Arkansas Film School Building a Reputation

Ten years ago, the University of Central Arkansas expanded its undergraduate major in “digital filmmaking” to include a Master of Fine Arts degree, making it the only graduate-level film school in the state. In 2017, there are plans to drop the word “digital” from the name. It’s a natural evolution, said Bruce Hutchinson, the program’s director of graduate studies.

“When we started the [undergraduate] program…old-school film was still 98 percent of what people were doing,” he said. “And, we looked at the future and said: ‘We think film’s going away. We think it would be a waste of time to invest in those resources and teach that in classes.’ So at the time we put digital in the title to make clear that this is all-digital technology, digital cameras, digital editing, everything. Now, that’s what everyone assumes. Digital is pretty much taken for granted by everyone.”

Whatever you call it, the degree has become a magnet for students. Hutchinson said the number of undergraduate majors now fluctuates between 160 and 175.

“The graduate program,” he added, “is a smaller program. And, we generally keep it select — five [new] students a year — because at the moment that’s what our resources can handle. The challenge with the MFA program is because it’s a graduate degree, it needs to be more of a regional program. It can serve the state, but to really be successful, it needs to serve beyond the state. And so, that process of getting the word out, regionally and nationally, is definitely a slower process, especially for graduate film schools where people sort of know the big names. And, trying to get them to know about other alternatives can be a little challenging.”

It was an alternative that made sense for Hope native Jason Miller, who knew from an early age he wanted to make films. He chose UCA over other options because it was closer to home and affordable. Miller earned his MFA in 2015. Since graduating, he has found that the opportunities for filmmakers in Arkansas tend toward the self-made variety.

“The best thing UCA did for me was it gave me the opportunity to make a film [while a student],” he said.

That film, a horror short titled The Whisperers, won the Charles B. Pierce Made in Arkansas award at the 2015 Little Rock Film Festival. Miller has now turned his attention to a feature-length dark comedy project titled Chop.

According to Hutchinson, UCA graduates have also worked in a variety of positions in film hotbeds like Los Angeles, New Orleans and Atlanta.

“We have other students who are doing freelance work more locally,” he explained. “So, they may be cinematographers, sound people, editors, who kind of work from project to project. And then we’ve got graduates who work for advertising firms. We’ve got graduates who work for nonprofits like the Salvation Army. We’ve got one of our MFA students down in New Orleans who works for the WWII Museum.”

The more graduates the program can send into film work around the country, the more the school’s reputation should grow.

“Obviously, being in Arkansas it’s difficult to have connections in New York, Chicago, LA,” Hutchinson said. “And, being a pretty young program, at 10 years, we’re still working on that. But, we definitely have some ties, and then as our students graduate and start working out there, then obviously we create more ties.”

Top photograph courtesy of the University of Central Arkansas

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