Ghetto Film School Re-invents Admissions

ISSUE 3 • April 2024

Fellows of the Ghetto Film School give a thumbs up for the camera, and behind it, as they learn the art and science of storytelling and filmmaking.
Fellows of the Ghetto Film School give a thumbs up for the camera, and behind it, as they learn the art and science of storytelling and filmmaking.

Re-tooling the Trade

Gaining entry into an award-winning, highly-competitive arts program is often a marathon of submitting transcripts, writing a personal statement, submitting a portfolio, or taking an audition. But what if all you have is the passion and an empty portfolio because your high school had no arts program or because you’ve always juggled school, work, and family? 

Here Dennie Palmer Wolf draws on interviews with Montea Robinson and the staff of the Ghetto Film School about how their dedication to the very best of film education, delivered in the most equitable ways, turns gate-keeping into gateways. 

By Dennie Palmer Wolf, based on an interview with Montea Robinson, Chief Executive Officer of Ghetto Film School (GFS), and contributions from program staff.

When Values Drive Practice

Ghetto Film School (GFS) is an award-winning nonprofit founded in 2000 to educate, develop, and celebrate the next generation of great storytellers. With locations in New York City, Los Angeles and London, GFS equips students for top universities and careers in the creative industries through two tracks: an introductory 30-month free education program for high school students and early career support for alumni and young professionals, 90% of whom are Black and Hispanic, with the promise of changing whose stories get told and how.

Everything at GFS is driven by a muscular, no-nonsense set of core values that inform every practice, from recruitment to final productions. Take the case of admissions: Every year, individual GFS sites have more than a hundred applicants for 35 places. Given their commitment to recognizing young peoples’ assets, how do they choose an incoming class with an eye for promise rather than privilege?

GFS Core Values 
Assets Based
We never describe our students or their families as “at risk” or “disadvantaged.”
In our teaching and in our work, we always tell the truth.
Healthy competition leads to meaningful growth.
Failure is a Teacher
Great artists learn how to fail and get back up again.
High Expectations
We set a high bar for our students and ourselves.
Industry Standard
Great artists need access to industry-standard equipment & resources.
Long Term Commitment
Great artists don’t happen overnight.
Merit Based
Simply put, the best work wins.
Product Focused
We judge success by results, not process.
We are 100% committed to our students’ success, and so are they.
Great artists learn how to work the hardest.
Student Driven
Our students have the autonomy to make their own creative decisions.
Travel is a Teacher
Great artists find their voice in new places and experiences.

Getting the Word Out 

To start, GFS staff intentionally seek students throughout the neighborhoods of London, Los Angeles, and New York. They visit high schools and make presentations, concentrating in locations where arts learning opportunities are sparse. 

“We get this message out: ‘We are not necessarily looking for experienced filmmakers, we are looking for people who may never have held a camera, but always wanted to tell a story.’”

GFS also encourages their current students and recent alumni to spread the word through youth organizations and industry professionals with whom they have connections.

The Application: Signaling Expectations, Looking for Promise

The written application is deliberately short.

We designed it to do two things: Signal our commitment to merit and high expectations and honor young people’s in-the-moment curiosity and creativity.” 

Applicants share some basic personal information, but there are no requests for academic grades, transcripts, or filmmaking resumés. Students don’t submit a portfolio or reel. Instead, young people answer three questions: 

  • If you could shoot any film, what would it be?
  • (New York/London/Los Angeles) is such a vibrant place, if you could shoot anywhere, where would it be?
  • If you could feature any character, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be?

Re-inventing the Interview

About two out of three applicants are invited to interview. In New York, for example, 95 out of 150 applicants were invited.

Interviews are in person because what it takes to get to an interview on time at an unfamiliar location is an excellent example of the kinds of choices and planning young people will need to do the program. Do they map out the route? Do they call if they are running late? Do they explain they underestimated the travel time?”

The heartbeat of the interview is a creative exercise in which young people invent an on-the-spot narrative in response to a photo of their choosing—essentially, they are asked to imagine a beginning, middle, and end. The question is whether they will invest, whether they can tell something authentic, not borrowed, and whether they are willing to push themselves in the way the program’s going to expect of them week after week. 

Staff members train together to read the resulting narratives with an eye to two major dimensions: narrative arc and visual specificity (i.e., a lively visual imagination). 

These (two skills) are at the core of filmmaking— and they are open to every human being, no matter what kind of training or experience they may have had. Everyone can tell a story; everyone can concentrate and notice.

Based on their readings, staff meet to select a cohort of students who will have their first chance to learn filmmaking, agreeing on definite yes’s, maybe’s, and no’s. The result is a group of roughly 35 young people who are invited to become filmmakers-in-the-making and who arrived at that opportunity because of a carefully-designed process focused on being dead-ahead honest about its high expectations and equally clear about valuing the imaginations of a yet-to-be-seen-or heard generation of storytellers. 

A graduating intern, at the close of her 30-month program, recalls her interview in just this way: 

“So I was really nervous. But then, when I got to the interview, they opened with the question, ‘What is like a current show that you like love?’ And I was like, ‘oh, I really love Adventure Time…’And then I was like,’ Oh, no, I blew it like I should have said, like a really prestigious or like a really niche’. But, no, it was actually the kind of the interview where I was able to express the kind of program that I was (hoping for). I didn’t know much about the industry. I just hadn’t heard about any program like this before. So I did think that it was maybe looking for people who had already been doing more like independent projects. But I was glad to realize that it didn’t. It wasn’t that at all.”

Does It Work?


Over 70% percent of the young people who enter the program complete its 30 rigorous months, which include the demands of all-day Saturday classes, making multiple short films, pitching for (and getting or losing) jobs on larger projects, and competing to be a part of the production of a final thesis film – balancing those demands with high school or early college, daily life, and other family and work commitments. Even while they pursue being a GFS intern, 98% graduate high school on time. Ninety-two percent go on to further education, some in film, some in other fields. Seventy-six percent pursue creative professions upon graduation. And all have had the experience of regularly being asked and expected to show what they can do – from the moment of application forward. 

About Our Work and Our Collaborators

About Ghetto Film School

Ghetto Film School (GFS) is an award-winning nonprofit founded in 2000 to educate, develop, and celebrate the next generation of great storytellers. With locations in New York City, Los Angeles and London, GFS equips students for top universities and careers in the creative industries through two tracks: the introductory, 30-month intensive education program for high school students described above and an early career support program for alumni and young professionals. GFS annually serves over 8,000 young creatives, 14-34 years of age, who will change the stories we view, listen to, and remember.

About Our Collaborators

WolfBrown’s participatory evaluation of Ghetto Film School has been enriched by ongoing conversations with GFS staff: Montea Robinson, Tony Fernandes, Alvey Johnson, John Mernacaj, Kyle Provencio Reingold, Brandon Santiago, and Jacob Stebel – along with interns and graduates.

In addition, Raquel Almazan, an international theater and film artist, and Sumya Abida, an emerging writer and filmmaker, both affiliated with youth empowerment projects hosted at City Lore in New York City, have led an extraordinary interviewing process.

This post is a part of the Re-tooling the Trade focus of our Amplifying Creative Opportunities newsletter. Read other Re-tooling the Trade-themed posts.

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