Movies

Is Film School Worth it?

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After graduating from high school, it is almost a right of passage for an American teenager to look forward to: searching out colleges that are right for them, applying, and finding out whether or not they get in. It is part of a process that millions of Americans have gone through, and is a tradition among generations.

Along with choosing what college to go to, it gives young people the opportunity to get out from under their parents roof, and become more independent and responsible. It provides students with the opportunity to learn about themselves and find their identity in the world. College is a great experience, however there are long-term consequences a person must face when deciding whether or not to go to college. One consequence, for instance, is taking on a massive amount of debt.

Film Crew discussing a shot.

Film Crew discussing a shot.

Deciding on whether or not to go to college comes down to is whether or not you feel comfortable with taking on that debt, and if you feel as though a degree will provide you with the monetary compensation to pay back that debt upon graduation. Some degrees basically guarantee job right out of college with a set salary to expect, others, not so much.

A degree in film production is by no means a guarantee for fame and fortune. More often than not, most people find themselves working part time jobs, and living in their parent’s houses, until they get on their feet, and a full time job in the film industry directly out of college can be very rare.

To get a full time job in the industry you have to have a lot of experience with multiple different aspects of film production. You need to have a thorough knowledge of the equipment, the crew and positions, and you have to have the maturity to work on a set with other professionals who rely on you to perform your duty.

Film Crew on Set

Film Crew on Set

So what are the positive aspects of going to film school?

Positives:

  1. Networking: The biggest and most important piece of advice in the film industry is “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Networking is the most important thing you can do to find paying jobs. By working with multiple people, and widening your friend and colleague network, you will meet people who will open up other projects for you. By surrounding yourself with other people who have a similar mindset you will be able to focus on working with people you connect with and can work with those you believe will succeed. If you surround yourself with hard working, determined people, you will naturally push yourself to work at the same standards.
  1. Experience with equipment: Every college with a film program should have an extensive library of equipment you can use. From professional cameras to lighting kits and audio recording equipment, it gives you the opportunity to get hands on experience using the equipment to create your projects. Once you graduate, renting equipment becomes extremely expensive. By telling people you have experience working with the best cameras it gives people the confidence to hire you.
  1. Time to mess up: In college you are given the opportunity to be more experimental with projects. You can try new shots, new angles, new lighting, and it won’t have a profound effect (maybe a lower letter grade) but this allows you to get creative with new shots without being under pressure from a producer who needs every shot to be perfect.
  1. New living place: By going to college you can decide what city you want to live in. You can go to New York City, Los Angeles, or Boston to study film and work with other students who are interested in the same thing as you.
  1. Mentorship: Going to film school allows you to work with professors who have a passion for teaching film. You can go to them for advice, questions, and concerns without feeling the scrutiny of asking the same questions on set. It also allows you to build relationships that you can always fall back on after you graduate. If you build a good relationship with your professors most will write you recommendation letters and help you in your job search.
  1. Like minded people: Sometimes you just need to grab a camera and go film something. It might not be good, but its better to be out there filming than doing nothing. By surrounding yourself with directors, writers, and actors, everyone will want to help you with your project. Ask people to help you with your project and you will be surprised at how often people say yes.
Director discussing framing of a shot

Director discussing framing of a shot

Negatives:

Attending college in no way is a bad thing, however there are certain responsibilities and sacrifices you make in order to graduate with a diploma. With access to online books, the library, online classes, and YouTube videos, it is very possible to learn everything you’ll learn in college by using the resources available to you.

