When it comes to filmmaking, one of the most common questions novice filmmakers ask is whether they should go to film school to get into the industry.
[This is a guest post written by Alexa Parker.]
Would a certificate, diploma, or degree turn them into filmmakers or let them work on movies? Or would they be better off watching tutorials online?
Dekel Berenson is an award-winning director and filmmaker. His short films Anna (which premiered at Festival de Cannes in 2019, and was nominated for Palme d’Or), and Ashmina (premiered at BFI London Film Festival 2018 and later won two Oscar-qualifier festivals in Krakov and Jerusalem) are both critically acclaimed. What’s more, the director was recently invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a huge achievement and compliment to his work.
I sat down with Berenson to talk about the film school/no film school question. It’s a topic Berenson is quite passionate about, himself having dropped out of film school after only three months, but he is also very pragmatic.
“You get some people who tell you 'don't go!' And others who will tell you, 'You must go!' But in reality, there is no right answer. I think the real answer is ‘maybe’ since there are good reasons for both,” he says.
To illustrate his point, he gave us both reasons why you shouldn’t, as well as reasons why you should go to film school. Let’s start with why you shouldn’t.
Why you shouldn't go to film school
Berenson says that one of the most important reasons people shouldn’t go to film school is because he found that producers respect people who produce their own films, mainly because these people who didn’t go to film school are more independent by nature.
“Producers look for people who they can trust and know that they won't have to be managed and be taken care of,” he says.
Equally important, reckons Berenson, is spending time on set, and one of the best ways to do this is to become a background actor and extra. Besides getting paid to do it (extras can earn between $80 and $180 per day), the experience you get is invaluable.
“I have a friend who is a background actor in New York and he's been on set more days than I will ever be in my entire lifetime," he says. "You get to see everybody, what they do and how, and how a professional set is managed. It’s an actual set, not just some school project.”
He says if you do that for one hundred days, you could earn enough money to make your own short, a double-win!
Moving on to another pertinent question many young and aspiring filmmakers ask. Do they need to have expensive equipment to make films?
“Absolutely not,” says Berenson. “In the past equipment was big, expensive, and hard to come by, not to mention hard to handle. Back then you needed to go to film school to learn how to use that equipment. Now you can shoot on your phone or on a $2,000 DSLR, or a good DSLR. And you can learn everything for free!”
Speaking of money, film school is expensive. Really expensive.
A two-year course at the popular London Film School will set you back an astronomical £59,500 GBP ($75,000 US)!
Berenson, who dropped out after attending this prestigious film school for about three months, feels that the money is better spent elsewhere.
“You're way better off using that money on your own film, rather than paying that money and then to then work as a booking operator on someone else’s film, just because your script was not selected to be shot and you didn't get to be the director that term,” he says.
But Berenson says that going this route has even more positives.
“You get to learn from your own mistakes, more is on the line so you take things more seriously than if it's just a 'school project,'" he says. "You are actually making a film, on your own dime, which you then have to send to festivals, so the pressure is higher than if it's 'just' a 'school project.'"
It’s not only that. In the last term in the London Film School, the budget they give you to produce your graduation film is ridiculously low (a mere £4,500/$5,600), and you have to rent your own equipment too!
“Also, I often see posts on Facebook from students at the school looking for crew online," he says. "So what’s the point of spending all that time and money when you still need to do all that stuff? I mean, you’d imagine that the film schools would provide that!”
These are some things that really put Berenson off from going to film school. He says that even the way that people are taught at film schools is not ideal for working as a filmmaker in the "real world."
“[When you don’t go to film school] you develop your own methods of doing things by trial and error, rather than learning something from other people and learning how to do things in a way that may or may not be right for you," he says. “Film school teaches you to do things in a certain way which depends on who teaches you, and these people don’t necessarily even work in the industry. Well, not actively, anyway.”
To drive his point home, Berenson names some of his favorite directors.
“You know, Tarantino, Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, these are legendary and top directors," he says. "None of them ever set foot in a film school, and look what they’ve achieved!”
Why you should go to film school
However, as much as Berenson is against going to film school, he says that they are not totally irrelevant and that attending one of these institutions does have its advantages.
“Some film equipment can be very technical, especially the higher-end stuff, and most people don’t necessarily have access to these," he says. "Film school teaches you how to operate these things—cameras, lights, editing equipment, which can definitely be an advantage when entering the real world, because you’ll ‘slot in’ quicker and don’t have to spend hours watching YouTube tutorials.”
As Berenson mentions above, the equipment can be very expensive, so expensive that studios often hire equipment (especially cameras and lenses) rather than buying it.
“It can be very expensive, most people don’t have the money to buy higher-end equipment," he says. "What’s the difference between an Arri and a Panasonic? Gear choice is important when you make films because, for instance, different cameras produce different results. Being exposed to different equipment at film school makes it easier to choose the appropriate gear for your project.”
Other reasons Berenson mentions include things like failure and types of learning.
“I mentioned that trial-and-error on your own dime is a good thing, because it pushes you, but not everybody is that adventurous," he says. "At film school, you can fail again and again, without having to worry about money. You also get to learn from other people’s mistakes. Also, not everybody can learn from online tutorials. Some people learn better by sitting in a classroom. Everyone is different.”
When it comes to making a movie in the real world, attending film school has a distinct advantage: a showreel.
“When you want to make a film, you need to show producers what you can do, what is your style, and that you have an eye for filmmaking," he says. "That’s why a showreel is so important. At film school, you do projects that can all go onto a showreel, so when you graduate, you already have a body of work. This can take a very long time to build up if you haven’t attended film school.”
According to Berenson, another great thing about film school is that you get to enter festivals’ student categories.
“Most of the big festivals like Cannes have student categories that you can enter," he says. "The competition isn’t as fierce as in the other categories, but you still get great exposure. You can’t do this if you’re not at film school.”
Like we mentioned before, going to film school can be very expensive, but if you have access to the funds, it can be a good idea to attend, says Berenson.
“Some people get their tuition paid by parents or they get a scholarship, but they won't necessarily get that money to shoot on their own projects, and that’s a definite plus," he says. "I’d say that if you're young and feel that you need it, and someone else is paying for you... then sure, go to film school!”
Which is correct?
At the end of the day, whether you attend film school or not depends on the person (and whether you can afford it).
And just because you went to film school doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to walk onto a film set straight away and start making Oscar-winning films.
Ultimately, the choice is yours, but when you consider that the overwhelming majority of people working in the film industry today never went to film school, the choice becomes clear as day