Do you need to go to film school?
But I had to.
I’m far enough removed from film school to look back and evaluate whether or not it was worth it. For me, there’s no question: it was a necessary step in my development and one I wish I took even more advantage of.
My path to film school was fairly straightforward. I graduated from Boston College with a major in Communications and a minor in Film Studies. I had made one 40-minute documentary (which I still love, but, in fairness, is probably a solid 15-18 minutes too long) and done a summer workshop at the New York Film Academy where I made super-serious student films shot and edited on 16-mm black and white film. I thought I was the full package. I even rocked filmmaker glasses.
I was promptly denied admission to all of my top choice film schools, except for one, the University of Southern California School for Cinema-Television (since renamed the School for Cinematic Arts). There are tons of books and blogs out there that compare the schools and talk about what each offers, so I’m not going to get into that. I’ll just jump into why I needed film school.
What I appreciated most about film school was it allowed me to focus my attention on making movies and develop habits that would last well beyond my classes. When I graduated, I was hotly pursuing a writing career. In school, I had the time to dedicate to write for at least an hour a day. That very simple habit carried over to my first post-graduate job as a director’s assistant. So, yes, I graduated from film school to get coffee, but hardly a day went by when I wasn’t writing. As I turned my attention back to docs, that writing time became development and research time. I can very easily trace the beginnings of this all-important habit to my time at USC.
Film school costs a lot of money. A lot of filmmakers—good ones—argue that you can just sink your tuition into making your own feature, which is absolutely true. BUT… that suggests that your first feature is going to be worthy of that money. The beauty of film school is that it is a period of safe incubation. You can make your first horrible student film. And your second. And your third. Your films may not be horrible, but mine were (and if I ever decide to drop the coin to transfer them to digital, I promise I’ll share them so you can see what I mean). I wasn’t ready to make good films—I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to say or how to say it. Spending time surrounded by mostly supportive peers offered me a chance to find that. I quickly realized that the super serious fare of my NY Film Academy days (wait, that crack-smoking, hooker-hiring man is actually revealed to be a priest—shocking… and deep!) wasn’t what I wanted to pursue.
I also headed off to film school determined to be a director, which I think is a pretty standard goal of everyone that enrolls. But I quickly determined that I wouldn’t be the next Dawson Leery (that reference should date me appropriately). Turns out, when I was directing actors that weren’t my friends, I didn’t particularly care for it. I did, however, discover a love of writing and producing. This story is echoed by tons of students that, for, whatever reason, find that they want to edit or be cinematographers or do one of a hundred other jobs they’re exposed to in school.
Having worked on the indie scene for a while now, I’ll say that even if you do decide to forego film school and spend tuition money on your first feature, I can tell you that you’re going to be hustling for every last resource. I can’t knock the hustle—it’s an invaluable skill. But if you’re directing your first feature, do you really want to be concerned about where the edit suite is going to come from? Or how you can persuade your college roommate’s sister’s boyfriend who’s a supervisor at Post Works to cut you a deal on color correct? There’s plenty of time for that. Film school lets you worry less about that and more about honing the basic skills you need to tell a story.
While it’s a safe place, it’s also a place where you have to learn to take criticism. I can’t speak for other schools, but at USC, the director has to show his or her film, then sit in a circle without speaking while everyone in the class makes their comment. It’s not easy. But it’s one of the most valuable things I learned in school. Even today, Chad, Clay and I don’t always agree on our internal notes. But that peer beatdown taught me how to absorb notes and not shut out good feedback.
It’s worth mentioning, even if only in a line, that the connections you make at school will pay dividends down the line. The school will tell you this—especially USC, where they hawk their famous alumni at every chance (and rightly so, the list is impressive). But it’s true—school is an introduction to networking, a skill that might not come so readily on the front lines of your first indie.
Finally, film schools want you to succeed. It reflects well on the school and guarantees alumni donations for years to come. The schools are investing in their students and banking on their success.
The decision to go to film school is a highly personal one—for me, it was a necessary step that helped me shape habits that have served me well as an independent producer/director. In a future post, I’ll talk about how to get the most out of school once you’re there.