Film School: Is It Worth The Price?
By David Feltman, film columnist
After he felt he had learned enough, Kevin Smith dropped out of film school to write “Clerks,” the movie that launched his career. But during his Q&A session, “Too Fat for 40,” Smith tells of being berated by Bruce Willis on the set of “Cop Out” because he didn’t know the different camera lens sizes. According to Smith, Willis said, “You’re a fucking director, man! You have two jobs, knowing the lenses is one of them.” Smith, who was 40 years old at the time and working on his ninth feature film, could only communicate to his cinematographer the lens he wanted by spreading his hands to indicate the width of the shot. Something he would have learned about in film school.
Though many do-it-yourself and higher-learning success stories exist in the film industry, the question aspiring filmmakers should ask themselves is: “Will the crippling debt that comes with a degree be any more valuable than the knowledge I could have earned on my own? Is it worth it to go to film school?”
The short answer is yes. Film school offers a lot valuable and essential learning opportunities, but it isn’t the only or even the most important step toward a filmmaking career.
Dazed and Confused: Figuring Out Where to Start
Sometimes the most basic lessons are the most valuable, and sometimes the lesson can be so basic that you’d never consider it on your own. You may feel passionate about movies and feel certain that you want a career making movies, but have you ever asked yourself in what capacity? Do you want to direct? Do you want to write? Do you want to be behind the camera? Grip? Gaffer? Set designer? There are so many different jobs in the film industry that you may not see the trees for the forest. Filmmaking is a massively collaborative process, and film school can be just the place to get the scope and focus you need to find your niche.
“A career in the film industry could mean a vast variety of things,” University of Alabama Professor Adam Schwartz said.
“When people generally think about a filmmaking career, they think of the key positions: director, producer, cinematographer, but there are so many different jobs one could have and still have a career in the industry.”
Figuring out a need to fill in your local area can lead to a career in the film industry, he said.
“Start a casting service or an equipment rental house or a post-production house. Make-up, wardrobe, electricians, grips, gaffers, set construction are all things that one could do and there’s so much more,” Schwartz said.
Exposure to these aspects of filmmaking also gives you the opportunity to soak up a lot of information, becoming as well-rounded as possible. It may be impossible to become a jack-of-all-trades, but a makeup artist who’s knowledgeable about lighting design would be invaluable in a pinch.
“Learn to write your own scripts and how to use as much equipment as you can,” Mark Lewis, a film school graduate and director of two feature films, said. He said that the less dependent you have to be on other people, the more productive you can become. “Even if you have a full crew, you’ll want that knowledge in case a cameraman or an editor flakes on you,” he said. “I know a filmmaker who had to shut down a project when his cameraman quit, instead of being able to step right in and fill the gap.”
Funny Games: Honing Your Craft
Hunter S. Thompson once typed copies of “The Great Gatsby” and “A Farewell to Arms” in their entirety just to see what it was like to write those words. It was a simple exercise for the famed journalist; an attempt to crawl inside the heads of two of his heroes.
However, when indie director Gus Van Sant wanted to perform a similar exercise with Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” the undertaking required a $60 million budget and several years of convincing the executives at Universal Studios.
Playing and experimenting is a crucial part of the learning process, especially in a creative medium. But given the complexity and collaborative nature of the filmmaking process, such opportunities are extremely limited outside of the confines of a classroom.
Film school offers a safe place for the storyteller to practice, fail, and as a result, grow, while learning necessary technical skills, Schwartz said.
“Ultimately, if you want a career in something like directing, editing, cinematography, then you have to do it,” he said. “You want to be a director, then direct. That’s the only way.” Film school provides you with opportunities to take on different production roles, but a filmmaker could still raise money, put a crew together and do it on his or her own, Schwartz said, adding that film school makes the practicing part of the learning process easier.
The Social Network: It’s All Who You Know
Making a movie absolutely requires people skills. You have to be able to negotiate, take criticism, compromise, delegate and surround yourself with reliable coworkers. Developing a deep bench of contacts is a must to get a production off the ground, and film school offers a great chance to start networking.
“There’s a kind of ‘brand loyalty’ that comes with going through a film program, even if you didn’t go through together,” Schwartz said. You can use the knowledge of where someone went to film school as an advantage with potential contacts, he said. “At the University of Alabama, we keep up with our alums and have networks out in Los Angeles and New York that we’re able to hook our students up with if they move out there,” Schwartz said. “Film school also offers you the opportunity to do internships for course credit, which absolutely provide you with networking contacts. Master classes, guest lectures, workshops are also great opportunities to meet and talk to folks.”
