September 7, 2015

10 Reasons to Go to Film School

The following appears as a chapter in the new book Film School: A Practical Guide to an Impractical Decision (recently published on paperback from Focal Press). You can read Ryan Koo's companion piece "10 Reasons Not to Go to Film School" here.

This book is an extended inquiry into film school, its value, and how to benefit most from your time there. This question has become more acute in our current era, where many film students graduate with significant student loans. So why go to film school? What follows are ten of the strongest arguments to be made for a solid film school education. These are all excellent reasons to exchange 2-5 years of your life for a significant sum of money.

1. Time

As filmmakers, we admire legends like Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Bergman or Spielberg for their mastery of the film form. They wow us with their unbelievable insights into the medium and demonstrate the highest form of mastery.

How these people become masters is relatively clear. Aside from their unique personal makeup, they dedicated endless amounts of time to studying and practicing their craft. Depending on who you ask, researchers currently contend that it takes anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Whether those numbers are perfectly accurate is moot; the takeaway is that filmmaking, like painting, athletics, playing the piano or being a rocket scientist, takes a massive amount of time and dedication to master.

In exchange for tuition, film school will give you structured time to practice your craft in a safe, constructive environment. This is perhaps the greatest gift a school can offer.

2. Structure

Yes, you can omit film school and still become a successful filmmaker. By my estimate roughly half of working filmmakers do. These filmmakers, including Robert Rodriguez and Werner Herzog, as well as legendary screenwriters like Robert Towne, Bill Goldman and Paddy Chayefsky essentially created their own apprenticeships to replace a film school education. This is definitely an option, and for many people it’s the only option.

That being said, film school is not a passive learning experience, where brilliant professors funnel the secrets of success into your eager ears. A film school education is a constant back and forth between the school’s teaching and your own personal learning and development. A film school cannot specialize in sci-fi movies or indie dramas; you have to do that yourself. A successful film school education thus consists of two parallel learning tracks; the film school curriculum, as well as your own personal development.

When you rebel against film school it’s therefore often a sign that film school is working; an indication that you’re defining your own values and your own unique view of cinema. To do so while continually making creative work, then evaluating that work against your original intentions, all while watching your classmates do the same, is a powerful experience not to be underestimated. This specific experience is also totally unique to film school; it cannot be recreated outside of it.

3. Freedom

There is tremendous freedom within most film schools; you generally write your own scripts or work with a writer, cast your own projects, and (hopefully) see those projects through to completion. Outside of film school you may never have the opportunity to work with so many different collaborators, or to safely make the many mistakes that are part of the process. Failure, confusion and strife cost you more in the real world, if only because they don’t have the candy shell of education around them. Though painful, failure is always the best teacher. Film school is a place where you’ll be able not only to learn from failure, but to integrate that knowledge into your next project.

4. The Opportunity to Relocate to a Filmmaking Center

If you do not live in New York or Los Angeles, film school can be your impetus and financing (against debt) to do so. Industries have centers for a reason; the concentration of talent and resources allow filmmaking to be done at the highest level. Filmmaking is an intensely collaborative artform, and most of the great filmmakers live, for obvious reasons, in the industry centers, where jobs and contacts flourish.

5. Commitment/Affirmation

Deciding to become a filmmaker is the financial equivalent of deciding to light your parents’ house on fire, provided their house is expensive enough. Very few people who really care about you will let you make the decision lightly. Every family has a crazy artist uncle who drowned in a river in Prague, circa 1923, and your loved ones don’t want you to face a similar fate. If your family is all in the arts, maybe you will get a pass here. If they are successful filmmakers, you can probably put down this book right now.

For the rest of us, a prestigious film school can quell the overriding terror that our life choices will inevitably inflict, all while lending our decision an air of legitimacy. Being surrounded by people who share your passion can be a crucial validation for choosing a way of life, and a powerful support network for the difficult journey ahead.

The sheer commitment of going to film school can also free you from your insecurities for a time, though rest assured they will return. While attending film school, your urge to become a filmmaker will be validated and nourished in a way that the outside world simply cannot provide. Throughout your time in film school, you will learn to see yourself as a filmmaker. When you graduate, hopefully that identity will be strong enough to weather the inevitable blows to come.

