Before we start I wanted to thank Joshua Caldwell for inviting me to write this piece. His Blog and Podcast embody the spirit of this article and are perfect examples of the free resources available to those who are interested in the film industry.
Thanks for having me, Joshua. And thank you for the work you do with “Hollywood Bound and Down”. And with that said...
What do I mean when I say, “Film School”?
To me, “Film School” means any two to four year undergraduate program that results in a major or diploma in “Film”, “Communication”, “Fine Arts”, or some combination of these terms. I also am referring to Masters Programs like the 2 to 3 year MFA degrees that USC offers.
My opinion doesn't apply to Business and Law degrees relevant to financing, marketing, and legal jobs; short term continuing education courses; or specialized training and seminars.
So... Can “Film School” be a good thing for you?
Absolutely. If you WANT to go to film school then you should definitely go. It can be a fantastic life experience; be a great source of knowledge; and can provide networking opportunities that may open doors for you down the road.
BUT, do you NEED to go to Film School in order to break in or have any measure of success?
No. You do not.
Pack your bags and come on out. Your life is waiting for you here in Los Angeles. (Yes, there are other production hubs, but Los Angeles will always be “Hollywood” to me.)
Quite simply, it comes down to “WANT” versus “NEED”. And I think this is an extremely important distinction when you are deciding if you should spend many thousands of dollars (10s of thousands for some schools) and commit years of your life to a formal program.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I have an undergraduate degree (which I don’t use), but I never went to school to study “film”. And in my twenty plus years in the biz, no one has ever asked me for my credentials. Nor have I wanted to see anyone else’s. We’re all too busy trying to make a movie.
Think of Film School like Military Boot Camp and movie making like being deployed in a war zone. Your training will help, but nothing can prepare you for the real thing.
So… Why don't you need to go?
For those of you that want to work “Below-the-Line”, i.e. shoot, pull focus, grip, gaff, production design, sound mix, drive, edit, production manage, costume, makeup, coordinate, AD, and so on; EVERY ONE of these crafts can be learned on the job.
Yes, you can learn the basics in school. But, to really learn and grow into a skilled professional, the best classroom is a legitimate film set, production office, or post facility.
Let’s look at the Grip Department as an example. School MAY teach you the basic equipment and an overview of the Grip Department. But, it won't teach what we truly do.
School won't teach you how to rig cameras, build towers of truss, assemble and operate cranes, push dollies, tie knots, rig up high, operate and master the enigmatic C-Stand, find the best places to nap, be first in line for lunch, or the many hundreds of other things we do.
Ironically, I got my start working on other peoples' Student Films; their tuition, my classroom. From there I graduated to ultra-ultra-ultra-ultra-low budget projects. We had one bottle of water from which we all had to drink. (Okay, there was more water. BUT, IT WAS WARM!)
Meager food options aside, we had more equipment and more opportunities to try new things and learn new skills. Also, there will almost always be a few veterans on these projects who are happy to share their knowledge and teach you a few tricks.
From there I began to get higher paying jobs until one day I got into the Union. Now, I work on your favorite movies and TV shows. I date supermodels, drive a Ferrari and sleep on a bed of cash.* By financial standards, I have “made it”.
*(have a wife; drive a sensible car; not a millionaire, but am debt free AKA no student loans)
The example of the grip department can be applied to every other craft. You want to be a DP, grab a camera start shooting. Buy books, experiment, shoot a short. Want to design costumes? Intern at a costume house, sketch, shadow professionals, work on any project you can.
Start at the bottom working for free, learn the craft, and if you’re good at what you want to do then you will progress. People will want to bring you on the next job or refer you to others.
However, hard work is not a guarantee for success. You MUST also have a modicum of talent in order to succeed. Although some manage to fail their way up the ladder, but that is another topic.
“What if I don't want to work Below-The-Line”?
Maybe you don't want to be a makeup artist, FX guy, DP, or prop guy. Maybe you think the mind numbing repetitive drudgery of being a grip is not something you would wish on your worst enemy. (This would not be an entirely unfair assessment.)
You know that you want to be a writer, director, or producer and nothing else will do. Well, I am here to tell you that you DO have the option of jumping head first into the deep end.
