A Brief History of Students Pleading for Changes to the MAG Structure

Spoiler alert: it has never worked.

Brazil (1985, Gilliam)

The Save RTVF campaign is calling for a fair, open, and transparent process for the entire community to generate proposals on the changes they want to see in the MAG funding structure.

But we’re fully aware that students have tried this already.

Over the past three years, there have been town hall meetings, mass emails, surveys, and countless conversations among students. There have been formal memos written to faculty, administrators, and the Dean of the school. These requests — invariably respectful, eloquently written, and convincingly argued — have only been stonewalled or rejected outright by the department.

That’s because it’s easy to ignore a student’s plea for change. Think about it; put yourself in a faculty member’s shoes. You grant the student a meeting during your office hours (if there’s two of them, stack the room with a few more faculty members). The imbalance of power will be daunting and real to them. They are your students: you control their cage access, their student group funding, their grades, their ability to do anything in the department. They are 22 years old, at most. They have very little experience advocating for themselves or dealing with large bureaucracies, while you are a professional academic who knows how all the pieces fit together. Best of all, these students will be gone in a few years anyway. So if you act friendly and vague, and commit to nothing in particular, you can run out the clock till they simply disappear. The next upperclassman who wants to get uppity about the way your program is structured will have to start all over again, and you can repeat this forever until no one remembers what it was like before.

Here are some quick examples of times when asking the department politely has failed, based on stories we’ve heard from former presidents and URSA chairs about what it was like on the ground as it happened.

First, they came for Studio 22.

  • Studio 22 Productions, the largest RTVF student organization with the lion’s share of the school’s grant funding, knew the department was after them even before the MAGs went into effect.
  • Hearing rumors of the faculty’s discontent, the co-chairs reached out to their RTVF faculty adviser and any administrator who would meet with them to ask for more information on the faculty’s concerns so that the board might work out compromises and reforms. Studio 22 was more than willing to change its structure in order to preserve their operations, and they proactively sought feedback so that changes could be made.
  • The department then held a one-off town hall ostensibly to address student complaints where they blamed Studio 22 for a number of things — bad set practices, monopolizing all of the school’s funding, students not completing their homework due to weekend shoots. From what I hear, none of this feedback was relayed in those previous one-on-one meetings, and the co-chairs felt “ambushed.”
  • In response to the town hall feedback, Studio 22 made a dramatic overhaul in the group’s pitch process, including a blind script submission round (i.e. board members reading scripts without knowing the screenwriter) and hosting mixers for writers looking for directors to pitch with. Studio 22 also restructured all of its grants to make them more equitable; they ended the staggered, multi-tiered major/minor/mini structure and created seven equal grants of $2,200 each. Finally, the group invited the faculty and administration to the pitch process as a gesture of radical transparency, and the only faculty member who stopped by sat through a handful of the pitches and none of the deliberations.
  • In other words, Studio 22 proactively sought departmental feedback for improvement but did not receive it, and once they did, they acted quickly, thoroughly, and creatively to address the concerns, yet lost their production budgets and grant powers anyway.
  • The RTVF department revoked Studio 22's grant powers first, in winter quarter 2016, and then revoked the grants from all groups that fall.

Two alternative proposals

  • Only a year after the Studio 22 pitch process overhaul, the next Studio 22 co-chairs sent this three-page proposal to the department.
  • It begins with a vigorous defense of RTVF student organizations, of Studio 22 in particular, and of grant powers (they use the term “agency”). The memo is worth reading in full, but here are a few important excerpts:
We would like to do everything we can to work with you in finding a new balance in agency that best suits the requirements of the Dean and preserves our mission and integrity as a highly esteemed student production company. After careful thought and discussion since our last meeting, and having lived through another round of Pitches and awarding grants since then, it has become abundantly clear that we simply cannot preserve the integrity and legitimacy of our student organization without preserving the agency that Studio 22 has over the selection of its films[…]

Studio 22 promises consistency to the Northwestern film community. No matter how many scripts we receive, nor how cold the weather, Studio 22 ensures that there will be three sets in production in the fall, two in the winter, and four in the spring. These sets are not only guaranteed to follow through with production, but also to be well staffed, insured, and prepared for[…] If Studio 22 were no longer able to guarantee the production of these films, the legitimacy and faith in Studio 22 would inherently be lost in the eyes of both our writer/directors and crews of students, and the consistent availability of these well-managed set opportunities for students’ experience and education would be in jeopardy.