6. Guidance

Film school professors earn their living by helping you realize your vision. They have spent years watching students succeed and fail in their own course, and refining their methods of instruction based on that experience.

The filmmaking process involves many rounds of feedback, on screenplays, on cuts of films, on casting choices, all of which your professors will guide you through. The feedback process is an essential part of learning, and it is the backbone of film school.

Equally remarkable is your ability to go through this process in the company of peers, who will make both similar and different mistakes, all of which you will learn from. There’s no other experience quite like film school; it’s the magic of a practical education.

7. A Professional Network

Your peers in film school will form an automatic network of intelligent, film-hungry, hardworking collaborators. Again it is difficult to construct this group of people from scratch; your peers at a top film school will be hand picked by the faculty for your perceived similarities and differences, as well as your potential to learn and collaborate together.

Even if you don’t get along with your peers, the people you meet through screenings, internships, events and shoots will become a part of your trusted support group. In film school, for a few years you will carry the brand of “someone who could make it,” which you will trade on in exchange for the opportunity to learn and grow. You will also have the time to do things like unpaid internships, which offer peeks behind the gates of power, as well as the opportunity to gain valuable contacts. Whether you take advantage of these opportunities are up to you, but they will certainly be there, and, at least in Los Angeles, are often only available to those who can gain school credit. Yes, you can enroll at a community college so you can work for free, but where are you going to hear about the best opportunities? From your network.

It’s important to understand that filmmaking opportunities and knowledge are dispersed through an endless private network of people. I cannot tell you how many times I have emailed somebody to ask about a particular piece of equipment, or talent program, or festival, or potential collaborator. The people you meet in film school will ideally read your screenplays, watch rough cuts of your films, relish your triumphs and endure your defeats. There is no force more powerful than a group of people with a shared goal. Again, these people can and will be cobbled together over the years, but film school is often a massive head start.

8. Insurance/Equipment

Today almost anyone has access to a high quality, high definition camera. This does not mean that film schools have nothing to offer in this department. Most major schools have equipment packages (and the classmates to crew them) far in excess of what you would be able to come up with on your own. Film school will also teach you that the people behind the camera are far more important than the camera itself, but a good camera never hurts either.

No, this will not offset the debt that you will accrue through film school. It will however not only offer you the equipment you need to make professional quality films, but teach you how to properly use that equipment, as well as how to collaborate with the people who operate it.

9. Teaching Credentials

The hard truth in life is that most people need to earn a living. An M.F.A. from a prestigious film school is a permanent brand that you can then use to teach others. Many people frown upon teaching, citing the old “those who can’t do teach,” but this is mere hubris. Some of the greatest filmmakers in history, including Martin Scorsese, taught for several years after they got out of film school.

Not only can teaching earn you a living (and help pay off your debt), it will hopefully allow you to articulate your own philosophy of filmmaking. It will also allow you to repeat the learning process from the other side of the table.

10. Practice

Tens of thousands of hours. To achieve mastery in the flute, architecture, athletics, coding, neuropsychology, you name it. Even famous composers like Mozart and Renaissance painters like Leonardo da Vinci spent decades refining their craft. And guess what? Mozart had many, many piano teachers. The bad news is that geniuses do exist, the good news is that they get there through very hard work.

Film school is the essential place to write, shoot, edit, weep, repeat. This is what you are paying for, and there is no better way to learn. Think of it like learning the scales on a piano; Mozart famously practiced until his fingers were crooked. The only way to greatness is to get your fingers on the keys.       

Excerpted from Film School: A Practical Guide to an Impractical Decision. Author Jason B. Kohl's book is a specific, straightforward guide to applying, getting into, and thriving in film school and in the industry in general. Not only does this book appeal to both prospective and current film students, it also features an in depth discussion of the application process, both from the graduate and undergraduate perspective. You will learn how to choose between different schools and programs, avoid debt, succeed at festivals, and transition out of film school and into the work world. Whether you are a recent film school graduate, or just starting the application process, Film School gives important advice and insider knowledge that will help you learn and grow in the film industry. Film School is a must-have for anyone who wants to know what it takes to succeed in film school and beyond.

Your Comment

10 Comments

If a person is going to school for film making. Make sure your finances are right. Also, the politics, get use to it.

