The Case for Film School: 6 Reasons to Consider Enrolling
Why one of the longest-serving film school deans in the U.S. thinks you should consider signing up.
[Editor's Note: No Film School asked Bob Bassett to contribute this post because of his position as Founding Dean of Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University. The views expressed herein belong to the author.]
Why go to film school? Given the ever-growing number of resources online offering lessons and advice—including this site!—I know why people ask this question all the time. Film school is expensive. And it takes a huge time commitment that puts other things on hold. But there are some truly compelling reasons to enroll because the preparation for a career in film you will get by going to film school cannot be matched in any other way.
The answer to this question also depends on where you are in life. College helps you learn to think critically, to write well and to speak publicly—key life skills for whatever you might ultimately do, for your job 20 years from now that may not yet exist. An undergraduate education, with a major in film, helps you to develop both your mind and your storytelling skills. Fifty years ago, a student wishing to tell stories would have been a literature major; today, the major of choice is film, because film is the literature of this century.
Today, the major of choice is film, because film is the literature of this century.
A graduate education in film is typically designed for those who have discovered their passion for film later on, after a previous undergraduate course of study or after working for some time. Graduate education typically offers a foundation year followed by the pursuit of an area of specialization—directing, cinematography, editing etc.
So why go to film school? Because you may be more prepared and more competitive than those who pursue the do-it-yourself-read-the-online-advice-of-famous-filmmakers school of career preparation. Those who are better prepared and more competitive are simply more likely to make it in this very difficult business. Here are six specific reasons why you should consider signing up:
1. Begin building your own professional network
Yes, you can round up a group of friends to make a film, but while collaboration is central to the filmmaking process, it goes way beyond working with just friends. In film school, you will discover the complexities of collaboration through multiple projects, working with people from varied backgrounds and interests. Collaboration is about generating ideas, and good ideas can come from anyone on the set; a difficult mindset to adopt, until the grip gives you a pivotal idea. At the same time, you will enjoy the benefits of trying out various areas of specialization to discover who you are and what works for you. Your college years, spent away from your parents and their ideas, is the time to discover and focus on your passion. You learn by doing, by working on many films and listening to that thing in you that expresses who you are in this amazingly complex art form. Hundreds of students start out with the dream of becoming a director only to discover that they aren’t suited to that role and what they really love is editing or production design or being a 1st AD.
The many crews you work on in film school will also lay the groundwork for your cohort as you move into the industry. Our grads know each other’s skills and passions—they hire each other and offer opportunities they find along the way, building an instant referral network leading to more jobs and greater experience.
2. Access to equipment and facilities
Of course, you can, as the cliché goes, “shoot a film on your iPhone” and edit it on your computer, but the technical aspects of working in the industry are far more sophisticated than that. Shooting your thesis film on an ARRI Alexa with a complete set of glass, attending a Steadicam workshop, managing the DIT process or lighting a sound stage are all film school experiences that will help you prepare for challenges you can’t foresee. And, through this, you learn how much time each aspect of the process takes—allowing you to understand how to size and to budget a film.
It’s a given that technology is constantly changing, and so what you work on in school will most likely be somewhat different from what you encounter in the industry. But learning how to learn—how to approach new technologies, what questions to ask—is fundamental to any education and is particularly important to the hands-on nature of working in film.
In a hands-on industry, you also need to learn from faculty who haven’t learned how to make a film out of books.
3. Industry-experienced faculty you can talk to
In a hands-on industry, you also need to learn from faculty who haven’t learned how to make a film out of books. Many of the books and online resources and classes available have great information and can offer inspiration and new ways of thinking about the on-set challenges you face. But in film school, you get to ask your own, individual questions of faculty—and to get their take on the latest cut of your film or to have them step in and show you where to place the camera.
A conservatory education—the kind typically offered in music, for example—builds on the master demonstrating a technique, the student trying it, and then the master coming back and saying “no, do it like this, not that.” That’s why medical schools have teaching hospitals—you can’t really master dealing with very complex, always changing/different situations based on a set of rules in a book. The book can be a good starting point, but then you need personalized guidance to prepare to fly on your own.
4. Room to fail
Failing is learning. Of course, you can easily and repeatedly fail on your own, but it’s often difficult to extricate the lesson of where you went wrong or how you could do better. Your peers and your professors can help you with that and, beyond that, it’s just nice not to be alone when things fall apart. But more important, you need to fail, and film school creates an environment where failing, or making mistakes, is expected and accepted as part of the path to growth.
The film business is risky enough as it is. It takes courage and great faith in your own ideas and capabilities to succeed. But very few have enough courage to lay everything on the line on a first venture. The time-tested curriculum of a film school education lays out a series of steps that build on each other and help you build your skills—and courage.
You need a clear understanding of the roots of storytelling for the screen.
5. A guided trip through film history
A critical part of being a good filmmaker is a deep understanding of film language and how it has evolved over time. Here again, the resources exist for the do-it-yourselfer to study and learn. You can watch hundreds of movies and immerse yourself in director’s commentaries on YouTube or Criterion Collection notes, read the critics and try to find which of the thousands of film studies books you should make time for. But let’s face it—how motivated are you? Will you take the time to ferret out the best of the best? Or will you get lost in your favorite sci-fi wormhole and miss the mastery of Eisenstein on the Odessa Steps or ignore the visual lyricism of The Thin Red Line?
If you want to be a filmmaker who truly does original work—or at least communicates using the most effective elements of contemporary film aesthetics—you need a clear understanding of the roots of storytelling for the screen. Film school faculty are often scholars who have spent a lifetime studying this material; they are your best guides to deconstructing a film as text, a process that will help you develop your own aesthetic vocabulary.
6. Feedback at every step of the way
As painful as it can be to show your film to a friend or an audience and find they don’t love it—or even respond to it—as you’d hoped, making a film has to go beyond what you think works. That doesn’t mean that you should try to make a film that will cater directly to the marketplace (although learning how the market and the business work is another key advantage of film school, one that goes well beyond just reading the trades). But you do need feedback, lots of feedback, to get beyond your own perspective.
The sequence of classes in film school will give you feedback at every step—feedback that will help you as a beginner and more sophisticated feedback as you and your peers become more skillful at capturing sound on location, managing color correction, directing actors, etc. You will get feedback from your classmates and professors, but also from outside guests, industry panels and general audiences who view your work. And just as importantly, you will learn to become a better critic yourself as you view and evaluate the work of your peers. You may look at the film of a classmate and think “I would never do that,” but you also need to learn how to offer advice or criticism that will help someone else make a better film. In the process, the student becomes the teacher and learns how to graciously give—and receive—the kind of feedback that can make your work better and also serve you well in the future when you need to guide and advise members of your own crew on your own professional set.
Going to film school is an investment—in yourself. It’s not for everyone, but for those who are serious about really trying to make it in this industry, it can offer a huge advantage. Yes, some people “get discovered” on YouTube, but you should also remember that the power of film and the global nature of the industry have spawned hundreds of thousands of wanna-be filmmakers around the world. Only the serious will survive. And the serious, more often than not, are willing to commit the money, time and effort to pursue an education designed by film school educators who have tried and tested what works to prepare the next generation of storytellers for the screen.