July 28, 2015

Is Film School Still Relevant in 2015? Indie Film Rockstar Kyle Patrick Alvarez Weighs In

Film School Value in 2015
The great film school debate continues.

Our friends over at ShareGrid, the "Airbnb of cameras" and a pioneering force in the peer-to-peer rental market, are starting up an interview series with notable members of their rapidly growing community. Few are more notable than Kyle Patrick Alvarez, an indie filmmaking rockstar whose last two feature films have been massive hits at Sundance, and whose latest feature The Stanford Prison Experiment is currently in limited release before hitting theaters nationwide.

We're going to be sharing several of these videos over the next few weeks, and they'll cover everything from how to go about making your first feature, to how to adapt literary pieces for the screen, to how Kyle made The Stanford Prison Experiment. Today's episode, however, revisits one of the central debates surrounding film education: is film school really worth it?

Most everyone, it seems, has a strong opinion about the film school question. Some will ardently argue that film school is the biggest waste of time and money in the entire history of mankind, while others insist that film school was one of the best investments they've ever made. Kyle takes a more nuanced approach. It's all about the individual and their unique ambitions, and then assessing whether the available education options will help them meet those ambitions, he says.

A film school graduate himself, Kyle admits that his education was a great experience and that it helped him mature as both a person and a filmmaker, but that it was far from perfect. Many traditional film schools focus heavily on intellectualizing the artistic aspects of filmmaking, which can be helpful to a certain extent, but when that comes at the expense of learning about the practicalities and sobering realities of what it takes to produce a narrative film from start to finish, then you're not really getting a filmmaking education that will help you in your future endeavors.

With that said, there's one consideration that should trump all others if you're considering film school, and that is debt. You might be completely sold on the idea of film school, but if you need massive student loans to afford it, I can't urge you hard enough to reconsider. While some people make a healthy living in the film industry, many others do not. When you're living from paycheck to paycheck and gig to gig, tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt is the last thing you want to be saddled with.

Ultimately, film school can be a great experience, or it can be a waste of resources. If it's something that you're considering, take the time to weigh the options and figure out if there are any tangible benefits you can get from film school that would be hard to get through any other means. And most importantly, figure out if you can afford it.

Stay tuned for the next episode of ShareGrid's interview series, in which Kyle will talk about his experience with making his first and second features. And definitely go check out ShareGrid's site and sign up to be notified when the company expands to new cities.     

Your Comment

12 Comments

I think its always good to have a teacher, but if its a professional Filmmaker with experience you can learn from him a lot. Also i think its really good from learning by doing.

July 28, 2015 at 5:15PM

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Cathy Danneberg
Filmmaker, Editor, Designer, VFX
619

Being in a unique position to answer this ongoing question (having attended film school and started one), the answer remains the same since the first film school opened its doors. Yes and No. Is school still relevant at a time when every nuance of filmmaking can be gleaned from the internet or from a healthy collection of special edition blu-rays? Yes and No. Yes, if you need the structure of a curriculum focused on theory or production or both. No, if you have the dedication and discipline to undertake a self-taught experience. However, the crux of the discussion begins even before this assessment. It starts with your expectations and what you hope to achieve by either attending school or not. First, you must understand that no school, no matter how prestigious and celebrated its instructors, can guarantee success in the industry, much less a career. That outcome will always be dependent on your abilities. Whether its technical, managerial, political or all three; what you bring to the table is the only indicator of future success and longevity in a business that becomes more competitive every day. Secondly, you must understand your expectations of the school you attend. Every school has its pros and cons. You have to balance out what your needs are versus what the school provides. Are you looking for a school that can provide a technical education to balance out your networking abilities, or is it the other way around? Maybe you need both, in which case there are schools that also provide that. Research needs to be completed before you take that leap, not just for the $50K/year schools but just as important for those that only charge $50/unit. Equally, you need to conduct a solid review of the instructors. There are those that are amazing professionals, but significantly lack teaching capabilities and defeat the purpose of education. The opposite is true of those who can instruct but have never stepped onto a soundstage or gone on location. You need to find that magical combination of both to truly benefit from any structured educational experience. And finally, understand your end game. Are you attending school to get an education and production experience, build a reel, produce a thesis film that gets noticed? Are you choosing a school to network and make significant connections? Or is it something else all together that helps you decide not to attend school…could be a possibility as well.

July 28, 2015 at 5:48PM, Edited July 28, 5:54PM

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Luis Bohorquez
Cinematographer
127

Well said Luis.

I fully agree that it's all to do with the individual and their needs. And something which you critically mentioned, which I believe is why there is such a dividing line between yay and nay people, is the QUALITY of the school and it's curriculum, tutors, facilities and crucially its connections with the industry!

I can fully understand regretting going to a mediocre film school with a poor curriculum which you could've learned doing film studies at college and tutors who like you said, have neither ever stepped on set or really can't teach. But there are a few top schools which, if you have a chance to attend, will most likely have a huge impact on your career, providing you make the most out of it.

I would say that if you just want to learn how to operate a camera or set up some lights, don't bother. You can get all that fundamental (although often wrong) advice from the depts of the web.

I would like to hear from anyone who attended top 5 film schools in the world if they felt that it was a time wasted..

July 31, 2015 at 3:55AM, Edited July 31, 3:59AM

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PJ Palomaki
Cinematographer | Motion Graphics
400

Well, arguments can be made for both sides. One very valuable thing I got from film school though is a very solid network of friends/collegues/filmmakers/mentors. I think it makes a big difference to have that when you're starting out.

