covered, so be aware before you enroll that you must pay to play.

 

HOW TO GET IN:

USC is one of the most selective institutions out there for film, with admits ranging from 9% to about 25% depending on your choice of program.  Production is the most competitive, naturally.

The GRE is not required for MFA programs. For MA and PH.d programs, however, it is required and plays an important role in the admissions process.

All recommendations are now submitted digitally.  One should be academic, the rest are your choice.  Keep them to one page maximum or expect them to be ignored.  As is always the case with recommendations, distinctive and thoughtful comments from someone who knows you and your work well are more important than industry position or name value.

Your portfolio is, of course, the heart of any MFA application, and Lucy says that admissions counselors like her don’t review applications at all at USC – the faculty go through every single one.  That’s impressive.

Excerpts, trailers or reels are NOT a good idea for video samples, because USC wants to judge your storytelling capacity more than your technical chops as a filmmaker – they consider it more relevant.  You can submit a longer video sample than five minutes, but admissions only requires faculty to watch up to 5 minute mark, and overall it’s a bad idea to submit more.

Writing samples form another important component of the application.  For more information on how to create great writing samples, check out my previous publication in IECA.

Lucy was down on the general admission interview, although she did one herself – she feels it’s only a good idea if you interview well.   YMMV.

 

AND THAT’S ABOUT IT! 

If you have questions, USC provides Ms. Leon’s email address at the link above – or, of course, you can always talk to us