Mississippi college and university film programs growing, offering a wide range of educational options for entering the industry

Hinds Community College Film and Video Technology Program students working on a project.

From January to June this year, 15 feature films have been produced in the state of Mississippi, one of the busiest six-month spans in the history of the Mississippi Film Office.

As the pace of film production continues to increase, so does the demand for skilled local crew members to staff productions. Mississippi has several higher learning institutions that offer programs in film education, ranging from 30-hour technical certificate programs to post-graduate studies. In recent years, those programs have been growing and expanding along with the industry.

“Since the Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program includes a 30 percent rebate for resident payroll, it greatly benefits productions to hire locally,” said Nina Parikh, director of the Mississippi Film Office. “We actively encourage producers to connect with film programs to give students and recent graduates the opportunity for some on-set, hands-on experience.”

The University of Southern Mississippi is home to the state’s oldest film program, which moved to a production-based program under the guidance of Colonel Lawrence Albers around 1973 when the Mississippi Film Office was established. USM offers a Bachelor of Arts in Media and Entertainment Arts (Film) at its Gulf Park campus in Long Beach. The program moved from the main Hattiesburg campus in 2006, which has been beneficial for students.

“There’s been an influx of productions coming here to the coast, especially in the last few years,” said Vincenzo Mistretta, an associate professor with the program since 2015. “I encourage my students to work on some of these films when there is a need for production assistants.”

Students have also had the opportunity to work on local documentary projects, like a film about the construction of the Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport, which opened in 2020.

Mistretta, who is himself a filmmaker with extensive experience in experimental, narrative and documentary projects, teaches the majority of the technical film production courses in the program.

“USM focuses on a full film education,” he said. “We think of our program as educating auteur filmmakers. They get a taste of all aspects of technical production, but it’s also crucial to learn about film history and theory, screenwriting, business and more.”

Mistretta said that USM is in the process of expanding its facilities, which will include a larger studio space, editing rooms and screening rooms.

“We are growing, and we are also constantly updating and acquiring equipment to ensure its what students will find when they go out onto a job,” he said.

Though USM offers the latest in digital gear, they’re also dedicated to preserving the rich history of the medium as well. It’s the only school in the state that offers classes that produce projects on 16mm film.

For students looking for a fast-track to learn film production, two community colleges offer programs.

Hinds Community College at its Rankin campus in Pearl and Pearl River Community College at its Poplarville campus both offer a Film and Video Technology Program. At both schools, students can complete a 30-hour Career Certificate, a 45-hour Technical Certificate or go for a complete 60-hour Associate of Applied Science degree.

Hinds’ program began in 2012 and was the first community college-based film program in the state. It’s led by film and video instructor Randy Kwan, who has extensive experience as a cameraman and producer of film and TV projects.

“We teach skills for below-the-line positions, with classes focusing on grip and electric, set production, assistant directing, camera assisting, some lighting, editing, script supervising and sound,” Kwan said.

The college is in the process of starting a virtual reality lab, which should offer classes soon, and also offers courses in animation and video game production. And there are always outside opportunities for hands-on learning.

“What we stress is getting practical experience,” Kwan said. “When films come to the Jackson area, we get our students on as production assistants, and many have gone on to careers. I have a former student who has worked in grip and electric for eight years now. Another who is a costumer and works all around the southeast. I offer a variety of classes that allows students to find out for themselves what job they want.”

Pearl River CC’s program was started four years ago by instructor Ronn Hague, who worked in public relations for the college for 18 years. In the CD-ROM era, he moved PRCC to an all-digital video-centric yearbook, which led to more video projects at the college.

“We were probably one of the first in the nation to do anything like that,” he said.

Hague drew on his previous experience as a TV producer, eventually moving to teaching the school’s first class in film production before developing it into a full program. The curriculum is technical, below-the-line education like Hinds, with the added benefit of being near the recent hotbed of film production on the Gulf Coast.

“I’m getting calls all the time looking for students to work on productions,” Hague said. “I don’t recognize the number, but I go ahead and answer, and it’ll be a producer from Hollywood. And then I feel like a big shot.”

There are several new and developing film programs around the state as well.

The University of Mississippi’s Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film Production program was established in 2018, and just graduated its first class of four-year students in May.

University of Mississippi BFA in Film Production students working on a project.

