Los Angeles — One after another, touring groups of prospective students and their parents stopped late last month to pose for pictures around a bronze Douglas Fairbanks, who wields his sword in a courtyard fountain here at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.
Chad Batka for The New York Times
The documentary filmmaker Ruth Fertig in Brooklyn.
Not even the imposing Mr. banFairks, a founder of the film school, has kept newcomers at bay. But another round of graduates is now hitting the street, in greater numbers and perhaps better equipped than ever before, to pursue opportunities that have seldom been more elusive, at least where traditional Hollywood employment is concerned.
As home-entertainment revenue declined in the last five years, studios reduced spending on scripts from new writers, cut junior staff positions and severely curtailed deals with producers who once provided entry-level positions for film school graduates. Yet applications to university film, television and digital media programs surged in the last few years as students sought refuge from the weak economy in graduate schools and some colleges opened new programs.
“It’s becoming an increasingly flooded marketplace,” said Andrew Dahm, who in May graduated from the Peter Stark producing program at U.S.C. with a master’s degree and an expectation that he would work for two or three years as a low-paid assistant in lieu of the junior executive jobs that were once common.
“Working as an assistant for six years is not unheard of,” Mr. Dahm said. He estimated that perhaps a quarter of the two dozen graduates in his class had lined up assistant jobs; about as many, like himself, are still looking for similar work, he said, while the rest are writing screenplays or otherwise preparing projects that might open a path into the business.
At U.S.C. about 4,800 would-be students applied for fewer than 300 slots next fall, up from about 2,800 applicants the year before. Educators at established film and television programs like those at New York University, the University of Texas, Loyola Marymount University and the University of California, Los Angeles, said they had seen a similarly sharp step-up in the number of students seeking what used to be called film education but now typically embraces the production of video games and Webisodes and virtually any medium in which the pictures move.
By and large those established programs have kept enrollments steady. But an expanding number of new film and media programs at other colleges around the country helped feed what appears to be a bumper crop of graduates in the academic year that just ended.
Several deans and other administrators said they were not aware of precise statistics documenting growth across the field. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said 136 institutions in the United States submitted entries for its Student Academy Awards program this year, up by a third from 102 in 2009.
“I’ve never seen a major start with so many students in it so quickly,” said David D. Lee, dean of the Potter College of Arts and Letters at Western Kentucky University, which last year added an undergraduate film and television production program. It now has 84 majors, many with only a vague notion of the future for which they are training. “I’m going to make a career that probably doesn’t even exist right now,” was Mr. Lee’s description of the prevailing ethic.
While the number of applications is up, the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University some years ago cut the number of graduate students in its film school to 36 from about 50, said the school’s dean, Mary Schmidt Campbell. At the same time, the school sharpened its professional focus by allowing students to submit a full-length feature film as a thesis project. In effect, that turned an investment in film school, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, into a direct investment in a movie. Cary Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre,” a 2009 indie hit, was thus born at the school.
At N.Y.U. a privately endowed competition also gives alumni as much as $200,000 to direct a first film — a powerful incentive that has tended to focus graduates and undergraduates alike on what was a classic film school goal, to make a feature-length movie. “Even if they don’t win, we find they’ll go on to make a movie,” Ms. Campbell said of graduates who enter the competition.
In Los Angeles, some institutions with traditionally close ties to the film industry have found that both opportunity and student attitudes are shifting.
At U.S.C.’s School of Cinematic Arts, according to its dean, Elizabeth M. Daley, career-oriented students have increasingly looked toward animation, visual effects and video-game development for job prospects. But Ms. Daley also said she had been surprised to see critical studies emerge as a hot major among students, some of whom are inclined to see film school less as a ticket to jobs than as a path to understanding of media and the arts.
“It’s something that’s close to the zeitgeist of our times,” Ms. Daley said of the sudden vogue for that more contemplative side.
Some educators are encouraged by the current configuration.
“I actually think there’s more opportunity,” said Teri Schwartz, dean of the U.C.L.A. School of Theater, Film and Television. Careers in the arts, she said, have always been uncertain, but digital media give current graduates more points of entry.
At Loyola Marymount’s School of Film and Television, Stephen Ujlaki, a new dean who worked for years as a film and television producer, contends that film training should leave students with a knowledge of the arts and a business savvy that will get them through lives that are bound to move in unexpected directions.
The “majority of students majoring in film and television will not be having careers in those professions,” Mr. Ujlaki wrote in an e-mail. “How about creating an environment which encourages creativity and risk-taking if you’re educating someone in the arts?”
So far, it has worked that way for Ruth Fertig, who last year won a Student Academy Award for a documentary, “Yizkor,” about her grandmother’s experience in a concentration camp, after having gotten a graduate degree in film from the University of Texas, Austin.
“I have a day job,” said Ms. Fertig, who spoke by telephone from New York, where she works, mostly on social-media projects, for the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that assists refugees.
Ms. Fertig said she remained confident about finishing her pet project, a full-length documentary on the State of Franklin, which had a brief and contentious history as a proposed autonomous unit in what was then the western part of North Carolina after the Revolutionary War.
“If we can stay mobilized, committed and enthusiastic,” she said, “we’ll be fine.”