With Nygren's death, fate of UF film production program in doubt
Published: Friday, April 18, 2014 at 2:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 18, 2014 at 2:17 p.m.
The death last month of University of Florida Center for Film and Media Studies director Scott Nygren has faculty close to the program concerned about its long-term viability.
Nygren's death from complications related to leukemia not only creates a leadership vacuum. With Nygren gone, and the departure in January of Roger Beebe, who worked by Nygren's side for more than a decade, it also means the program has nobody qualified to teach film and video production.
“I'm afraid that production at UF — the program that Scott started and that I contributed to for 13 years — is in grave danger right now,” said Beebe, who accepted a similar job at Ohio State University. “We'd all been hoping that Scott would recover fully and would be able to return to the classroom, but with this sad turn of events, there are no faculty members left in the production area in the English Department.”
The administration had known of Beebe's planned departure for a year but hasn't yet taken steps to fill his position.
“Hopefully, they'll recognize the gravity of the situation now and will move quickly to make sure that production remains a part of our Film and Media Studies program,” Beebe said.
Nygren was also an important contributor to the core of the film studies curriculum, Beebe said, “teaching our introduction to film theory and criticism on a regular basis, which is an absolutely essential class for the major.”
“Others may be able to fill that hole to some degree, but it's a class that Scott taught exceptionally well, and there can be no real replacement for what he was able to offer,” Beebe said.
Nygren's widow, Maureen Turim, who also teaches at the center, has stepped up as director. But her expertise is in film theory and not film and video production. She said she would like to see the department hire someone who can teach those courses.
“Because film and media studies is very popular, in demand at UF at both the undergraduate and graduate level, it would be a shame not to build it back up,” Turim said. “Nothing could be more important to Scott's legacy than to keep it going.”
Nygren was hired in 1990 specifically because he taught both theory and production. “They were looking for someone with a Ph.D. who could teach production, which he had done,” Turim said. “It was a dedicated hire in film and media production for the first time.”
Four years later, UF hired Beebe, whose focus was almost exclusively on making 16mm films. Beebe also started FlexFest, an annual film festival featuring avant garde, experimental and underground filmmakers going on its 11th year.
Enough faculty are still affiliated with the film and media center to keep it going, English Department Chairman Kenneth Kidd said.
“I don't think we are in a great crisis as a film studies program, but the loss of production is a huge loss,” he said.
Before he died, Nygren had scheduled a production class for the fall and recommended a former student who is now a filmmaker to teach it on an adjunct basis, Kidd said.
What happens after that is the $20,000 question.
“We do have money for film production that comes through the dean's office,” Kidd said. The amount is about $20,000 a year, Kidd said, but maintaining camera equipment, buying computer software editing programs and hiring projectionists can be expensive.
“It was always a shoestring operation,” he said, and the department also has shouldered some of the cost. Even before Nygren got sick, they had talked about whether to continue production, which Nygren favored, Kidd said.
Kidd said he would like to keep film production because it helps students gain a better perspective of how films and videos are made, and gives them a leg up in the job market.
“We sent so many undergraduate students to top-flight production and MFA programs, dozens of students who went on to really remarkable careers,” Kidd said. “Most were not trying to become filmmakers, but the production class gave them a sense of how it worked.”
The film studies program is one of the most popular the department has to offer. The English Department has under 700 undergraduate majors, most of whom take film studies classes. “We have a healthy demand for film classes at the undergraduate level,” Kidd said.
And it is one of the larger areas of the doctorate program.
“I personally would like to see production continue but can't do it without commitment of resources,” Kidd said.
Kidd is dealing with competing needs in a department that has been decimated by faculty retiring or leaving for jobs at other universities. “We have a lot of holes in the curriculum,” he said.
Since 2005, the English Department faculty has shrunk from about 60 to 36 full-time faculty, he said, and eight or nine are talking about retiring in the next few years, including some of the faculty who have been teaching film studies at UF for decades. As well, Amy Ongiri is leaving for the University of Wisconsin after this year.
“The administration is not replacing any English Department faculty who leave, retire or die,” longtime film studies professor Robert Ray said.
Nora Alter left UF in 2009 to take a position running Temple University's Department of Film and Media Arts, inheriting a department with 14 faculty, 50 graduate students and 800 undergraduate majors. She had a film production budget of around $150,000 a year, she said.
Her position was never filled. Alter said she's sorry to see what has become of the film studies program at UF.
“It really makes me sad because when I joined in 1994, it was considered one of the top programs in the country,” Alter said, blaming the upper administration for lacking the vision to spend the resources to keep it a first-rate program.
It's important that UF do what it can to keep a vital film studies program if it wants to be considered among the top 10 public universities in the nation, she said.
“Film studies is sort of like Shakespeare now almost,” she said. “This is what kids are growing up on.”
Students can better relate to comparing a science-fiction film to a neo-realism film than they can comparing a contemporary novel to a French realistic novel from the 19th century. And they can write about it.
And that is what is driving the demand for film studies courses, she said.
“They don't feel stupid taking film studies,” Alter said. “They have that vocabulary, they have that knowledge, and they are more open to writing papers about it.”
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