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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.