Destination 2017: New York

It’s late afternoon, somewhere in New York City, and on the upper floor of a derelict apartment building a sleazy realtor wearing a red tie of Trumpian proportions is lying to his clients, a Chinese couple, both blind. The apartment is covered in graffiti and looks as if a street gang has been squatting in it. The realtor talks a big game though, telling his vision-impaired guests that the apartment is beautiful, with views of Central Park and brand-new appliances. He asks if they’re hungry—he is, he ordered a pizza already, in fact—and makes a lascivious comment about the wife’s appearance. He doesn’t realize that his first bite of pizza will be his last. As soon as the realtor sits, the wife springs into action, garroting him as he tries to fight back and knocks over the table. The husband and wife, revealing that they’re not blind but are actually skilled assassins, leave the body and the building to go to a steak dinner in midtown. Cut.

This scene is the dramatic high point of a short film written by screenwriter and director Amos Poe, the kind of film that is typically made with a low budget and creative production values. Instead, it’s being shot on an elaborate set, with two constantly rotating camera rigs, by students in Poe’s directing workshop at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema.

The Feirstein School opened its doors in the fall of 2015, becoming the first public graduate film school in New York. Former hedge fund manager and Brooklyn College alumnus Barry Feirstein put up $5 million of initial funding, and the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, the state of New York, private donors and the borough of Brooklyn raised the total to $30 million. “The project reminded me of a great investment,” Feirstein says. “It had features that made it sustainable and gave it advantages, and a lot of people were interested in it.” Actor Ethan Hawke joined the school’s advisory council, as did director Steven Soderbergh. “This city should be ripe with film schools,” Hawke says. All that money and industry know-how has created a high-tech film center with state-of-the-art visual effects, sound and animation technology, screening facilities, soundstages and magnificent views of the East River and Manhattan.

“Obviously in 2015, you weren’t going to be using film anymore,” says the Feirstein School’s founding director, Jonathan Wacks. “We wanted to have, from camera to finishing in post, a seamless work flow, all digitally based.” Students at Feirstein can access their projects at any stage of development from anywhere in the world. “By any standard it is one of the best facilities I’ve ever walked inside of,” says Soderbergh. “I certainly never set foot in anything like that until I started working for studios.”

Another of the school’s advantages is that it is housed within Steiner Studios, a massive, 580,000-square-foot production lot—the largest outside of Hollywood. Students attending Feirstein arrive each day beneath the “Steiner Studios” sign. “It’s the only graduate film school in a film studio. That seemed to me an obvious advantage in an industry where your connections are important,” Feirstein says.

Blockbusters such as Trainwreck, Bridge of Spies and The Wolf of Wall Street and TV hits including Boardwalk Empire, Girls and Gotham were all shot at Steiner. Feirstein students are virtually guaranteed to rub shoulders with producers, directors and actors in some of film and TV’s biggest productions. Between its technological edge, lack of bureaucracy and colocation with Steiner, the Feirstein School feels “like a startup,” says Poe. “It’s got a whole Brooklyn vibe. Brooklyn is the new Manhattan. And then you’re on a studio set, so you also have this whole professional Hollywood feeling too. You get the best of both worlds.” But Feirstein may be something more than the best of two worlds. The school is quietly aiming to help transform the film and TV industry in a uniquely Brooklyn kind of way. In the wake of the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which protested the dearth of people of color in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominations for the Oscars, the Feirstein School is making a special effort to recruit students from diverse backgrounds. “Given that we’re part of the City University of New York (CUNY), we felt a strong and abiding need to have as much diversity as possible,” Wacks says. “The film industry is kind of in crisis. We made a commitment that we would try to have as many of our students be women and minorities as possible.”

While other top film schools are often as much as 80 percent white men, about half of the Feirstein School’s students are from those traditionally underrepresented groups. “Since we were starting from scratch, we didn’t really have to deal with a legacy of not being diverse,” Soderbergh says. That attracted the city’s Office of Media and Entertainment, for example, which earmarked $5 million last year to be administered over five years to female film and theater makers to help them complete their projects; one such project is a pair of TV pilots written by female screenwriters that will be produced by Feirstein students. Hawke says he hopes that Feirstein’s emphasis on diversity can help combat what he sees as the corporatization of an art form. “Young people need to try out their skills when they’re not in the corporate world,” he stresses.

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