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American Film Institute increases scholarship offerings

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The American Film Institute has nearly tripled its funding for scholarships in an effort to compete with larger film schools and to help students pay for the institute's $47,000 in annual tuition.

In the past, AFI found it was attracting candidates for its program and then losing them to schools that offered better financial aid. The school often had to look past the list of students it had already accepted, to an alternate list, to fill out its student body.

“We had lost a number of fellows who wanted to go to AFI to schools with more robust scholarship programs,” said Bob Gazzale, the CEO of AFI. 

To combat that, the AFI Board of Directors set the challenge to raise more money for scholarships and successfully received more than $6.2 million from donors.

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AFI receives about 600 applicants a year and selects a class of around 140 for its two-year programs, said Robert Mandel the Dean of AFI. The school offers six disciplines, which include screenwriting and production design.

Past alumni include Darren Aronofsky, the director of the Oscar-nominated drama “Black Swan,” and Brad Falchuk, a writer for the hit T.V show “Glee.”

AFI is a non-profit school that looks for nontraditional students. The average student is 28 years old with a shown interest in the industry. No prior film degree is necessary to be accepted into the program.

The small program ensures that students collaborate, Gazzale said. Students form groups for each project with one person from each discipline. Graduating students often maintain those relationships and continue to work with the people they met in school, he added.

“That intimacy is important,” Gazzale said. “The foundation for this kind of education is collaboration. You can’t do it alone.”

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Scholarship funds will go to accepted students who show need and merit, Gazzale said. Without the funds, AFI used to get 41% of its students from the alternate list. For the 2013-2014 school year, only 7% of students come from the alternate list, he said.

“The impact it's made has been tremendous,” Mandel said. “It’s wonderful to be able to help some of the fellows.”

The goal was to decrease the amount of loans students had to take on, Mandel added. Fewer loans will also help students stay in Los Angeles after graduation, which is a key factor for their success. Students need to stay in the city to maintain contacts that they make while in school, Mandel said.

Megan Chomskis, 27, received a full-ride scholarship to attend AFI starting this fall. She graduated with a degree in film studies from Towson University and decided to go back to school to work with other filmmakers and get the chance to delve into editing, she said in an email. She applied to AFI because it offered an editing concentration.

"I never once considered that I’d actually be accepted into AFI’s editing program," Chomskis said. "I didn’t feel like I had enough experience, or that the work I’d done, mostly low- to no-budget student films, was of a high enough quality to grab anyone’s attention."

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When she received notification that she was chosen for a scholarship, she was stunned, she said. Even if she hadn't received the scholarship, Chomskis said, she would have taken on the financial burden in some way to go to AFI.

"That’s what scholarships offer, more than financial support -- the freedom to chase your dreams with unbridled passion and dedication," she said. 

The more than $6.2 million raised is expected to last five years and help AFI attract students who in the past would have gone to schools like the University of Southern California or the University of California at Los Angeles.

“Now, we can be competitive,” Mandel said. “If we can identify a very talented person we want to ensure we get them.”

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Twitter:@DiangeleaMillar

angie.millar@latimes.com

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