Is Film School a Good Idea?

The debate between Film School vs. DIY or Learn-As-You-Go Filmmaking is one of the hottest topics out there. Here's my two cents on the matter.

If you read my about page, you know that I went to film school. It’s no secret, I’m not ashamed. I actually had a superb experience, where I worked on a multitude of projects and befriended some of the nicest people I know. But, in the spirits of fair discussion, I will try to be as unbiased and impartial as I can, as I try to answer the question: Is film school a good idea?

First off, let’s get this out of the way:

My Own Experience as a Film Student

I actually went to two different film schools. For my Associates Degree, I attended El Camino College in Torrance, California, which is a 2-year community college with a surprisingly decent film program. For my Bachelors Degree, I attended California State University, Long Beach, which is the same school Steven Spielberg graduated from. (Just thought I would point that out.)

gabe-directing

Me on the set.

I didn’t know what to expect from film school, so with very little film production knowledge and without researching these campuses much, I had a blast. And you know what they say, “Expectation is the root of all headache.” So by starting my higher education without any expectation, I was bound to have a good time, which I did.

gabe-film-set

A glimpse of the Steven Spielberg soundstage on the CSULB campus.

But even in retrospect, when I look back, I think I received the education I was “promised.” And more importantly, I got out of it what I put in. This is crucial: regardless of which path you choose, remember that you will  have to work hard.

If you want to get more in-depth about my experience, please shoot me an email, and I will elaborate. But for now, onto the reason you are here:

Film School Pros and Cons

Writers who abhor film schools often argue the exact same things:

  • A degree is worthless; the industry runs on connections and network.
  • On-the-job instruction is reality, film school is fantasy.
  • Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson didn’t go to film school. Why should you?
  • Attending college is expensive and the resulting debt will force you to accept jobs outside of the industry so you can pay off your student loans.

Well, I have to admit, those points are true and valid. YOU DO NOT NEED A DEGREE TO BE A FILMMAKER. And you need not know filmmaking inside and out to venture into the entertainment industry and acquire the needed skills to be successful. All you need are some traits that make you a decent person and a remarkable professional (but these are essential to any profession; more on them later).

Now here are some of the advantages and benefits of film school:

  • You can try different hats. More often than not, you have to rotate positions within your group, which means if today you operated the camera, tomorrow you will edit, and then direct, so on. And this is a fantastic way to sample different positions. You may discover something about yourself and realize that your Plan B is actually more fulfilling to you than your first choice.
  • You will learn some film history and film criticism. If you are a true cinephile, then you will enjoy these. Plus, many of the people who you will work with  in the future are film literate, and you don’t wanna embarrass yourself because you don’t know who D. W. Griffith or François Truffaut were.
  • You will get your hands on professional equipment and software.  If you decide to skip school and learn as you go, it may be a while before they allow you to touch the camera, or the Fisher dolly, or an editing program. But in film school, these activities will be a requirement, which is especially true in the case of rich and reputable film schools who have these equipment on-site. Do your research before applying and make sure the university you want has the gear you need.
  • You will get your network circle started. Some of your instructors might already have connections. Some of your classmates will likely end up somewhere. And this your circle. Not a bad start. When you graduate, you can hit the ground running with some amazing connections.
  • You will earn a degree upon completion. Although a diploma is in itself virtually worthless for filmmakers, there are many other positions in the industry that require a diploma, ranging from administrative assistants to some executives. I’m sure the diploma requirement can be waived if you have the right connection and equivalent experience, but if you don’t, the degree WILL give you a head start. For instance:

You Don’t Have to Be Steven Spielberg

Actual job post retrieved from EntertainmentCareers.net

Actual job post retrieved from EntertainmentCareers.net

Take a close look. This is a job post for an entry-level position in a major studio. Yes, I said entry-level, which means that straight out of film school, a degree can get your “foot in the door.” And yes, this is only a Tour Guide opportunity, making a little over California minimum wage 😥 . And as I mentioned, this requirement can probably be waived under certain circumstances, like if you know someone (network, network, network).

At CSULB, I attended a panel with graduates from our program, and I’ll  never forget Angel Hunter. Angel was doing very well in the corporate track  at 21th Century Fox as an Administrative Assistant. I forget the exact question, but while talking about her experience as a student and her choices as a professional, she said rather emotionally, “I had to accept that I didn’t want to be Steven Spielberg.”

This may not make a whole lot of sense for an outsider, but because we attended the same film school as Spielberg, there’s always an underlying pressure to be Spielberg. And how could we even do that? Spielberg’s success was the result of his vision and talent — not his schooling.

It goes without saying that directing is the most prestigious of filmmaking careers. Many students will gravitate towards it without giving it much thought or even before they direct anything. Therein lies the “danger.” How can you commit so wholeheartedly to something before really experiencing it?

The point Angel was making is that’s it’s okay to pursue different paths other than directing. Of course, if you wanna be Spielberg, then go ahead and be Spielberg. But the industry itself is complex, layered, and faceted. There are many other jobs and careers that you should know exist before you make a choice.

The bottom line here is this: a degree is not going to be the main factor in shaping your future and determining how successful a professional you become. But for an employer, the diploma conveys that you are well-rounded and that you follow-through in your long-term goals. And this may be the greatest appeal of such “piece of paper.” Who knows.

Now let’s talk about the alternative:

The Benefits and Disadvantages of Venturing Without a Degree

I reckon that skipping film school and learning as you go is quite an exciting undertaking. You go into the world, meet different people, get to travel, and you learn, learn, learn.

