Go Big or Go ‘Broke’… Is Film School For You?

The Risky Business of Film School Versus No Film School

“To this day, I actually think that rather than go to film school, just get a camera and try to start making a movie.” -Quentin Tarantino

What do Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have in common? Besides being incredible filmmakers who have produced cinematic classics and have amassed cult followings for their films, none of these accomplished directors ever went to film school. 

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And Steven Spielberg didn’t attend film school until late in life and way after he had already let E.T. phone home and Jaws attack; becoming one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood.

On the other hand, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Spike Lee DID attend film school and accomplished the same phenomenal level of cultural and filmmaking relevance as their non-film school educated counterparts.

So, with those two opposing scenarios in mind, let’s go beyond just speculating if it’s worth spending tens-of-thousands in film school tuition and racking up debt that’s on par with an Indy-flick-sized-budget.

We want to help you decide which of the two avenues is the best creative route for your individual needs. For instance, does committing several years of your life for an academic degree guarantee you success or better your odds in the film industry? Or should you stay on a more organic path that includes working your way up from the ground level in order to reach your filmmaking dreams?

Speaking from experience, I can tell you it’s not an exact science or purely black and white. Let me explain…

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If you want to be a doctor, you enroll in a good college, then graduate and go to medical school for an additional eight years. If you work hard enough (and don’t mind a few weeks or months of long bouts of sleep deprivation) you will eventually one day become a board-certified, degree-carrying doctor. Surgery is surgery and the last thing we want as patients is someone wielding a scalpel who skipped their science and anatomy classes.

The same level of schooling holds true for becoming a lawyer because no one wants to hire legal counsel that learned the law on Wikipedia or through binge-watching “Law & Order”.

But let’s be honest, filmmakers are not defending clients in court or writing prescriptions for medication.

I’m sure you’ve probably heard the old saying that “making movies isn’t brain surgery” and while that’s true, there is a level of expertise that you need to make the kind of films that leave an indelible mark with fans and the Hollywood landscape.

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TV is Surgery: Grey’s Anatomy, Kevin McKidd tweets from behind-the-scenes.

The film industry is a completely different animal.

The only “right” pathway into the business is the one that works best for you.

As we noted above, there have been lots of filmmakers who have succeeded and even won Academy Awards without stepping foot in a film school. If this is the case, why even attend film school?

And if some have found success without a degree in filmmaking/screenwriting/theatre, why fork over the tuition for such institutions that cost just as much as buying a house?!

The pivotal question thus becomes, Do you need to make the investment in film school if you want a solid career in the film industry?

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New York Film Academy

This was the question that I asked myself almost ten years ago when I graduated high school and made the decision that I wanted to be a filmmaker.

I decided that I did need to go to school because how else was I going to learn the “ins” and “outs” of the industry.

I didn’t have any family in the business and I didn’t have a clue as to how “Hollywood” worked. That was a decade ago, and this is where my own unique viewpoint comes into play, because I’ve learned about movies – and life – from attending, and then dropping out of film school.

Here’s what you need to know:

Film School Versus No Film School

FILM SCHOOL, INTERRUPTED

When I first graduated high school, I spent three years in film school. But when my life hit a rough patch, both emotionally and financially, I convinced myself that my film degree would be nothing more than a glorified piece of paper that held little to no value in the industry. So I did what any broke and pressured-to-find-a-job grad would do: I left school and tried my luck in the real world.

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Drop-Out Disillusionment: “Frenchy” gets lectured by Frankie Avalon in Grease.

For five years, I worked dead-end job after dead-end job while I tried to stay active in my writing and filmmaking networking.

But with each passing day it was more and more obvious that I was getting no closer to my goal; perhaps farther away.

And even worse, I knew that my knowledge of the filmmaking process and the art of writing and directing wasn’t up to par with what was needed to succeed in the industry, because I felt that I was forced to halt my film school education.

BACK TO SCHOOL

In 2014, I received a study grant and went back to film school.

After 18 months of intense classes in various aspects of filmmaking, I graduated with a BFA, Writing for Cinema.

Two weeks after graduation, I landed my first real job editing a TV pilot for an independent producer. People always ask me if my film school experience was worth it.

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Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School.

I like to think that both my in and out of school experiences played an equal role in putting me on the path I am now. I was able to apply the technical skills that I learned in film school, but only up to a point.

None of the books taught me how to balance the intense pressure of production timelines or manage the sometimes difficult personalities of demanding producers. I had to utilize my instincts, common sense and creative prowess to conquer those very real challenges.

That initial entertainment job helped me garner invaluable experience, but it also taught me that everything I need to know about filmmaking can’t be learned in a classroom.

I can tell you that there are definitely pros AND cons to attending film school versus choosing not to, so here’s some more ‘real’ talk based on my own personal experience.

FILM SCHOOL—THE PROS:

If you don’t have any family or friends in the industry and you’re not the type of person who can learn things out of a book or on the Internet, then film school is probably for you…that is, if you can afford it.

The biggest benefit that film school provides is a network, and this industry is all about who you know.

