To many, the answer to a career in the film industry seems so simple: film school.
After all, there’s law schools and engineering schools and the path is straightforward. You go, you study, you get your degree and your job once you’re qualified.
But the film industry doesn’t work quite the same way. It’s more of a trade profession.
(That’s not to say it doesn’t require intellectualism or smarts to be successful, just that there’s a lot of work in filmmaking that isn’t taught in a practical classroom setting.)
And this is where things start to get murky in the crystal ball. Should you go or should you work? When you go, should you stay? And, most importantly, is film school ultimately worth it?
The Irresistible Urge to Catch the Hollywood Carrot
Recently, I received an e-mail from a reader named Joseph who was starting to have doubts about film school:
I would love to see a little more love for film schools. I know that sounds silly or irrelevant and I also know you of course aren’t against film schools in anyway, but I just have this constant struggle with myself whether I should leave film school without a degree.
I applied only to this school out of high school to become a working cinematographer through the camera department and wanted to receive training as well as a degree. I choose what I saw to be the best conservatory film school I could find for my planned career path.
…Now into my 2nd year I realize everyday, that despite being around so many talented peers, there are also many frustrating peers that don’t seem to value their time here at school as much as the ones that pull 14 hour set days shooting a class project, then have a 8 hour turn around to class the next morning. This makes me want to quit school and re-connect with my contacts that I work with during the summer months to get paid as well as a more pleasant working experience.
Working with people that want to be working. Not student directors that want to slap the wood sticks because it’s cool, but not wrangle a line of BNC so the operator doesn’t trip.
I guess maybe where I’m coming from is that my decision to go to film school had to happen, but some of us (I hope I’m not alone) find it a little hard to stay, not for the school being bad, but it being too good, too quick and seeing the Hollywood carrot and trying to fight back the hunger for just a few more years.
Joseph’s situation is not unique — he’s not alone feeling it’s tough to stay in film school while real-world work tempts you to leave.
There’s also other reasons you might want to leave film school:
- You can teach yourself through books and movies
- Your access to equipment is limited
- Your talent exceeds that of your classmates
- The program doesn’t allow you to make the films you want to make
- You’re tired of learning and want to “just do it.”
And there’s tons more reasons why you might want to leave university in general.
But life, as you and I know, isn’t always so cut and dry. It’s hard to pivot your career path in the middle of it and be confident it will work out. The fear of “what if I’m wrong…” can be extremely crippling.
So because Joseph came at the film school question in such a unique way — “I’ve gone, but should I stay?” — I felt inclined to answer him right then.
Everything you read after this is part of my response.
Is Film School a Waste of Time? Maybe…
I like to think I’m fair to film schools when I write about them. The most I ever covered the topic was in my ebook, Becoming the Reel Deal, and I was very adamant that I covered both sides. If you were to count the pros/cons in that chapter, they are even.
But mostly I wanted to drive home the point that film schools are useful for those who want them to be useful and a waste of time for those who think they are — basically, the value to which you give film school is what you will ultimately get out of it.
And, frankly, it sounds like from your story that you’re confirming that viewpoint.
You really appreciate film school and are doing everything you can to make it benefit you. Meanwhile, your lazy classmates don’t think it’s worth as much and so they aren’t getting as much out of it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I completely understand your frustration, however, about feeling stuck in film school when you want to chase the Hollywood dreams. My senior year of college (I went to Virginia Tech for communications — not explicitly film school, though I took production courses) I dropped out the first semester halfway to shoot a feature film in Las Vegas. It was very tough for me to come back that final semester and take classes on stuff people wanted to pay me to do.
But I had chosen to go to college and it was important that I saw that decision through. And that’s all you can really do: you make the choice you think is the best at the time and live with that choice and hope it turns out.
The Reason for the Bad Reputation Film Schools Get
I think film schools tend to get a bad rep online and in the blogosphere because so many of the filmmakers who end up at a keyboard are doing it without going through that system. As a result, they equate their ability to be successful without film school as it having no value for anybody.
But what they fail to recognize is that for some (not all, but some), it’s their yellow brick road to the emerald city of Hollywood.
Or, in other cases, they go to film school, graduate, and find a career in film still requires hard work even with the film degree. This, again, gives the perception that film school is worthless because it doesn’t guarantee a job in the same way an engineering degree would pre-qualify somebody into a career.
The thing is, I know plenty of people who went to film school and learned a lot from it. But they also said they learned just as much, if not more, on a professional set.
And this is where the value of film school is really hard to derive because they may not have ended up on a set if it weren’t for film school. Or they may not have persevered with filmmaking if they didn’t have assignments, professors, and deadlines pushing them to make their films.
And that’s another reason, perhaps, that film school success stories are hard to find: because the skills and abilities graduates glean from the programs are often nebulous and undefined. Sure maybe you learned to coil a BNC cable the right way, but you could also learn that on a set.
If you ask someone to tell you what they learned in film school they couldn’t have learned anywhere else, they will probably give you a generic answer.
Which is OK — not everything has to have such a concrete purpose.
My film professor put it best when he told me, “Film school gave me a chance to just create.”
Sometimes that’s worth the time, the money, and the frustrations.
Chase Your Dreams, Not a Degree
Filmmaking is very much a results-oriented business — everyone wants to know what you’ve done and film school is the same. The ends really justify the means. If you make your career without film school, then you don’t need film school, but if you make your career with film school, then it served its purpose.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a personal choice and one that will benefit those who are willing to put into it what they want to get out of it.
So while you may be annoyed that other classmates are slacking while you’re working hard, it shouldn’t matter to you. You like film school, you find it valuable, and so it therefore is — for you, at least.
If you want my advice, I think you should continue on the path you’ve chosen until you feel an irresistible opportunity comes along. But it has to be an opportunity so enticing that you can look back on it and say, “Yes, absolutely I would take that chance again any day.”
In the case of most people I know, that opportunity doesn’t come until after school. For me, it came in the middle of it, but I still went back because I owed it to my parents to finish college.
But chase your dreams, not a degree.
Similarly, don’t think you’re missing out by being in school. Movies, commercials, and shorts are made every year and every day. There will be productions when you graduate and you’re still really young.
That’s one thing I constantly remind myself: I have time to carve away at where I’d like to eventually end up in my career.
What do you think about a situation like Joseph’s? Is film school a waste of time or necessary for some? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!