USC’s School of Cinematic Arts has hit pause on all in-person production classes this fall, and students are frustrated at what they say is the school’s lack of transparency and flexibility. 

In a July 6 email to the SCA community, Dean Elizabeth Daley announced that the increasing trajectory of the coronavirus in Los Angeles made planning for on-set production too unpredictable, and that all classes would have to move instead to an online format. She did not provide specific information on what at-home production could look like.

“As far as we know, there are no [specific] plans for moving online,” Cameron Kostopoulos, a rising senior majoring in film and television production, told Annenberg Media over the phone. “We are extremely willing to be flexible, understanding that our health and security comes first…[but] we still deserve the opportunity to make these projects properly.”

Students in the SCA Film and Television tract create two thesis films in their final two years of study that they submit to film festivals and possible employers when they graduate. They get to use the school’s professional-quality equipment — including cameras, lighting, sound and props — along with having world-renowned faculty at USC help guide them through their projects. They also often collaborate with actors from USC’s School of Dramatic Arts to bring their films to life.

Everyone gets the same budget, same materials and same opportunities to succeed. These projects are often known as “great equalizers,” because students from any background can produce a high-quality film.

Now that classes are moved online, production majors will need to employ their own resources — using smartphones as cameras and siblings as actors — to complete their projects.

“[Online learning] definitely puts a lot of students at a disadvantage for the stories they want to tell,” said Jillian Ruvalcaba, a rising senior majoring in film and television production, in a Zoom interview. “We’re still paying the same tuition, but we’re not getting the same experience and resources that we’re paying for.”

With the transition to online classes after spring break, film students enrolled in CTPR-310 and CTPR-480 — SCA’s thesis film courses — had to halt production full-stop. They were told they’d get the opportunity to finish their films once campus re-opened, but as the pandemic scrambled plans across the university, the SCA administration reached back out to students to say that continuing production was no longer an option.

“We had hoped to make it possible for students to complete projects that were interrupted by the events of Spring 2020. Unfortunately, due to the virus, this is no longer possible,” Daley wrote in the July 6 email. “Much work has been invested in these plans, and we share in the disappointment this decision will cause, however it’s now time to move forward by turning our energies to the challenges and opportunities this fall will bring.”

This was the first time Daley had messaged the SCA community since June 22, when she sent out a list of classes with their modalities before getting the plan approved. The list highlighted that the production tract would be conducted partially online and partially in-person. That’s why film and television production majors were so shocked when they found out two weeks later that everything had been moved online.

“When we got [that] email we just felt helpless,” Ruvalcaba said. “Why didn’t they try to reach out to students first? We would really appreciate it if they were asking us how we felt about these decisions, so at least we could have some part in this huge decision-making process. We are the students that are paying this tuition, so we felt sort of blindsided by it.”

Annenberg Media reached out to SCA for comment, but the school did not agree to an interview request.

Students are frustrated knowing they’ll have one less professional-level film in their portfolios upon graduation. For many, it doesn’t make financial sense to continue paying tuition for what they consider a lower return on their education.

“This is an education we’re going into debt for,” Kostopoulos said. “We’re paying a lot of money for this and with that tuition money comes an expectation that we’re going to graduate with a portfolio.” 

Ruvalcaba and Kostopoulos also believe the administration is not being honest about the inherent disadvantages of online filmmaking. 

Despite numerous student complaints, SCA leadership maintains that this experience will prepare students for unprecedented challenges in the professional world. Hollywood ceased all in-person production months ago and productions that did continue had to dramatically adapt to a stay-at-home reality.

“Students will still have the opportunity to make things, and tell their stories, using the newest techniques of virtual production that are currently being developed and practiced by the entertainment industry,” Barnet Kellman, interim chair of the Film & Television Production Division at SCA, told Annenberg Media in a statement. “We understand this may not have been the way students envisioned their experience to be, but we are confident that they will learn the skills they need to tell their stories.”

Some students are not convinced making a film remotely could measure up to the experience of on-set production. Kostopoulos explained that production majors would rather wait an extra semester or two to do their projects the traditional way than adapt to the limitations of creating at home. 

As the summer goes by with limited communication from the SCA administration, film students say they are becoming increasingly frustrated with what they view as vague or nonexistent responses to student concerns.

“If the administration wants to adopt change and meet the expectations of their students, they have to first acknowledge that the education we will be receiving is not up to par with what everyone else [in past years] has already received,” Kostopoulos said. “The fact that the administration refuses to acknowledge that and instead tries to sugarcoat it by claiming we will get the same education virtually, again is a disregard for the education of their students, and presents an unwillingness to actually grow and to actually innovate during this time.”