Note: I have argued both for and against film school in the past, and as I say on this site's about page, "different strokes for different folks." This is a guest post by filmmaker Seth Hymes, who runs Film School Secrets. Image by LuMaxArt.
Film schools are a great place to learn the basics of filmmaking and meet like minded collaborators. They also provide a structured environment to experiment and hone your craft. Unfortunately, I’ve met more than my fair share of young NYU and USC film school alumni deeply in debt with no clear job leads or any idea how to start making movies for a living. I’ve also met many DIYers who wonder if they missed out by skipping school. With tuition costs continuing to rise, and HD equipment costs continuing to plummet, the film school debate is worth reopening in 2011. My goal in this post is to shed some light on the specifics of investing in film school and also share some cheaper alternatives to get a film education in a classroom setting.
The primary benefit most people imagine you get from film school are the connections and job opportunities. But most people have never actually seen a real life job bulletin from one of these schools. Here’s a concrete example of a typical posting from NYU’s weekly job opportunity email board:
I’ve been receiving the NYU job bulletin for more than 10 years, and each posting looks very similar to this. Typically, the most ample job opportunities are non film related. And those that are film related are for the kind of entry level jobs one could easily find on craigslist. I’ve had a chance to examine similar career support tools from other schools like USC and NYFA, and it’s all pretty much the same.
The fact is this: production companies do not turn to film schools for their staffing needs. When I moved to Los Angeles, I registered with an elite temp agency run by Leslie Comer. The agency places people in jobs at Paramount, NBC, Fox, etc. The typical path is to get an entry level job and meet people, then slowly work your way into a desired position.
I was told flat out to put my education at the bottom of my resume. My agent was much more interested in the production work I had done before and after school, gaffing on 2 features and sound mixing on another. The NYU Film degree and student film experience was considered an “extracirricular” benefit. Kind of like joining chess club to make your college applications look good.
What About Newer Film Schools?
The Art Institutes have sprung up all over middle America, while New York Film Academy has conquered the international market like Starbucks. Copying the model of NYU and USC, students pay $30K+ a year to learn basic filmmaking skills. They say you can’t put a price on an education, but The Art Institute’s parent company Educorp is a multi billion dollar a year enterprise, raking in tuition from a variety of art schools all over the world. New York Film Academy spends $10 Million a year on marketing and banks more than that in profits. USC, NYU and LA Film School all cost more than $40,000 a year. That’s more than most film school grads will make their first year in the real world.
And I’m not just pulling that figure out of thin air. Check out this graph, from the Art Institute’s own marketing material:
The Art Institutes has charts like these for all their schools across the country. The figures do accurately reflect the realities of working in the film business. As you can see, filmmaking grads have the lowest job placement percentage at 66%, and one of the lowest starting salaries at around $31,000. It should be noted that most film jobs require much more than a 40 hour work week. After taxes $31,000 is a little more than $450 a week. Yet the total cost of getting a Bachelor’s Degree at AI is over $90,000. That’s between $400 to $600 a month in loan payments, with interest accruing for more than 20 years.
What most film school grads can realistically expect is illustrated perfectly in this photo from a film set in Los Angeles:
In the background, look for the guy in the striped shirt standing behind the guy holding the camera. Striped shirt guy is a Drexel University film school grad working as a Camera Assistant. His job? Turn the knob on the camera. His student debt load? $100,000. The DP is an AFI film grad. What do they have in common? They are both working for Glynn, the guy in the foreground. The director and producer of the film. Glynn never went to film school. In fact, he dropped out of high school, and has been a PA on many major movies for more than 10 years. How did he get his break? He met someone who worked in the business while in London and just showed up.
Not pictured in this shot are 2 New York Film Academy grads, also working for about $75 a day as PAs. I asked them both what they paid for school, and they said $30,000 for the one year program. I asked them if they wanted to make a movie and direct. They said yes. I asked them how they planned on doing that. They didn’t know. As Dov Siemens, Quentin Tarantino’s mentor, likes to point out: less than 1% of film school grads ever make a feature. Many film school grads scramble for entry level work and end up getting hired by people who never went to school.
Cheaper Classroom Alternatives
That said, there is something really great about being in a filmmaking class with other creative people, and it can be quite valuable. So what if you still want the classroom experience without paying full price? I have two suggestions.
1.) Community college. You might think that a place like NYU or USC is light years ahead of your local community college, but that isn’t true. In fact, in Los Angeles, Orange Coast Community College has a TV studio, digital cameras, and film cameras the very same as any of those schools that cost $30,000 a semester. And it only costs $60 or so a credit, compared to almosy $1,200 a credit at a name school.
As digital equipment prices keep dropping, community colleges all over the country and the world are able to purchase the same equipment as name film schools. Many community colleges also have alumni connections and internship opportunities like name schools. A great example is when I got an internship at Fox News Channel through NYU. It was a great opportunity and I am grateful for it. It led to my first job out of school, as an editor for a national news network. However, one of my buddies went to a community college in New Jersey, and he was already an Advanced Editor when I was hired. He came in through an internship as well, but paid much much less for it.
2.) Get on expensive student film sets for free. Believe it or not, it is very, very easy to get on to an NYU, USC, or NYFA student film set without paying any tuition if you know what to look for and what to say. In fact, you will be right next to students paying $30K a year and get the same kind of hands on experience they are getting without paying the price. You can also get on a pro film set and learn a ton in one day, and start networking and building your resume. I teach students how to do this in my course Film School Secrets.
Film school is a great experience, but make sure you do your research and figure out if it’s best for you. Remember, to be successful it’s not the name on your degree, it’s the quality of the stuff you make!
My name is Seth Hymes, and I’m an NYU Film Grad and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. After graduating NYU it took me a long time to figure out how to actually start getting a movie made, and I did it all without a thing I learned in film school. I realized there was a huge disconnect between what is taught in these schools and what you really need to make movies, which is why I initially wrote “Film Fooled” and then put together Film School Secrets with some of my colleagues. My goal is to help young filmmakers get started on the right path towards realizing their creative dreams without wasting years of time and tons of money on school.