How the New York Film Academy discovered gold in the developing world

NYFA's temporary Nigeria campus. (Andrew Rice)
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LAGOS—In his small corner of the film world, Ishaq Sidi Ishaq is a giant.

His 2000 movie Wasila, released on videotape and distributed in the Hausa-language market of northern Nigeria, was a local blockbuster, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. It established a new cinematic style, drawing on Bollywood-inspired dance routines, and was one of the most influential Hausa films ever. Braving the disapproval of a devout Muslim culture, and working around sharia laws, Ishaq has gone on to produce an incredible number of movies. He can’t easily come up with an exact count, but he estimates around 120.

For all of his accomplishments, though, until recently Ishaq felt there was a gap in his experience. That was why, when I met him a few months ago, he was taking classes inside a Lagos school building decked with giant banners bearing the image of a gold Oscar statue, and slogans like "So You 2 Can Make a Great Movie."

“This has always been my dream,” Ishaq told me. “To be trained by the New York Film Academy.”

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You might wonder what a veteran director in Nigeria—home to the world’s fastest-growing movie industry—would have to learn from the New York Film Academy, a trade school best known to late-night cable viewers for its goofy commercials featuring celebrity endorser Brett Ratner. Yet last year, Ishaq was among roughly 250 students who took part in an unusual cultural exchange, as the Union Square-based film school dispatched a delegation of instructors on an entrepreneurial mission to Africa.

The month-long moviemaking course, publicized on the front pages of Nigerian newspapers, was just one component of the for-profit trade school’s drive to turn itself into a global education brand.

The academy enrolls around 5,000 students annually, 1,000 of them in full-time degree programs, and a heavy proportion of them come from abroad. In addition to its locations in New York and Los Angeles, the academy opened satellite campuses in Abu Dhabi and Australia over the last few years, and frequently stages short-term programs in emerging movie markets like India, Brazil and China.

Wherever it travels, the New York Film Academy follows a philosophy of “open enrollment,” admitting nearly anyone who is able to pay its tuition and fees, which range from $1,500 for some one-week courses up to $20,000 a semester for its two-year M.F.A. tracks. Recently, the school has been the target of online complaints, accusations that its owners reap millions while offering degrees with little benefit. But overseas, the fine print of issues like accreditation command less attention than academy’s august-sounding name, and the Hollywood stars to which it claims a connection.

The Lagos academy was born out of a mix of developing-world ambition, profit motives and idealism about the universal language of film. All the classrooms were named for movie icons. One morning inside the darkened, overcrowded and stiflingly hot Orson Welles room, Abraham Heisler, whose directing credits include several commercials and short films, was using Citizen Kane to illustrate the proper use of the wide angle lens. It was the first week of classes, and students were still trickling in after journeys from the countryside. Down the hall, Grant Housley’s class was starting off from the beginning, by watching the opening credit sequence from Rear Window.

“That’s Alfred Hitchcock,” the teacher said. “He’s a very big director.”

The lessons may have been rudimentary, but Nigerians are hungry for basic knowledge. “Nollywood,” as the country’s film industry is known, is young and vibrant, but it is also notoriously short on professional skills. The students I met were brimming with excitement about the technical disciplines they would be learning from their American teachers—directing, cinematography, editing, screenwriting—as well as the advanced digital equipment the academy had sent with them. “The camera we are using now,” Ishaq said, “I have never heard of.” (It was a high-definition Panasonic.)

At an evening opening ceremony, the academy’s 26 instructors and staff were introduced to a chorus of raucous hollers from the student body. One of the program’s organizers, Stephanie Okereke, took the stage wearing a hot pink blazer. A statuesque Nollywood movie star, she herself is the graduate of a New York Film Academy course.

“Most of us went all the way to America to do this opportunity,” Okereke said. “And now it is here, live in Nigeria, so you don’t have to go through the horrors of getting a visa.”

Then the actress played the schoolmarm.

“Please, please, please pay attention you guys,” she told the students. “Because you have a lot to learn, in so little time.”

The crash course was extremely expensive, especially by African standards: $5,000 per student, including living expenses, meaning that the overall cost to the Nigerians was around $1.2 million. The overwhelming majority of students were attending on scholarships sponsored by corporations and Nigerian government institutions. The largest funder was the Niger Delta Development Commission, an agency charged with creating job opportunities in a formerly war-torn region of the country. But technically speaking, the program was open to anyone, regardless of previous education, grades or experience, in keeping with what the academy’s president, a former movie producer named Jerry Sherlock, described as its founding democratic principle.

“Most of the film schools in Europe and around the world, they really restrict themselves to a very finite number of students,” Sherlock told me. “They make it extremely difficult, and our philosophy was, if you have the passion and you are ready to commit to the hard work, this is the place for you to discover whether you have the talent to really become a filmmaker. You don’t have to know somebody who knows somebody to get in.”

SHERLOCK, 76, IS FROM CONEY ISLAND AND SPEAKS with a Dodgers-era Brooklyn accent. We talked on the phone some time back, after I had returned from Nigeria, where I had run across the Lagos program in the course of researching a magazine feature on Nollywood. Knowing little about the New York Film Academy beyond its Zizmor-esque advertisements, I was surprised to encounter it so far from home, and I became more intrigued once I discovered that many of Nollywood’s most esteemed directors proudly held degrees from there.

“It is the most popular film school in Nigeria,” said Chineze Anyaene, a graduate whose first film, Ijé, was a recent hit in Nigerian theaters.

In February, hoping to learn more about the school’s international expansion strategy, I made an appointment to meet with Sherlock at the school’s home office, a columned building on 17th Street that once served as the headquarters of Tammany Hall. A vintage motorcycle and sidecar, the kind from World War II films, stands by the academy’s entrance—Sherlock is a longtime collector of art and antiques—and movie posters cover the walls. I walked upstairs, where desks were crammed into nearly every inch of open space, and students were working elbow-to-elbow, hunched over computers.

There was no sign of Jerry Sherlock.

Michael Young, the provost, waved me over to a desk, where I waited as he dealt with a delicate-sounding personnel matter on the phone, and then he informed me that his boss wasn’t coming in. We talked for a while about the academy, which he has been with from the beginning, and I set up time to return in two days. Sherlock canceled again.

“Frankly,” Young explained, “if it was for the cover of Vogue he might have more time for you.”

If Sherlock wasn’t interested in recounting his career, though, his experience shines through in the oft-expressed ethos of his school, which contends that “learning by doing” is “more valuable than years of theoretical study.”

Sherlock himself dropped out of school at 14, and never returned.

“He is an extraordinary person,” said Robert Hartman, a friend and former business partner. “Brilliant in many ways. Not, true, in education, but he just has a feeling and an understanding of things that not many people have.”