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.

 

Foreshadowing

Also referred to as “planting and payoff,” foreshadowing is a highly effective plot device that helps make the story feel more plausible. It consists of an introduction early in the movie of something that will be extremely relevant as the plot unfolds. Without foreshadowing, the audience would refuse to accept a beat of the story, deeming it implausible.

James Bond movies contain classic examples of foreshadowing. The character Q, always present in the set-up of the movie, introduces gadgets, weapons, and cars to 007 (planting). In the first act, those gadgets aren’t much needed. But towards the end, Bond always uses them to fight villains (payoff). Without the proper foreshadowing in the beginning, the audience would feel cheated and confused.

As a general rule, the villain is the only character in the script that may be “lucky.” The heroes will suffer misfortune most of the time, thus if he or she has an object or a skill that is vitally important in killing the villain, planting it early on is required.

Spoiler Alert: The following contains story spoilers, used here to illustrate the technique (but the movies below are old classics, so maybe you have already seen all of them. If not, you should!).

 Foreshadowing an Object

The James Bond example mentioned above fits into this category. The cars, weapons, and gadgets are objects presented in Act I. Foreshadowing an object is required when the character in question is not likely to already have it. For instance, unless the character is a policeman or a criminal, introducing a gun beforehand is needed. In Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991), the gun that inflicts a wound at the end of Act I is introduced much earlier, during the first ten minutes of the film.

revolver_thelma

In Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), the foreshadowing is more subtle but equally valid. Somewhere in Act II, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) trips on a pressurized air tank, which he curses. In Act III, Brody shoves that same tank into the shark’s mouth and makes it explode.

Foreshadowing a Skill or Talent

In James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), an early scene shows the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) talking into a police radio imitating a dead policeman’s voice, thus establishing this skill. Later in the film, the Terminator reproduces Sarah’s (Linda Hamilton) mother’s voice in order to discover Sarah’s location.

In Cinema Paradiso (1988), 9-yeard-old Toto’s (Salvatore Cascio) constant attention of how Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) threads the film and operates the projector gives him the experience he needs to operate the projector himself. When Alfredo suffers an accident, the young boy replaces him at the projection room.

In Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984), a voice over narration by Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) early in the picture, coupled with other visual cues, foreshadows Mozart’s (Tom Hulce) proficiency of the craft: “This man had written his first concerto at the age of four! His first symphony at seven! A full-scale opera at 12!” When Mozart humiliates Salieri at the piano, the audience understands how.

Foreshadowing Behavior

Justifying someone’s action is necessary when their behavior would otherwise be considered contrived or fake amidst the circumstances established in the movie.

About halfway through Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), an expository flashback presents Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) talking to a young Butch (Chandler Lindauer) about a gold watch (that quickly turns into a minor MacGuffin to Butch’s character). Captain Koons explains to Butch that the gold watch first belonged to his great grandfather, and it has been with the men of the family since. Later, when Butch (Bruce Willis) learns that his girlfriend forgot the watch in their apartment, he decides to return home even though mob hit men are on the lookout for him. Had the gold watch’s history not being explained, Butch’s decision to go back would be unbelievable.

Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) introduces Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) as an ambitious and impatient stockbroker. After a negotiation with a wealthy businessman over the phone, Bud looks to a friend and says: “You know what my dream is? It’s to one day be on the other end of that phone.” This little line of dialogue explains much of Bud’s behavior throughout the movie, including his illegal activity.

The Three-Act Structure

steve spielberg quote

The 3-act structure is an old principle widely adhered to in storytelling today. It can be found in plays, poetry, novels, comic books, short stories, video games, and the movies. It was present in the novels of Conan Doyle, the plays of Shakespeare, the fables of Aesop, the poetry of Aristotle, and the films of Hitchcock. It’s older than Greek dramaturgy. Hollywood and Broadway use it well. It’s irrefutable and bullet-proof, so to speak.

