The A train to Hollywood

Brooklyn College’s new film school is a discount ticket to the movies

 By Richard Firstman

Barry Feirstein knows a good idea when he hears one. As a young investment analyst in the late 1970s, he was gripped by the outlandish idea of a few bearded guys on the West Coast that one day everyone would have a personal computer. He invested early in barely known companies called Apple and Microsoft, the beginning of a career of financial success far beyond what he might have imagined when he was a teenager in Brooklyn with his face buried in the stock tables.

Feirstein turned out to have an unusual skill and natural inclination that transcended simply picking stocks. He’s an unassuming man, but he was drawn to the visionaries, intuitively grasping the genius of their ideas and making bold bets on their companies — and the new industries they were creating — when other investors were wary or dismissive.

Feirstein had the same kind of feeling one day in 2010 when he was talking with Andrew Sillen, vice president for institutional advancement at Brooklyn College and executive director of the college’s foundation. Feirstein, a 1974 Brooklyn graduate, had been a member of his alma mater’s fundraising board for several years and was then its chairman.

“Andy Sillen came to me with the idea of having a film school at a movie studio,” Feirstein said. “It didn’t take a lot of thought. I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ ”

Barry Feirstein, Chancellor Milliken, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould and others at Film School Ribbon Cutting on Oct. 6

Barry Feirstein, Chancellor Milliken, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould and others at Film School Ribbon Cutting on Oct. 6

 

What made it great wasn’t just the idea but the particulars: A new graduate film school, the first at a public university in New York, that would offer excellent professional training with tuition a fraction of those of most others. A school that would expand opportunities in film and television for women and minorities, and have the synergy of being located on an active production lot — Steiner Studios in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard. The idea had been the brainchild of Sillen and Dan Gurskin, then the head of the Brooklyn College film department, who had first suggested a stand-alone school of cinema in 2006.

Feirstein committed $5.5 million to get the idea going, and over the next few years a variety of city and state grants and private donations brought in another $23 million to bring the idea to fruition. This fall, the Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema opened in a renovated World War II building on the 20-acre lot of Steiner Studios, the largest movie and television production complex outside Hollywood.

“Having a film school on a film lot is unprecedented,” said Jonathan Wacks, a veteran film director, producer and writer who was recruited from Emerson College to be the school’s founding director.  “What’s exciting is the opportunity to build a new film school for the 21st century from the ground up.”

Feirstein also liked science and started out as a biology major when he got to college. “I thought I might become a researcher,” he said. “Genetics was interesting.” But midway through, he realized he was more interested in reading the Wall Street Journal than biology textbooks. He switched his major to economics and set his sights on working on Wall Street. As graduation approached, he told one of his professors he was thinking of getting a Ph.D. in economics. “He said, ‘No, Barry, that’s not the way to get on Wall Street. You have to get an MBA.’ ”  He took the advice to heart and was accepted to Harvard Business School.

Feirstein’s first job on Wall Street was as an analyst with Equitable Life. “They had a big common stock area and they put me in something safe — big electrical companies like GE and Westinghouse. But after a year or two they gave me technology and it was right after the first Apple came out and they went public. I think some of the portfolio managers were kind of angry at me — they wanted me to talk about the big mainframe companies like IBM, but I said those companies are going to be wiped out.”

Feirstein developed a skill for seeing ahead. “I became pretty good at looking at new industries — when HMOs first came out and years later companies like Amazon when the Internet was starting to take off. I’m kind of a conceptual investor. Most people use the term negatively — ‘Oh, it’s a concept stock,’ meaning it has no earnings. And it’s true. But in business school I learned the tools for hearing about something new and analyzing it to see if it’s going to be a hot thing. I look for change.”

In 1992, after 14 years with Equitable, Feirstein left to start his own hedge fund, Feirstein Capital. He accumulated assets that eventually reached $1.2 billion. Then, in 2012, around his 60th birthday, he decided to shut it down and relax. “I always got a lot of joy out of the business, but the last couple of years it was becoming too stressful. So I decided to retire and do other things. I gave my clients their money and now I’m reading a lot of books and doing a lot of traveling and I’m still using my business expertise on the boards of a few nonprofits” — the Film Society of New York at Lincoln Center and the Anderson Center for Autism, besides the Brooklyn College Foundation.

And he’s enjoying the opening of the Barry R. Feirstein School of Cinema. “I think this will be a globally recognized school,” Feirstein said. “It will provide access to women and minorities and it’s going to be a force in the film industry. I knew right away it was just a winning idea. It was as if they pitched a great investment. That’s how I look at it.” He smiles and adds, “I saw it first just like I did with Apple.”