Film School or No Film School

Posted: September 22, 2010 in Essays on filmmaking

Many people in my imagination ask me, “Teline, do you think I should go to film school? Will it help me become a famous director/writer/actor? Please, guide me, as I have the utmost respect for your opinions.” I get that a lot.

I myself land in sort of a middle ground on this issue. I started out as a film major and switched to English. I kept film as a minor. The reason I switched out of film school was that film classes were so easy, I couldn’t stand it. And the other film schoolers were mostly—how do I put this gently—brain dead. One guy always wore a set of studio headphones with the end of the cable trailing behind him on the floor. Most of them declared themselves the next Spielberg, the next Scorsese. One guy was going to be the next Robert Rodriguez, because he wanted to rip pages out of his script when he was over budget. Which is to say that not only were they not original voices, they didn’t want to be.

The head of the film department was a bitter failed filmmaker, who tried to hide how much she hated anyone else’s success. The professor I liked was a film theory guy who just wanted to watch movies and talk about movies, and his was a great class. So props to him.

But at the end of the day, I wanted to be challenged, so I switched over to the English major.

So knowing what I know now, do I think film school is worth it?

These are what film school is good for


Let me be very clear: the contacts that you make getting a four year degree at a run of the mill film school will be iffy at best. Maybe you will make great friends, but very few people will get to the big leagues. But if you get a graduate degree at one of the big four film schools—UCLA, USC, NYU, and in definite fourth place, Columbia, you will make contacts beyond your ability to comprehend. Your classmates will win Emmys and Oscars. If you take the Spielberg class at USC, Spielberg will drop in to say hi.

But keep in mind that USC has something like a 3% acceptance rate, and cost around $100,000, all told. Worth it? Yeah. Definitely.

2.Get to play with expensive equipment

Film schools have camera. They have lights and software and some have the RED or a television station or studio space. Do you know what a twenty year old has? None of that.  At my school, film students could check out the equipment and go make their own productions. I got myself a job working in that lab—best thing I could have done. I took out cameras and microphones and I made a twenty minute documentary. Not great movie making maybe, but great learning. If anything, I was shocked how few of the film schoolers took advantage of that amazing resource. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment that we could check out with a student id and a signature. Can you do that anywhere else? Hells, no.

This is what film school is not good for

1.No job security

I worked as a bartender in Chicago for a little less than a year, and the most surprising thing I learned? How many bartenders had film degrees. A ton of them did. I’d say an unscientific poll of the people I knew revealed a 75% bartender to film school rate. Yeah, they couldn’t find anything in the industry, and they had student loans to pay. Most of them had given up on ever doing anything with film. There just aren’t a ton of jobs out there waiting.

2.No skills

In Orlando, there is a film school called Full Sail. And among the film people in Florida, there is a saying—Fool Sail. Because for some reason, their graduates don’t know a darn thing about film making. I’ve seen this phenomenon for myself. A trio of Full Sail grads were hired to make a music video, and they produced several hours of completely unusable footage, footage that showed a lack of understanding of basics of lighting and framing. Faces were shadowed out, actors were awkwardly positioned. You couldn’t see their faces in any single take. It was stupidity beyond novice, into idiots who think they know better.

You would think the one benefit of going to film school would be knowing how to make a film. That is not a guarantee.

Interestingly enough, they were paid for that footage, which was a benefit of their film school degrees, but they will never be paid again, because the people who hired them had to hire someone else to redo it.

My personal policy is that I will work with a Full Sail grad, if I am not paying them anything and if they are constantly supervised.

But seriously, the best way to learn the technical parts of filmmaking is on a set, not in a classroom, and anyone can learn that at no cost to themselves by volunteering to work on a professional production. Do you think anyone is going to turn down free labor? Then you can turn around and bill yourself as someone who has worked on X, Y, and Z productions, which is a much better piece of resume, and better than that, if you do good work, film people talk, and next thing you know, producers are calling you.

That’s better than those Full Sail guys can say.

The fact is that film school or no film school, film success comes down to the individual.  Some people are going to get lucky, know the right people, get the right money, have the talent to attract attention and excel, and some people aren’t.  Either way you go, you have to make your own fate. Film school ain’t going to make it for you.

  1. Ray of the hill-people says:

    I’m on the same pay scale as full sail grads, AWESOME.

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