Looking back on the history of film, there are extremely successful filmmakers who attended the most prestigious film schools (George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Oliver Stone) There are also filmmakers who never went to film school and relied on their personal knowledge and networking skills to work their way up (Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick)

Here are some reasons why you may want to consider not going to film school:

  1. Debt – The biggest factor when deciding whether or not going to college is the right choice for anyone is to take on the massive debt that everyone has after graduating. Pretty soon after you shake hands with the president of your school, and receive your diploma, you will need to start paying off the debt. Not everyone gets jobs directly out of film school, and you will need to find a way to start making money. Some people are fortunate enough to get jobs right out of college, or at least start freelancing, but is tens of thousands of dollars in debt something you really want to be responsible for?
  1. Four years you could have been working on set – As I mentioned in the previous article, networking is the most important thing you can do as a filmmaker. Most of the time you network while you are on set, working on a production. As long as you are respectful and get your work done, most people will want to continue to work with you. Working on a real production with a legitimate crew is also something that future employers work for. Having a degree is helpful, but working with well-known directors and actors on a popular movie or show can be equally as helpful. Even if you are starting as a Production Assistant or unpaid intern, being able to list famous movies on your resume can make or break a producers decision to hire you.
  1. Taking other classes that don’t interest you – Another problem with college is that for almost your entire freshman year (and later years as well) you are forced to take classes on other topics. This is great for people to learn a general knowledge of varying topics, as well as for those who don’t know what they want to major in, but for someone who knows they want to go into the film industry this can be a huge waste of time and money. For every minute you are writing a ten page essay about the scientific method you could be working on a screenplay or editing your latest short.
  1. Forced to work on projects that don’t interest you – Often times in beginning film classes, you are paired up with people in your class to work on a project. You may be forced to take on the role of a Grip when you know you want to be a director. Working in the film industry you have to be a team player, and by working these other positions it expands your knowledge of the set as a whole, but sometimes you are forced to work with people who aren’t as knowledgeable and hard working as you, and you are forced to work on a project you know will never lead to anything.
  1. Taking classes on a set schedule – One problem with film school is that everyone is at different levels when they start. Unlike a lot of other majors, when you first go into your intro classes, everyone is at a different skill set. Some people barely know how to operate a camera, while others have been making films since they were little. Going to film school forces you to learn at a set pace, rather than at your own, individual pace. You may be forced to sit through a year of classes lecturing about topics you have taught yourself about and a year or two can go by before you are finally being challenged.
  1. Class – Lets face it, everyone learns their own unique way and some people just don’t benefit from going to class. Part of being in the film industry is getting hands on – real world experience, something that you simply can not learn from a text book. Being successful in the film industry means you have both a fundamental knowledge of film production techniques, but also a firm grasp on film etiquette and how to work with others. You can learn the production techniques from a professor, but until you get out onto a real set and work with the equipment and are under a deadline, you will learn things you simply can not in class.

Not going to Film School:

You will see a lot of similarities in the positive and negative aspects of between not going to film school and going to film school, just in reverse order, so I wanted to take a more philosophical look at why you may want to skip film school. Its not just to save yourself the debt and allow you to jump into your first self funded feature; I will discuss why the film industry, and film school, may be changing in the near future.

SteadiCam Operator working with Director

SteadiCam Operator working with Director

Positives:

  1. No debt out of college – While this is will always be a major factor when deciding whether or not to go to film school, keep this in mind: If you’re not spending all that money on college, can you use it somewhere else? You can use that money to invest in your own equipment, website, and films.

It will also give you the opportunity to take your time and figure out exactly what you want to do with your career. You won’t feel the need to jump into the first position you are offered simply because you have loans to pay.