“Our program is cohort-based,” said Alan Louis Arrivee, program head and an associate professor of Theater Arts at Ole Miss. “That means we take in a maximum of 16 students per year, and they work through our core film production courses together. We like to brag about the fact that students begin making films their first semester and they never stop.”

Because the program is part of the Theater Arts department, students get to collaborate with aspiring actors. And through the cohort system, students will often serve in different crew positions on their classsmates’ projects in addition to their own.

“We have classes in all of the expected areas on the pre-production side of things, starting with screenwriting, which I teach,” Arrivee said. “And then all the way through production and post-production.”

The program also features over 10,000 square feet of studio facilities, including two soundstages and a state-of-the-art editing lab that allows students to become Avid certified.

For post-graduate film studies, Ole Miss also offers a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Expression through the university’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. It’s not exclusively a film program, so not all students come from a film background. Many become educators themselves after graduation.

“It’s a cultural studies program that has a film component,” said Andy Harper, director of the Southern Documentary Project and instructional assistant professor of Southern Studies and Journalism at Ole Miss. “It allows for documentary film, photography, audio production, oral history and other multimodal projects. We’ve had students who have already had films in festivals, and some that have never even hit record before.”

For students who are more interested in the artistic side of film production, Delta State University in Cleveland has a new program for a Bachelor of Arts in Digital Media Arts.

“We have a slightly off-the-beaten-track core to what we do,” said Ted Fisher, an assistant professor of art at DSU since 2019. “We try to have a lot of flexibility because it’s students who have come to art school and are really into making their own sort of direction.”

Students learn skills in the areas of motion graphics, sound design, video production, cinematography and photography. There is also a strong emphasis in post-production skills, which Fisher says is a unique highlight of the program.

“We have our own post-production suite, and really emphasize color correction as well as editing, post-sound and those things,” he said. “They learn all the best colorist approaches and all of the standards for preparing for broadcast and other uses. We’ve had several students who’ve had it be a key part of their portfolio.”

Belhaven University in Jackson offers one of the few Christian-based film programs in the southeast and the only in the state.

“We’re a Christian liberal arts university,” said Rick Negron, chair of the Bachelor of Arts in Film Production program since 2016. “In our film production classes, we teach skills that are for every student regardless of their faith or background.”

The program covers all aspects of filmmaking, including writing, producing, cinematography, directing and editing. Students learn technical, creative and professional skills through hands-on learning.

“The idea is that we teach students all of these different skills, and then they can go in their own different directions,” said Rick Negron, chair of the program at Belhaven. “They can go into corporate work, the film industry, video production for ministry, Youtube—anything they want to do.”

Belhaven also host the B52 Film Challenge in the spring, which is open to all aspiring filmmakers and tasks then with writing, shooting and editing a short film in just 52 hours.

As the film industry continues to develop, more educational programs are beginning to emerge in different parts of the state to meet industry needs. At both Itawamba Community College’s Fulton and Tupelo campuses, a film production class divided into four semester units is offered as an elective.

“We teach the basics of filmmaking, and we have the students produce a film each semester,” said Morgan Cutturni, an ICC English professor that teaches the classes. “Really one of the best things about it is we help students find professional opportunities in north Mississippi.”

Students from Cutturini’s classes worked on two recent feature films shot in the area: “Mysterious Circumstance: The Death of Meriwether Lewis,” which has been winning awards on the festival circuit and was recently acquired for distribution by Vision Films Inc., and “Mississippi Scholar,” which wrapped production in June.

For the past several years, Mississippi State University in Starkville has offered a Film Studies minor, which broadcast instructor Chris Misun hopes to expand in the future.

“Going into the spring semester, we’re looking at offering an intro to film production course,” Misun said. “I think that’s exciting because I really want to move it toward a production-style program.”

A graduate of Full Sail University’s film school, Misun has also begun his second year as director of the Magnolia Independent Film Festival, which will celebrate it’s 25th year in 2023.

“As long as the film festival has been around, it’s still been a bit disconnected from the campus,” he said. “They thought I was a good fit for the job because I can help bridge that gap. And also to make sure we’re connecting will the film community across the state and not just Mississippi State, Starkville and the Golden Triangle.”

For more information about these programs, visit our Educational Programs page.