I dream for a living.
       - Steven Spielberg

Academia vs. Learn-it-yourself


Quentin Tarantino quite notoriously once said:

The Film Scholar's Insight

Quentin Tarantino did more than just watch tons of films or sit in front of a TV monitor for countless hours for several straight days.

Working at the now defunct Video Archieves, he had the opportunity to critically scrutinize the execution of both mediocre and great films, examining their merits as well as their flaws. And learning from them.

Paired up with Robert Avary, with whom he later shared an Academy Award and bitter acrimony, Tarantino was well rounded by filmic knowledge and some very smart people. Who are you hanging out with?

When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them: 'No, I went to films.'

Gladly, his non-school education worked for him. But how often do you really see that happen?

You should know upfront: more often than not, that quote is a disservice for the film community and budding filmmakers around the globe. Sure, every now and then we may hear of an unlikely success story that inspires us. But not attending a film school is a shortcut that could lead to a cul-de-sac or a dead-end street.

Film academia teaches much more than a smooth zoom or the rules to decent composition. Filmmaking is a complex field, with a lot of talented people involved. Competitiveness in this market has always been high in Hollywood. And if you live in another country or town, you’re a living witness that this treacherous market goes far beyond the fences of Tinseltown. And the competitiveness goes with it.

In today’s society, it’s becoming increasingly more cumbersome to break into show business or any other creative business. Even without learning from the movies or attending a film school, there are people out there who are naturally talented and qualified. But how do you show that? How do you prove your inborn gift? Making a great film is sometimes not enough.

Twenty years ago, it was easier to get noticed. Not easy, but easier. Nowadays, kids and grown-ups alike can make movies in their cell phones. Some festivals out there even honor them. Digital media has permeated society. Without the need to buy those pricy film stocks, trial and error became a convenient option. “Don’t like it, hit delete.” It doesn’t get much better than that. The trade-off is simple: brilliant people get lost in the crowd.

Not only that but students get awfully sloppy and undisciplined since digital media is cheap. Shooting film is expensive. A 400-foot, 16mm film roll records only 11 minutes and costs $100, plus processing. A mini-DV tape costs less than U$5, and you can shoot over an hour of pristine, HD quality with it. Though nowadays the move is toward SD cards.

Depending on the curriculum, film schools can give certificates, degrees, and a lot of experience coupled with extensive job skills. With those in a resume, when you apply for a major production company to start off as a PA (production assistant), they will have more tolerance with you.

Moreover, you will have the chance to taste many jobs in your production class. Your interest could be solely screenwriting, but at some point, in a good film school, you will have to direct, DP, and operate camera and mic. Experimenting these positions are always beneficial.

Most importantly perhaps, film schools will also put you together will people that share your same passion. Maybe you have a camera, and they have the lights. Maybe you have the editing software, and they have the light meter. Someone likes writing. Others enjoy directing. Someone else lives on the beach, the location you needed. And where there’s a film school, there’s also a theater department. Just like that you have your principals and extras. Bingo. Your instructors are also good connections.

Furthermore, academia teaches film history and film theory, both of which are quite hard to learn off-campus because the general population doesn’t talk about it. High School Musical 5 or Saw XII is their preference. The reverences to timeless classics, film history or theories are subtly embedded in the movies. And if you don’t know them, you don’t understand them. You miss them. You’re lost. Think fast, Steven Spielberg asks, “What’s your favorite zeitgeist movie?” George Lucas challenges you, “Who was Fritz Lang?”

It is true, however, that good grades will not get you much further than the studios’ doorsteps, if that. Sociability, creativity, and assiduousness are just a few of the most wanted qualities. Develop them. Be charismatic and charm your superiors. Work hard. And if you want a shortcut, good grades is just a nice start.



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