That dream of some big producer discovering gold in your script or catching your short film and giving you that “big break” is probably not going to come true.

Nine times out of ten, your first job will come from someone in your network who refers you to someone else. Every job that I’ve ever gotten whether it was paid or gratis (read: free) came from a fellow classmate, or someone that got my name from a classmate.

Most film schools employ professors who have worked in the industry, and because they were or may be in some form currently active, they often invite guest speakers who are also working industry professionals.

Kevin Spacey guest teaches a class at Regent's University London.

Kevin Spacey guest teaches a class at Regent’s University London.

Being taught and mentored by these professors is another great advantage of going to school. Their experience, knowledge and advice is invaluable and having these hands-on connections could possibly lead to an internship or paying job on one of their future projects.

Film school teaches you the fundamentals of crafting your art and selling your product when it comes to the business aspect of the industry.

Film school will also force you into hard deadlines, which are an unavoidable aspect of any film or television production that dictates logistics and creative. I’ve seen too many writers with good ideas stop writing mid-way through Act Two because they lack deadlines, which are fundamental in helping channel your creative freedom. If you have too much of this freedom, you’ll never finishing anything you started.

Lastly, film school is one of the few, if not only place where you can shoot a professional short film with industry-standard equipment, including a full cast and crew for free.

If any word jumped out at you in this blog, I hope it was the “f-word” free …because in film school, “free” helps you achieve creative freedom. That’s not the case once you graduate and begin to encounter crews and actors who are usually union, which drastically affects your budget.

Short films not only give you experience, but the right short film could help jumpstart your career.  

Either way, film school provides you with important training ground that prepares you for the next level in your pursuit of working on or filming your own feature length film.

FILM SCHOOL—THE CONS:

Film school will drain your pockets financially and take up all of your time socially.

It’s hard to stay focused in film school at times because when you first start your program you will be taking general education classes along-side your film curriculum. And when you’re young, you don’t always see the value in taking classes on film theory or the history of movies in relationship to the type of degree you’re pursuing.

I’ve also found that film school can also be extremely formulaic in its approach to information. You learn so much of a specific type of technique that your films can come out as reproductions and copies of the films that you learned about in class.

It took me until my last semester of school to finally learn to take the classic formats of filmmaking and re-interpret them through my own original creativity. This is how you create something original and thought provoking. This is harder to do early in your school experience (as I found) when a professor is grading you based on “technique” and how you’re “supposed” to do it.

Because I needed to maintain a certain GPA to secure my financial aid, I always felt there was a certain level of artistic compromise that made it very difficult to maintain my creativity.

REAL WORLD EXPERIENCE—THE PROS:

The biggest advantage I found during my hiatus from film school is time and flexibility.

When you’re in school, you have to work harder to find locations and crew because attending classes and studying for tests take up most of your free time.

When school isn’t a factor, you can check these production necessities off your list because you’ll have additional time to gain real world experience instead of having to write papers, prepare for exams or fulfill other priorities of a full-time course load.

The other benefit of not going to film school is that it will make you hungry for success and give you more drive and ambition that every creative soul needs in this highly competitive environment.

The 'real world' takes it's toll in The Devil Wears Prada.

The ‘real world’ gives great motivation to “move up” & get out of the entry-level job in The Devil Wears Prada.

The very nature of a college or university backdrop gives you a safe haven that the real world does not provide.

While you’re in film school you are allowed to make mistakes because you are still learning, but on a real set there is no time for mistakes and being a minute late can cost perhaps hours and dollars on the backend. This type of pressure will either break you or better prepare you for the next challenge.

REAL WORLD EXPERIENCE—THE CONS:

The biggest drawback to not attending film school is the lack of structure and information.

Not going to film may cause a major knowledge gap about all the different aspects of the business. Without film school you may just concentrate on the specific area you think you want to work in, rather than exploring the many interesting and fascinating aspects of the business.

Also, you’ll miss out on all the advice and tools you can acquire in school to help you make good career choices. When you’re just winging it on your own, you’re just that – on your own – without any professional guidance or nearby support system to boost your confidence and help lasso you back on track when you need it most. There have been times when I felt lost in the shuffle and nearly lost my passion.

In closing, we all know there are different strokes for different folks. Not everyone takes the same path into the industry and whether or not you get a formal education is certainly not a determining factor when it comes to success in the movie business.

My advice is that you ask yourself the hard questions: 1) Do I have the temperament, discipline and desire to attend a 2 to 4 year college; or 2) Should I secure an entry level position like Production Assistant or Director’s Assistant and work my way up the Hollywood ladder?

You know “you” better than anyone and once you determine if you want to go the route of Tarantino (who opted not to attend film school) or Scorsese (who did attend film), that will help you begin your journey to your own creative legacy. (The Hollywood Reporter annually compiles their own list of the Top 25 film schools in the U.S. that you can check out here.)  Either way, there is no substitute for working hard and that is what will ultimately determine your success. 

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Jim Carrey delivers commencement speech at Maharishi Univeristy.

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