  1. Freedom to try new things – You now have four extra years under your belt and you can apply them to anything. While other people are at film school you can start your own business, you can travel the world, you can work a part time job and save up money. You are completely free to try new things and fail. There is nothing wrong with being bold and throwing caution to the wind. The time to do it is now.
  1. You can be “that guy” – Believe it or not, there is a certain respect for people who go against the norm and skip film school, some of the most prolific filmmakers and directors never went to college, let alone film school. It will be a unique topic of conversation when you are on set. It might mean you have to work harder to prove your worth, but at the same time if you are able to do so, it gives you even more credit.
  1. Learn at your own pace – Lets be completely honest, you can check out every single textbook you will read in college out of your local library. It may not be the exact same book, but the general knowledge is there. Learn film terms, learn about the equipment, learn about the various positions on a film set, and learn about the different types of film production. You can also watch “How To” vidoes online, and watch as many movies as you want to at home through streaming services. You can do this all at your own pace so that other students who are still learning the basics don’t hold you back.
  1. Live at home – While living at home isn’t what every 18 year old wants to do after graduating high school, there are a lot of benefits from doing it. First of all, you will learn very quickly that rent is expensive. It will be nice to save a large portion of your paycheck instead of handing it over to your land lord (unless your landlord is your mom). You can utilize what you have at home to your benefit including turning your house into your own personal sets for short films and your parents and friends for talent.
  1. There is no rush – You’re fresh out of high school with a general knowledge of what kind of career you want to pursue in your life. You are way ahead of a lot of people your age. The fact that you know this gives you a lot more time to find your own path. Take time to study other topics besides just film production. It will broaden your horizons and you’ll realize there is a lot more to life than just filmmaking. You can take this time to learn a new language, or travel the world. Experiences like these can help shape your career in ways you never imagined. There is more to the film world than just Hollywood. Other countries and cultures and languages have their own popular films, genres, and styles. You can travel to Italy and explore the famous Cinecitta film studios, or go to Prague and learn about their rich history in film production. By taking time off from college you are able to learn about yourself and your interests.
  1. Find your own mentors – In every city across the world you are guaranteed to find other film buffs. There are networking groups online where you can meet with fellow filmmakers and discuss production techniques or the latest blockbuster film. Go out and meet these people. You can also get internships with local companies and create their commercials and marketing videos. It may not be Hollywood productions but you are still learning how to write, film, edit and produce on a deadline. Research local businessmen, entrepreneurs, and politicians in your area: express your interests and more often than not, people will point you in a direction that can lead you to others who can help you.
Film Crew watching dailies

Film Crew watching dailies

Negatives:

Going against the norm is never easy. By not going to college you may get strange looks from friends and family. Don’t feel bad though, college is not for everyone, and sometimes you need to go off the beaten path to find your way. Here are some of the things you will be missing out on if you decide not to go to college.

  1. Missing out on the college experience – In todays age, part of going to college is for the experience. You get to move out from your parents house for the first time, live in a new place, and be on your own. You are able to make new friends and try new things. You will definitely be missing out on the college culture and experience. You will watch as all of your friends move away and make new friends.
  2. Meeting new friends – Piggybacking off of number 1, one great thing about college is that you make a lot of new friends. You also will be taking specialized classes, so a lot of these people you meet will have similar interests in you, rather than your high school friends who you are most likely friends with because of your proximity growing up. You also can join clubs at college, which allows you to expand your friend group with others who have similar interests. This can be very beneficial for after you graduate when you need to network with past classmates and friends.
  3. No equipment – Most colleges have a large inventory of equipment for you to borrow for your film projects. Without going to college, you won’t have as much equipment to work with and gets hands on experience with.
  4. Hitting deadlines – Sometimes taking classes and having deadlines can be beneficial. It can teach you responsibility and how to manage your time more effectively. When you have scripts that are do and projects that need to be edited and you are receiving a grade for them, it gives you the inspiration to get up and get it done. Without these deadlines, procrastination can kick in and you’ll slowly watch as time slips away without making any progress on your project.

Matthew Mcconahuey speaking at Comic Con

Times are changing. People can no longer afford to come out of college thousands of dollars in debt, and because of this, people are really forced to decide if college is worth the time and money. For some, college is an absolute necessity to get into the career field they want, while others simply go as an escape from the town they grew up in.

When deciding whether or not go to college, specifically film school, take into consideration a lot of variables, and make sure you are doing what you feel most comfortable with.

Originally from New York, I moved to San Diego in 2014 after living in Italy for two years to work as a Director and Producer for Pixel Productions. Contact: Dylan@SDEntertainer.com

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