September 7, 2015 at 2:06PM, Edited September 7, 2:06PM

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Kodi Johnson
Student/Film/Novice
161

This might seem like a crazy blanket statement, and of course everyone will have their own unique experiences. But for me, #7 was worth the entire 4 years' worth of going to school and paying tuition.

I simply cannot stress enough how important it is to build your network, and how film school allows you to learn, make mistakes, and eventually rise up through the ranks with a group of peers without the pressure of being judged for your mistakes by professionals.

And as for now, I can confidently say that 95% of the work I get is through people that I met in film school, or met through peers from school. Of course, it's entirely possible to build a similar network simply by jumping straight into the ladder from the outside, but it would take a significant time commitment and a bit of luck to meet the right person who might take a liking to you and take you under his/her wing - which certainly happens from time to time.

But in school, ANYONE could end up being the right person, and out of all of the relationships you cultivate, a few of them will end up being the meaningful ones who will hire you on their first feature, or their commercial projects out of school, etc.

September 7, 2015 at 5:31PM

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Oren Soffer
Director of Photography
1809

This pretty much encapsulates my feelings regarding film school. For the past year I've been on the fence, to apply or not to apply? Will it all be worth it? Couldn't I spend those years making money and meeting people? All questions that are impossible to answer, but your response is a great argument to go to film school.

If Colin Trevorrow hadn't gone to NYU, would he have just directed one of the biggest movies of all time, and be next in line for to direct Star Wars?

I guess we'll never know.

September 8, 2015 at 4:41PM

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Gabe Reuben
Director of Photography
250

As someone who has gone through film school twice (yes, twice), I definitely think there is a lot to be said for the value of a degree in film. However, so much depends on what you want to do. Want to be a Key Grip? Don't go to film school. Want to be a director? Go to film school. And finally, the film school you pick is important not only for its equipment and reputation, but as stated in the article, its alumni network!

Also recommended reading: Film School Confidential and What They Don't Teach You at Film School.

September 7, 2015 at 11:07PM

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Carl T. Rogers
Writer/Director
76

Something not really touched upon, but I think is good to mention is Friendly Competition.

Competition is always healthy for growth and development. As someone currently attending film school, I can tell you that you really do feel like a small fish in a very large pond. Being surrounded by some talented individuals really pushes you to stand out and find your voice. Plus, you want to get hired instead of the other guy, right? Nothing wrong with some competition.

September 8, 2015 at 1:35AM

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Austin Philip
Cinematographer
79

I have two points that might eliminate all of your 10.

1. Most people go heavily into debt, often tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. The ratio between debt and income are out of line for most people. On a side note, no student should ever go into debt for a degree. Period. There are always alternatives, unless you truly have the cash to spend. That leads me to point 2.

2. Once out of school you start from the bottom anyway, a director major doesn't start working as a director. With a degree or not most people start from scratch when they enter the industry. In the meantime you spent 4 years, tens of thousands of dollars, slept with numerous bodies and bamboozled your brain with substances instead of using your time as wisely as if you would have given only 9 more months to live.

Here is my alternative. I call it paid film school. Skip school and start in the industry. Build your network there, play with the toys that clients will pay for and stop procrastinating. School is usually a bunch of procrastinators and professors who are failed filmmakers.
Btw. when we hire often the worse candidates come from film school. Not only do they think that they are somebody already but more so their work ethics is slightly out of line and needs to be reshaped. We usually hire people coming in from the side lines.

Shmuley
EntreFilmmaker.com

September 10, 2015 at 10:08PM, Edited September 10, 10:13PM

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I have waited 25 years for the opportunity in my life to learn film making, and now I'm in. Just started the course for all of the 10 reasons mentioned above.

September 13, 2015 at 7:44AM

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Andrej Vasiljev
Film & Photography Enthusiast
81

The irony of this article on this website

September 11, 2015 at 6:08PM

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Corporate administration projects ought to incorporate preparing in authority and correspondence. A decent representative or administrator knows how to viably speak with his http://www.pro-academic.co.uk/ group. Obviously, directors likewise need to manage clients and providers, and additionally different organizations. On the off chance that directors are not all around prepared, the organization's connections will endure.

March 30, 2017 at 9:13AM, Edited March 30, 9:13AM

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