That said, for producers and directors, I would HIGHLY recommend that you spend time on film sets in as many positions as you can before you make your first movie. This will be essential experience that will help you become better directors and producers.
For directors, the benefit is learning what the crane and dolly can do to better design your shots; what it takes to do a stunt; how long a reset takes with a lot of elements and so on. If you know what the crafts can do you will know what tools you have in your tool box.
For producers, the benefit is learning what gaffer tape costs, what the Best Boy does, what a forced call is, and that you need sunscreen for Day Exteriors and heaters for Night. Knowing what everybody does and what everything is a major step in becoming a successful producer.
But, if you're ridin' hell for leather and you just GOTTAMAKEAMOVIERIGHTNOW! then go do it. It will probably be harder because let's face it; you have no idea what the fuck you're doing. But, that's okay. Not knowing should not stop you from trying.
Want to produce? Get together with a writer and a director and put together a project. Your first one will be fantastic tragedy of mistakes. Your second one will be better. Rinse repeat until you are Jerry Bruckheimer. It's a reductive example, but still a valid one.
There are so many people out there wanting to shoot something, but have no idea how to do it. Be the person that makes it happen for them. They learn, you learn. Maybe one day in the future you are both sharing the stage accepting an award.
If you want to direct, make a short that is proof of concept of your feature or pilot. There is so much access to equipment and software that didn't exist when I was coming up. You can shoot movies on your phone and cut them on your laptop.
With crowd funding sites like Seed & Spark access to financing has become easier. It's not a guarantee. Some projects won't resonate or if you half ass your campaign then no one will donate. But, if you “sell” a story that people want to see then you stand a good chance to get funded.
Writers, write. A lot. All the time. Every day. Then get solid feedback from people. Not your parents, a significant other, or anyone who's going to give a “Gold Star” read. But, people who are willing to constructively tell you, “This sucks. Here's why.”
School can teach you 3 Act structure, the Hero’s Journey, story arcs, character arcs, subtext, and all the technical buzzwords that go into writing a technically proficient script.
But, it can’t teach you how to write well. To create great characters that people remember. To put your story first and action second. How to put life and soul into your work. Or how to take notes or accept help. You only learn that by doing it repeatedly, growing each time you do.
What if you want to learn, but don't have the money?
There is so much FREE FILM SCHOOL out there in the form of blogs, podcasts, websites, and industry professionals on Twitter. (I'll link some of them at the end of this piece). And hundreds, if not thousands, of books. Many of which can be borrowed from a friend or library.
Ultimately, if you truly are an artist who has the drive to create then you will. If you were meant to write, direct, produce, shoot, costume, grip, cater, design, pull focus then you will. You will do whatever you have to because you can’t imagine a life where you don’t.
But, I feel obliged to warn you, many of you will not win the Hollywood lottery. You know the one I mean. The one where you accept the Oscar, marry the actor/actress, have a zillion dollars and ride off into the sunset in your fantasy car.
In fact, many will fail and ultimately quit. Some will do okay, others pretty well. But, only a few will win that lottery. It really all depends on your personal goal for success.
Brutal truth, school or no school, the Entertainment Industry can, and most likely, will be difficult, frustrating, and depressing. At times, we're just carnies with better catering.
But, it's not all doom and gloom. It can also be wonderful, fulfilling, and inspiring. I imagine that's why you're reading this article. A film or show touched you in some way and now you just have to be in show business. And that’s fantastic.
And if you're crazy enough to join this circus then you will see and do things others only dream about. You never know where this business will take you.
But, wherever you go, you don't need a diploma to get there.
A FEW of the MANY Blogs, Podcasts, & Websites (Twitter Folk are too numerous to list)
Some of these are specific to a craft. And some of these provide attitudes and philosophies that can be applied across the board. All are good.
The Anonymous Production Assistant
Bitter Script Reader
Chicks Who Script
David Bordwell's Site on cinema
Go Into The Story
Hollywood Bound and Down
John August & ScriptNotes
No Film School
Seed & Spark
“So you want to be a writer?”
“Why Paul Thomas Anderson Dropped Out of Film School”