July 28, 2015 at 6:32PM

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Vincent Allard
Director of Photography
103

I can't even believe how little I knew before film school despite the fact that I felt like I knew a lot.

July 28, 2015 at 7:23PM

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Zachary Will
Cinematographer
815

I'm in two minds, if I had my time again I'm not sure if I would go, but university was great fun when I was 18.

I think the great thing about film school is it will force you to learn some stuff that you won't on the job.

That said I wouldn't go to a private school that just teaches the craft. You can learn on the job and get paid rather than rack up a huge debt. You may as well have an actual degree at the end of spending all that cash.

July 28, 2015 at 11:45PM

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matt
887

DIY has a long history. And even in the modern moment where "doing it yourself" is the dominant paradigm, some of the cultural assumptions and value judgments from bygone eras persist about those who choose to make a go of it on their own.

In the past there was a lot of vehement, dismissive derision aimed at "vanity presses". If some ordained outlet chose not to publish your writing or poetry and you therefore decided to self-publish, you were considered a delusional dilettante—an amateur.

But let's look at some of those words. "Dilettante" originally meant "someone who loves the arts", the root of the word being "to delight". And the root of "amateur" is "to love" or "one who loves". So people who have an inborn passion for art or expression—regardless of the financial rewards—are seen as delusional and laughable because they aren't making money and therefore aren’t seen as "professional" (i.e. to be taken seriously). But lots of things make money that aren't "good" in a spiritual, artistic, aesthetic or cultural/historical sense. Moby Dick wasn't a bestseller. So does that mean that Melville was a dilettante and a "failed professional"? Does her financial success mean that J.K. Rowling is the most important writer in history?

Higher education supposedly is a means by which a culture creates informed citizens. This is a laudable objective. But if that were the aim of higher education in North America, then it should be free. All too often universities and colleges resemble a Ponzi scheme whereby the only way to pay off the debt you accrued in obtaining your diploma is to work in a similar university where your income is dependent upon whether students keep feeding into the pyramid scheme (and thus generating even more debt-laden graduates with credentials in a field that doesn't offer enough opportunities for them to recoup the costs from getting the credentials).

Movies, like most artforms, straddle a shifting line between commerce and art. If everything is only about money, then a society only tells itself what it wants to hear. Other voices, new ideas, seldom seep into the conversation.

Whether aspiring filmmakers go to school or not, I would advise them to be wary of “unpaid internships”. In the past a person could make some money while being trained on the job. This has largely disappeared. Now you go into debt to get an opportunity to work for free “for the experience”. The internet opens up new opportunities, but a huge portion of them consist of things that resemble unpaid internships and result in you giving people your work just “for the exposure”.

July 29, 2015 at 10:52AM, Edited July 29, 10:55AM

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Sean Bokenkamp
Animator
368

I guess I can only speak from my personal opinion, but there is a big gap between the film school world and the real life making movies. Other than providing a basic guide to movie making, film school can't really offer any greater insight than what you can access today through infinite resources on the internet. You just have to be auto motivated to educate yourself. The tools are readily available for a LOT less money than what film school would cost you. Which has become absurd and close to being considered a scam. I believe that at the end of the day film schools do have some merit. They provide you a place to mature, make mistakes, and collaborate with friends, but they should be more focused on how do you land a job in the industry, rather than teaching you the ideas of high art. Can anyone really teach you how to be a great filmmaker, painter, singer, an artist? Gather cheap basic equipment and do it yourself.

July 29, 2015 at 11:21PM

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'It's down to the individual' that's the answer. I think Kyle is coming from that angle. People just need to keep that answer in mind. Do you work well in a structured learning establishment, or do you learn better off the cuff? For me, it was a mix of both!

July 30, 2015 at 5:34AM

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Ryan Mackfall
Director / Producer
91

Hollywood is more about marketing and licensing than making great films. If you want to be successful in film, learn those skills and do film on the side.

We hear how a film was loved at Sundance, but it doesn't go far in the world. The really big films are formulaic and predictable. The big money is in the same structure repeated with merchandise on the side.

A good example is a best selling author vs a great one. The top money is in the average or often lousy writing with great marketing. The truly amazing writers aren't often revered until after death.

July 31, 2015 at 7:14PM, Edited July 31, 7:21PM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
796

I also recommend checking out broadcast journalism for those who can afford to school. You learn a lot of the video production techniques but it's not as focused on the cinema aspect.

August 2, 2015 at 1:24AM

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Charles Duoto
Studio Floor Director
1477

"...you have to if you want to be a lawyer or doctor, but you don't HAVE to if you want to do film."

Literally my go to line as an aspiring filmmaker to other people.

August 5, 2015 at 2:28PM

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Christopher Evans
Video Artist
357

Here's another sobering reality: With no university education at all, your chances of having a job paying more than minimum wage are slim to none.

Most even reasonably good jobs require a bachelor degree in something, and in many cases it doesn't have to be anything specific just a bachelor degree. You'll always be able to find exceptions with billionaires who never finished high school and so on, but these are tiny, tiny numbers of people. The majority of people with no formal eduction are working horrible jobs for almost no pay, or have no jobs at all. Even many banks and insurance companies treat customers with a college degree with different criteria.

So... If you're choosing between film school and a medical degree, that's another issue, but if you think you have good chances of being successful with just a high school degree you are deluding yourself.

October 17, 2015 at 3:22PM

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Robert Ruffo
Director/DP
330