Though quite simple, the 3-act structure has proven to be a valuable weapon in the arsenal of any screenwriter. Yes, there are alternatives to telling a story. But the 3-act structure is a highly accepted and greatly successful method.

In a nutshell, the 3 acts are labeled as:

Act I: Setup

Act II: Confrontation

Act III: Resolution

Some people like to call them beginning, middle, and end, which is not inaccurate. The point of the acts is to make sure that the story evolves and the stakes get higher.

3 act structure

All acts have their own sets of guidelines and rules that make the foundation of story development. The next sections will go over the differences of one act and the other, plus the obvious and the obscure dos and don’ts of the craft.

Spoiler Alert: The following sections contain story spoilers, used here to illustrate the concept at hand.

Act I: The Setup

The first act is where all the major characters of the story are introduced, plus the world where they live in, and the conflict that will move the story forward. In Act I, the writer has the freedom to create any setting and reality that he so wishes. It’s in the first pages of the script that he defines the reasoning and logic of the story. This early in the script, anything is possible.

The story may happen in the distant future or long time ago in a galaxy far far away. It may take place in downtown New York or in an African jungle. The first act also establishes genre. It may be a drama about a widow that struggles to re-encounter love, or a suspense about a young trainee summoned out of the FBI academy in a special assignment to interview a dangerous psychopath.

The writer may even distort reality or create his own. Toy Story (1995) opens with a young boy, Andy, playing with his toys. As soon as Andy exits the bedroom, leaving the place unsupervised, his toys promptly gain life. Yet we don’t frown or disapprove of it. At the movie’s very beginning, the audience has their mind open for practically anything. As the movie progresses, the viewer unconsciously forms a frame for the story, and their suspension of disbelief narrows, limiting what they will accept as plausible and congruent.

Ideally, your main character can never be lucky further down in the script. But while the story is introduced, this gimmick is acceptable if done right. In Three Days of the Condor (1975), CIA employee Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) survives a massacre that kills all of his colleagues while he steps out of the office to get lunch. In Dances With Wolves (1991), Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner), learning that he must have his injured leg amputated, decides to commit suicide. He steals a cavalry horse and runs it into the infantry of the Confederate army. In doing so, he incites his fellow Union soldiers to rally, which leads to an unexpected victory. His plan to die fails, but he becomes a hero.

Act I must also present a strong hook – an exciting scene early in the script that grabs the audience’s interest and hooks them. Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) starts with an action-packed, attention-grabbing sequence that introduces Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) performing acrobatic stunts while penetrating a cave and lost temples to find a valuable artifact.

Part of that hook is the inciting incident that takes place somewhere in the beginning of Act I. This inciting incident often provokes a change in the protagonist’s routine – something new they experience that could either challenge or encourage them. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) meets with Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The confrontation of both parties is nerve-wracking.

Act I ends with the first plot point of the movie. In Thelma & Louise (1991), Plot Point I happens when Louise shoots dead a man who was on the verge of raping Thelma. This action completely changes the course of the story . Thelma and Louise were up until now just trying to have some off-time away from their tedious lives. But when Thelma kills that guy, they become criminals. Quickly, the police are brought into the picture.

Act II: Confrontation

The second act is by far the longest, encompassing half of the movie and taking place between the first and third acts. For some screenwriters, Act II is the hardest one to squeeze out. This happens because after the initial boost of a new story, the writer is left without plot elements to introduce. The story, its characters and conflict are all established. At this point, the writer has created a solid frame for his narrative. Yet he’s still roughly sixty pages away from the ending.

With so many blank pages remaining, the writer faces the challenge of keeping the story moving forward and not boring the audience. One device to accomplish this feat is the creation of subplot. The subplot is a minor story layered under the main narrative. It often adds a three-dimensionality aspect to the characters by allowing them to engage in a behavior that is not necessarily connected to the main plot, but still relevant in the overall narrative and often linked to a central theme.

