Should You Go to Film School? A Conversation with Ryan E. Walters
This is a guest post by Cinematographer Ryan E. Walters.
With the rise of popularity and accessibility of film schools since the 1960's & 1970's, aspiring film professionals have had the difficult task of choosing where to begin their career path. Is it best to go to school to get formal training, or jump right in and start working? Today with the plethora of free online resources, it makes the choice of formal schooling less appealing. But what is the right choice, and the best way to prepare yourself for a career in the film industry? Let's take a look at what you have to gain, and what you have to lose by following either path.
Why You Should Go To Film School
The film programs offered at many of the prestigious film schools like AFI, USC, or BFA, offer amazing programs and a wealth of knowledge that cannot be found elsewhere. Not only are a lot of their graduates in the top echelons of the film industry, but many of their graduates give back by making themselves available to the current students. Where else can you rub shoulders with, and learn directly from, some of the greats in our field? By skipping out on going to film school, you are missing out on an opportunity to learn from, and more importantly, network with, the elite in our field.
Film School offers you life experience that is very hard to replicate outside of this unique environment. In any college, or post-graduate school, you are forced to rub shoulders with people from all walks of life. You have to interact daily with people who may not share the same viewpoints, tastes, or philosophies. It is through these interactions that you are able to get a broader perspective on the world around you, which is a critical part of good storytelling. Film School also gives you the unique ability to learn and work in all of the different aspects of filmmaking. Your work then gets critically evaluated by your peers, as well as by experienced professors. Where else can you get this kind of necessary, honest feedback without having to make your first feeble attempts at filmmaking public to the entire world?
By enrolling in Film School, you are ensuring that you will learn from the best and create films that will allow you to grow as an artist. You will develop your network of fellow filmmakers from which to pull from as you set out on your first projects. I don't know of any quicker way to make your dreams a reality, than by attending one of these top-tier film schools. These schools are the closest thing to a shortcut to a career path in the industry. (But there are no real shortcuts ...)
Why Film Schools Are Not The Answer
Let's take a look at the reality of the numbers. AFI graduates roughly 140 students from their program every year, and USC about 850. While these programs offer you the best education money can afford, that is precisely the problem. Tuition alone at these schools runs about $40,000 per year, and that doesn't cover books, thesis expenses, living expenses, etc. By the time you complete their programs you will have amassed anywhere from $80,000-$160,000 in school loans. And let's say you are lucky enough to get a 3% interest rate. When you graduate, depending on your loan, you could have monthly payments ranging from $500 - $1,800.
Film schools tout the successes of their graduates, however I do not see 1,000 new Wally Pfisters or Terrence Malicks breaking out every year. And while having a degree from one of these universities is helpful, the reality is that the vast majority of graduates will start out in the field like everyone else, as a production assistant (PA). This is a performance based industry and no one really cares where you got your schooling, but they do care about your work. So it is highly unlikely that the day after you graduate, you'll step onto a major feature film as a director or cinematographer. There is no shame in starting out as a PA. I started out doing an internship at a local production house as an office PA. So what does a PA make? $28,000 a year, or about $2,300 per month, if you are lucky. But even this number is high. When you first start out working as a freelancer, work will not be consistent. At least not until you build your network of referrals. A more realistic number would be around $15,000, or $1,250 per month. At these income levels, it is easy to see that you are going to need to figure out a way to make more money in order to live and pay your school bills. Oh, and don't count on living in LA without roommates either, as the average cost of a one bedroom apartment is$1,350 per month. I'm not saying that it can't be done. It can. However, it isn't going to be as easy as the school's literature and the hype of Hollywood may be leading you to believe.
Furthermore, with access to high-speed internet, and the wealth of knowledge published in many filmmaking books, coupled with the real life hands-on production experience offered by many production companies, there is no reason why you can't create a more affordable and sustainable learning environment for yourself. Imagine what you could do if you took that same $160k and used it to subsidize your career as you are first starting out? You could put $10,000 towards equipment that you could practice with, $10,000 toward books & training courses and then still have $140,000 to cover your living expenses for the next 4.5 years if you decided to pay yourself $30,000 a year.
Don't be fooled by this option either. Skipping the film school path is not without its pitfalls and its own struggles. If you choose this path, you are going to have to be highly motivated to make your career happen. You will have to push yourself to learn, experiment, fail, pick yourself up, and continue on even when things are tough. People in this industry like to work with people they know and trust. Breaking into these circles will be difficult, and it will take time. There is no way around that. But if you prove yourself, and you are a hard worker, you'll find that your referral network will continue to grow and work will become more steady. Skipping film school will also mean that you will not have access to the people who have gone before you. So do what you can to intern, to work under, or with the people in your area who have been working in the field for a long time, and whose work you admire. This is the fastest way to increase your practical knowledge, and turn your online / book reading into meaningful experience.
So Which Should You Choose?
Both paths have huge positives as well as huge potential negatives. A clear-cut, simple answer for everyone doesn't exist. If you are someone who needs that external pressure of deadlines, and school assignments in order to help you grow, then maybe film school is the right choice for you. Many community colleges are offering film programs of their own these days. And while they are not as prestigious as AFI, or USC, they may allow you to actually afford to work in the industry after your graduate.
If you are highly motivated, self-driven, and willing to find creative solutions to fill in the gaps you will have through self-education (like critical peer & professor evaluation of your work), then maybe you can forgo the traditional film school approach. There is a wealth of knowledge on the internet and in many books that will help you reach your goals. Next week, I'll be offering a detailed list of resources, and educational material that I have found helpful over the years. So be sure to check back. :)
What Path Did I Take?
I tend to live an unconventional life. I didn't take either path, or rather I took both. In high school I took the few media classes that existed at the time. And I also shot projects with my friends on old VHS & Hi-8 cameras. In college, I got my undergraduate in a completely unrelated field: Bible, Theology, & Youth Ministry. Then I did an internship as an office PA at a local production company. All the while I was a veracious reader of every filmmaking book I could get my hands on. It was at about this time that the internet began to take off, and I was able to develop more connections with people in my area and begin to grow my network of referrals. My thirst for knowledge and further training lead me to multiple classes and go to conferences in the community, which finally culminated in taking classes at the Art Institue of Portland. Because I already had an undergraduate degree, I wasn't interested in another expensive piece of paper, so I only enrolled in the classes I was interested in taking. To this day, my appetite for learning has never been quenched. I continue to read all that I can, and when I'm not working on a paying gig, I experiment, conduct tests, and shoot projects with my friends that push me and my craft.
In the end, no one can tell you what is the correct path for you. You can only find and create that path by knowing yourself, and honestly evaluating the resources around you. Only then can you make an informed choice as to whether you should go to film school, avoid it, or figure out an alternative path like I did.
What has your path been? Did you go to film school or not? Was it helpful, or do you wish you would have chosen differently? Are there any bits of wisdom you want to share that come form your own experience?
This post originally appeared on Ryan’s Blog.
Ryan E. Walters is an award-winning Oregon-based cinematographer. His work has allowed him the opportunity to travel worldwide in the pursuit of telling stories that are visually compelling. His experience includes feature films, documentaries, commercials, and shooting for Comcast, TLC, Oxygen, and the Discovery Channel.