Student production groups such as Studio 22, NUWFA, Multi-Culti, Inspire Media and Niteskool co-exist within the Northwestern film community to serve the diverse demand for cocurricular production. To remove the agency that these groups have in selecting their grant recipients would prevent each group from uniquely serving their own organization’s mission statements and interests. This diverse pool of student organizations exists for the precise purpose of catering to a wide variety of topical interests that filmmakers have here at Northwestern, and it is crucially important to these groups’ missions that they remain able to select the content that they would like to produce each year.
  • The memo closes with two substantive proposals for a way forward that would achieve the stated aims of the MAGs while preserving and protecting independent student film at Northwestern.
  • The first proposal is a six-point plan for creating two separate pools of funding: one for individual MAGs and one for “Student Group Grants.” Again, it’s worth reading the full proposal, but the upshot is that student organizations would be able to develop and execute their own pitch process to select a tentative production slate, and would then submit their decisions to the faculty for review and final approval. This directly addresses the department’s concern that “student-to-student funding” leads to a kind of corruption (i.e. students giving money to their friends) because the faculty would have real oversight and “veto power” over processes that seem illegitimate or unfair. It would also put new “start-up” groups on the same footing as old-guard groups like Studio 22 and Niteskool by giving all student groups equal shot at the same pile of money, making it easier for new student groups to be formed.
  • The second proposal was an even more outside-the-box compromise where Studio 22 would voluntarily restructure itself to operate like NSTV, which does not award grants and did not lose its departmental support with the introduction of the MAGs.
  • This memo was widely circulated among the department. As of FY17, Studio 22 continues to lack access to grant funding from the department. An interesting footnote is that the group still has access to the $7,500 Bindley Grant money, since it’s protected by being donor funds. (For how much longer is an open question.) So in their recent proposals, Studio 22 proposed splitting the Bindley into two grants of equal size — a third alternative that would allow the group to preserve some semblance of its grant powers and traditional pitch process.

NUWFA and the Catalyzer Controversy

  • Women Filmmakers Alliance is an incredible student film organization at Northwestern that actively supports female filmmakers in the community while also promoting feminism and equality more broadly in the university. They organize campus programming, formed the Wildcats in LA/NY summer networking program, and award their own grant to a student film with a woman as the writer, director, or producer. Read this description of the NUWFA grant from their website, and listen closely for the subtext that the MAG structure is a direct threat to its existence:
For the past decade, our grant has aided women filmmakers in pitching, developing, and creating student films, and it has encouraged the representation of scripts with female characters and feminist values among the Northwestern film community. Many freshmen come into the RTVF major at Northwestern saying that they want to direct, but with limited opportunities, most women graduate never having directed a project. NUWFA is at a crucial point as we take immense strides to promote female filmmakers. We hope to continue our legacy of helping women filmmakers begin and develop their careers by continuing this grant for years to come.
  • Right now, NUWFA is operating with a workaround: they held their pitch process in fall 2016 before the fall MAG proposals were due, and then supported their grant recipient (this year, it’s Abitha Ramachandran, writer/director of Peluquería) as she applied for a MAG shooting in winter 2017.
  • Here’s one point I can imagine the department raising: the NUWFA grant used to be $1,500 before the MAGs. It’s possible that under the new MAG/Plus-Up structure, Peluquería actually received $2,000 in total, since a MAG tops out at $1,500 and the department allows NUWFA to award no more than $500 in supplemental “Plus-Up” funding to any project that gets a MAG. So, technically, NUWFA might’ve gotten a 25% increase in departmental funding. Wow!
  • But this ignores all the uncertainty introduced into the system. Previously, a NUWFA grant recipient like Peluquería would definitely have received $1,500 and would definitely have been shot. (All film productions that exceed their grant award fundraise to make up the difference.) Under the MAG system, Peluquería would maybe get up to $1,500 plus $500, as long as the faculty gave it a thumbs up. Put another way, to get that $500 boost, NUWFA had to lose both its autonomy and the guarantee that they’d be permitted to make a film at all.
  • I hasten to add that NUWFA’s mission is not just the one grant, but to promote all women filmmakers, so the fact that several women in RTVF were denied MAGs this year is further reason to suggest that the extra $500 is cold comfort.
  • In November 2015, Women Filmmakers Alliance partnered with the Northwestern Alumni Association in a “Giving Tuesday” Catalyzer campaign. (Catalyzer is like Kickstarter but specifically for projects at Northwestern.) NUWFA raised $2,526 and promised donors that their gifts would “directly support the visions of the recipients of the 2016 NUWFA Grant.”
  • NUWFA’s presidents emailed the faculty several times to ask whether they would be able to award their grant per usual, especially considering the Catalyzer windfall. They received no response, not even from an email before summer break with a boldfaced clause saying if they did not hear back from the faculty, they would assume all is well and the grant can go forward as planned.
  • When the department finally responded in the fall, they said NUWFA was restricted from awarding the money raised through Catalyzer, and that if they did, the department would disband the group.

As a former NAA alumni leader, I’m honestly a little surprised the department would try to interfere with donor funds from a Giving Tuesday campaign at all, considering how unnecessary the blowback would be. Why even risk it? Northwestern is in the middle of a capital campaign to raise $3.7 billion; you’d think there’d be an obvious incentive not to have donors hear back from the students saying sorry, we can’t use the money you gave us for the project you donated to, because the department no longer believes students are capable of fairly choosing their own projects.

I don’t really understand that, but my guess is that the faculty weren’t really listening when NUWFA asked them about it in the first place. That’s my most generous theory for why any of this is happening, why so many emails are going unanswered: maybe it’s just that the faculty and administration don’t think it’s that big of a deal. What if the only reason the MAGs came about in the first place was because the department simply mismanaged a stupid problem — maybe an influential parent complained about student-to-student funding one day, not knowing about the competitive nature of the grants or the pitch process students use to make their decision-making as fair and rigorous as possible. Perhaps the MAGs emerged as a hasty, poorly-designed compromise in a faculty committee somewhere, and now the department’s being forced to defend a bad solution that no one is really all that invested in.

I don’t know if that’s the case, but if it is, the department ought to jump at this opportunity for us to solve the problem for them.