Onward…

Columbia FilmToday is my last day as Chair of the Film Program at Columbia University.

It’s been a great four years and I’m very proud of our accomplishments over that time.

The end of my chairmanship should not be much of a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. The position is a rotating one among faculty, and Columbia has very strict term limits. I’ve also mentioned it numerous times (albeit off-handedly) in recent writings and speeches. I’m pleased that my colleague Maureen Ryan will be the next Chair. She is more than capable of taking up the mantle and bringing the program to the next level.

Meanwhile, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be back to concentrating on teaching rather than administrating, back to producing and consulting on marketing and distribution of indie films, and perhaps paying more attention to this blog.

Stepping back has already given me the opportunity to think about things with a clearer head, and I share with you now some words that were part of my speech at this year’s Columbia University Film Festival in both New York and Los Angeles.

In the last few years, we’ve seen enormous shifts in the technology of what we do, in the ways in which audiences consume what we create and in the general perception of the value of our work. Some people, given what they read in various publications, might draw the conclusion that we’re heading toward a day when 12-year-olds with iPhones will be born with all the necessary skills to create works of art. Other reports would indicate that theatrical movie-going is dead and that TV has supplanted the movies as the main art form of the 21st century.

My experience is that once a trend has been identified in the likes of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter let alone the New York Times, the likelihood is that the trend is already ending. The movies have survived many onslaughts over 100 plus years of history in spite of major shifts in technology, business models and audience behavior.

The only difference today is that these changes are happening so quickly and so frequently that we have to make sure we’re not jumping through hoops to grab onto something that might not actually be tomorrow’s truth.

The way I see it is that the craft our students learn in this program is more needed than ever before. As we speak, all of the most watched media platforms worldwide have essentially abandoned the so-called democratization of user-generated content and are willing to pay through the nose for artists who they can depend on to deliver quality storytelling in all formats. This holds great promise for a school that has built its entire pedagogy around doing just that.

I believe we need to be constantly looking both backward and forward…backward to understand and preserve what is best about storytelling through the moving image…and forward to make sure we prepare ourselves and our students, not for today’s trend but for the inevitable tomorrow.

It was particularly heartening to see our film festival in New York doing exactly that this year. We looked backward with a panel organized and curated by our MA Program in Film and Media Studies called “100 years of Film Studies at Columbia,” and we looked forward by having a work-in-progress performance of “Sherlock Holmes and the Internet of Things,” a production of our Digital Storytelling Lab in conjunction with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, IFP and the Brown Institute.

Looking at the vast variety of programs at the festival, I am heartened by the scope of what is possible in an institution like ours, even though working under the umbrella of a university the size of Columbia can present (let’s just say) administrative challenges.

To achieve the goal of understanding the past, while preparing for the future, we’ll all have to open ourselves up, consider new ideas, not be tied to old traditions for their own sake, and make a commitment to absorbing and adapting, protecting what is essential, but keeping up with the world around us.

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