In Peter Weir’s Witness (1985), the main storyline follows Philadelphia policeman John Book (Harrison Ford), as he investigates the assassination of a fellow police officer. His only witness is an Amish boy (Lukas Haas), who saw the murder happen at a train station restroom in the big city. When Officer Book discovers that someone from his own precinct ordered the killing, his life is in danger, and, after being shot, he runs away to the Amish countryside of Lancaster. During the second act of Witness, John Book and Amish widow Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) engage in a brief courtship that fails to evolve into an affair. Also during Act II, Book befriends many members of the Amish community – an event that foreshadows the resolution in Act III, when the community comes to Book’s rescue .

As epitomized in Witness, the second act may be a moment in which the hero leaves his comfort zone, which fuels the writer with another set of possibilities. In The Lion King (1994), after Mufasa dies, Simba runs away. Timon and Pumbaa save him from the desert, and Simba has to live in the Jungle, eating bugs and beetles! During Act II in Toy Story, while Andy’s mom’s fills up her vehicle, Woody leaps out of the car in order to rescue Buzz. But before Woody can convince Buzz to climb back in the car, Andy and his mom take off, leaving Buzz and Woody stranded in the gas station. Before the movie’s resolution, the two toys find themselves into an even worse setting – Sid’s creepy bedroom.

In the second act, the stakes escalate. If the hero is “on the fence” or confused about what he should do, then something must happen by the midpoint of the script to make his goal clear. In Thelma & Louise, the two protagonists realize that, with the police on their tail, they cannot return home and live a normal life. They have to keep driving towards Mexico.

A pivotal element of this escalation inherent to Act II is Plot Point II, which catapults the story into the third and final act. Much like Plot Point I, Plot Point II also affects the main character by changing the direction he’s headed. The difference is that the stakes are much higher. This is often a moment of crisis, in which all hope seems lost.

       

Act III: Resolution

The last act, Act III presents the final confrontation of the movie, followed by the denouement. This act is usually the shortest in length because quickly after the second turning point of the script, the main character is face to face with the villain or just about. Showdown ensues and then conclusion.

In The Silence of the Lambs, the third act kicks off when Agent Starling enters the house of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), the criminal who she’s been trying to find. This moment is tension-packed because little does Starling know the identity of the man that’s welcoming her. When Starling finally finds out, she’s inside the serial killer’s domain and unable to call for back-up.

As illustrated by The Silence of the Lambs, Act III contains a moment often labeled as mandatory – the confrontation between hero and villain, the clash between good and evil, a duel. In the moment that Clarice Starling walks into Buffalo Bill’s house, the writer fulfills a promise made by him in the first act, when he set up those two opposing forces.

The spectators are smart, so don’t underestimate them. Whenever the writer establishes a prince, a princess, and a dragon, the audience will urge for a confrontation in which the prince slays the dragon to rescue the princess (like in Sleeping Beauty). You can always tweak the formula (like in Enchanted), but if the dragon is not dead by the end of the film, your audience will walk out dissatisfied, even if they can’t pinpoint the reason.

The third act is also when the writer ties up any loose ends and offers a resolution to the subplots. In Witness, the third act takes off when the corrupt cops find John Book hidden in the Amish community. The mandatory confrontation between the opposing forces takes place, and then Book and Rachel meet. Both have to make a choice. Either Book stays to be with Rachel or Rachel leaves to be with Book.

In the final moments of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the audience learns what “rosebud” means – a questions asked in the first act.

The resolution can also give extra information for a more elaborate character arc. In Titanic (1997), after revealing what happened to the Heart of the Ocean, we cut to Old Rose’ bedroom. The movement of the camera shows her nightstand with photos of adventures she did when young – promises kept to Jack.

Although I consider the three acts to be an essential element to many films, there are many professionals out there who disagree. I share some of my reservations about the three-act structure on this post:
In it I mention a few pitfalls that writers make and how to avoid them, so if you are serious about being a screenwriter, I highly recommend you give it a read.