The Paper Chase: Sometimes School is Easier
Hayden Bryars, an independent filmmaker and a sophomore taking online courses at Full Sail University, said that though he hasn’t yet “gotten into the meat” of his program, his education has touched on simple industry concepts that every filmmaker needs to know, both professional as well as artistic. “It saves you the embarrassment of making these small mistakes when it comes time to be involved with a production,” Bryars said.
As a married man and a father of two, Bryars takes a pragmatic approach to pursuing his dream career. And a degree is definitely part of his approach.
“Taking off to Atlanta for every production assistant posting is unrealistic,” he said, but the security of a degree provides stability for his family. “A young student with only him or herself to take care of can and should be more aggressive with PA or intern opportunities,” he said. “But keep in mind, while working on a set, the professionals you’re trying to learn from are trying to make a production. They can’t always stop what they are doing to show you the ropes.” Involvement in a film is an obvious benefit to going to school. “Spike Lee said ‘don’t go to film school, just go make movies,’ but Spike has a degree from NYU, so…ya know,” Bryars said.
If…: Finding Alternatives
Though expensive, film school can provide incredibly useful lessons and experiences that you may not find elsewhere. But access to those experiences certainly doesn’t prohibit you from pursuing a film career the way, say, not going to medical school would prohibit you from becoming a doctor. Finding a job in the film industry is more about what you know more than how you learned it.
Starting a career in film requires taking advantage of every opportunity. Director Eli Roth graduated from New York University and took every job he could on a set: PA, assistant editor, assistant to the director and even filling in as an extra when needed. After graduating, it took seven years of generally unpaid work before he got a chance to direct a film.
“No one is going to care that you have a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree,” Schwartz said. “They’re just going to care about who you know and what relevant experience you’ve had.” Film school—as with just about any kind of formal education—is what you make of it. If you choose to coast by and do the bare minimum it takes to get the film degree, you’re going to find that you’ve wasted your time and have a worthless degree, Schwartz said.
In their book “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit,” Thomas Lennon and Robert Garant state the first step to getting a job is to move to Los Angeles to be where the work is. With significant film and television productions popping up in New York, New Orleans, Atlanta and Chicago, alternatives to L.A. exist. If film school isn’t an option, then working on a set in some capacity is a must. In fact, working on a set as a PA is pretty essential even if you do have a degree because it provides the sort of hands on learning that is absolutely essential.
“Can you learn what you would learn as an intern on a film set in film school? Most likely not, because film schools generally aren’t designed to emulate the large-scale production nature of a Hollywood set,” Schwartz said.
When you work on a film set as an intern, you get a first-hand look at how things run, he said, and Schwartz would compare internship versus film school to the different ways one can learn a foreign language. “You can go to school and study the language and practice in the controlled, meticulously-paced classroom environment or you can live in the country for months and learn the language by immersing yourself,” he said. “Both are extremely valuable experiences and certainly not mutually exclusive.”
Man With a Movie Camera: The DIY Career
Though many ways to make a career in the movie business exist, the first step is always the same. Ask established or aspiring filmmakers how they got started on their career path and you’ll always get the same answer: I picked up a camera, got some friends together and started making movies.
“I think the best way to learn filmmaking is to get a camera and start making films,” Lewis said. Equipment is much more accessible to people, so while Lewis said that education is never a bad thing, he qualified his statement by saying that it does come down to money, and asked, “What’s the best and most productive way to spend your money? With the amount of money it would take for a four-year education, you can make a series of films on your own.” Student or novice filmmakers can ask for feedback via YouTube or Vimeo. “The way social media is now, if you do something of quality the word will get out,” Lewis said.
Picking up a camera and making films is the best way to start, Lewis said, but a film school education is incredibly valuable if you can shoulder the debt. Education gives you the fundamentals and provides a space for you to create on your own with resources you might not otherwise have access to. Film school is definitely not a golden ticket to a Hollywood dream job, but it opens doors you wouldn’t expect. Networking at film school may give you the opportunity to start working on commercials or music videos if not on an actual movie set. If you’re passionate about making movies, but cannot afford film school, the expense shouldn’t hold you back.
Though he wouldn’t say he thought film school was necessary, Bryars said, “I think it could be a deciding factor when competing with other people for a job.”
He said that the industry is at a point where people with a “Basic Homemaker DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera)” think they’re filmmakers. “If you’re able to go to school, it certainly separates you from possible pretenders,” Bryars said.