The other day I heard an interesting quote:

In business and in life, your mistakes are just your tuition cost.”

Take this quote to heart and don’t beat yourself up for the mistakes you make; everyone makes them. And this brings me to a list of the advantages of going the no-film-school route:

  • You don’t have to pay the abusive tuition costs. For a huge number of Americans, going to film school means relocating, which quite often translates to out-of-state tuition. I’m not gonna be the chump to tell you that it’ll be fun. Plus, if you are serious about working in the entertainment industry, you will have to move to Los Angeles or New York anyways. Paying rent may be priority to you.
  • You can invest the tuition money on equipment and projects. Obviously, owning your own  gear is great. You can learn from it, as well as make money from it (renting, shooting weddings, etc.). Currently, the average cost of in-state, undergrad tuition in the CSU system is $5,472 (read more here) per academic year. If you invested that money (which is even higher for out-of-state students)  into equipment every semester, you can step into adulthood as a working professional with a nice little business. Tempting, no?
  • You get real knowledge from the real world. The danger of film school is being lectured by professors who are “out of it.” Maybe when they started teaching, they were current. But now three decades have gone by, and they still teach the same course, using the same equipment and methodology. Not only will this class be boring, but the curriculum may be outdated. Be careful!
  • The network you create will be made of working professionals instead of students. Every single person you meet on a set or company can be your employer the next week. In film school, you would only meet students (though many of them will go on to be major players in the future).

The Problem with Statistics

The debate gets so heated that you see people citing statistics to defend their argument: 60% this, 25% that, 7% vs. 19% yada yada yada. I think statistics are good for face value but be careful how you interpret them.

You can never get an accurate success rate from statistics because you will never know how hard people tried, or which traits the people who were surveyed possess.

I have met successful people who went to film school and successful people who didn’t go to film. Clearly, a diploma or lack thereof is not the determining factor.

gabe-noir

Film school is tough. Sometimes they even make you wear a costume.

Conclusion

In my sincerest opinion, the success rate has very little to do with formal or even informal education, and a lot more to do with other core qualities that make up your personality. These are some you should focus on and develop really well:

  • Perseverance and “thick skin.” Your big dreams will not happen overnight. You have to keep chasing it and not let go. A lot of people use deadlines: “I’ll give myself 10 years to sell a screenplay.” At least, they understand it takes time. But what if you need 11 years instead of 10? How would you know if you gave up?
  • Dependability. Whatever your job is, people will count on you because you are part of a team. If you say you will be there, be there. Nobody likes flakes.
  • Humility. No doubt you will run into a lot of less qualified people. Don’t boast your knowledge and don’t make them feel bad. Teach when you can; that will improve set dynamics.
  • Self-control and good temper. Working in the industry and specially on a set requires composure. People will flake, the generator will explode, the roof will collapse. True to Murphy’s Law, what can go wrong will go wrong. No matter what the obstacle is, you have to keep chill and help out.
  • Social skills and charisma. Whether you work on set, a studio, an office, a post-production house, or a rental company, there’s one thing you can’t avoid: people. Even a writer has to negotiate from time to time. Knowing how to interact with people is a great talent that most people don’t take the time to develop. I highly encourage you read a book called How To Win Friends and Influence People (read more below) for some essential wisdom.

If you have a degree but not these characteristics, you are not going anywhere. The diploma is a paper-thin piece of document, and the industry will crush you if you don’t possess these qualities; the traits above are your force field. Use them all and you shall be bullet-proof.

 

Further (Mandatory) Reading

If you agree with my thoughts on this page, then I’d like to recommend three books that will put you in the right track and give you a slight edge over the competition.

These are not how-to books teaching about a specific trade or craft. Rather, these are business or etiquette books, brimming with tips and truths about how to behave if you mean business. Some call them “common sense,” but a whole lot of people don’t take the time to incorporate these suggestions. Now it’s not the time to be arrogant and assume you know it all. Keep improving yourself, and you’ll get closer to the gold:

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People has been in print since 1936, and it has collected a positive average from over 2000 reviews on Amazon. You can go to Wikipedia for an outline of the content, but you need to read the book if you want to fully absorb the message . It’s Carnegie’s examples and stories that really make this book a work of art. This is not a book about filmmaking. This is a book about dealing with people, which is itself part of filmmaking.

The Little Stuff Matters Most

Written by the experienced talent agent and producer Bernie Brillstein, The Little Stuff Matters Most: 50 Rules from 50 Years of Trying to Make a Living is an excellent repository of essays about how the business works. To illustrate, these are some of the chapter names:  It’s All Lies and That’s the Truth, Good Cop/Bad Cop Means There are Two Bad Cops, It Never Gets Better Than the First Date to name only a few. Each chapter comes with insightful anecdotes and analysis from Bernie, a man who rose from the mailroom of the Williams Morris Agency to a manager and producer level . He pounded the pavement, and climbed the ladder. Trust me: he has a lot to share.

The Production Assistant’s Handbook

Written by Caleb Clark, The Production Assistant’s Pocket Handbook is, as you would guess, more targeted to production assistants (including office PAs), but I’m including it here because PAing is how many individuals get their careers off the ground. The goal of the book as the author puts it, is to help you be “a kick-ass PA and get promoted quickly.” PAing is not a fun job, and with this book, I hope you will avoid basic pitfalls and move up ASAP. Methinks the book is valuable to anyone who wants a career in Hollywood, but especially if you are starting out as a PA, and especially if you are skipping film school, then this book is a must-have.

Collectively, these books will furnish you with the framework and mindset you need to succeed in business.

 

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