It’s a question I’ve been asked many times by young people looking to join the film industry. Is film school worth it? I think the answer lies more in the individual than a standard for all. Most of our young lives we are told how important College is, and we hear horror stories from our elders of what NOT attending higher education will do to our careers. With the cost of Film School averaging up to 40k a year, the decision isn’t so straightforward.
When I was growing up I had a love affair with film. My dad and I would frequent Music Plus, a video store in Studio City, California every weekend to rent the fancy new medium, VHS. At home, I consumed tons of hours of popular TV and movies and it was common for us as a family to go see the cool new 80’s action flick.
Even though it was a huge part of my childhood and I had a very active imagination, I never once thought about becoming a filmmaker. I thought perhaps, maybe I would be a writer, but I thought of it more as a hobby than a career. I spent hours creating elaborate and detailed scenarios with friends. I didn’t think of myself as highly visual or imaginative, I thought it was just the way every kid was. I continued that way of thinking through high school and when the time came to choose to go to College or not, I opted to work instead. I had already gained experience in retail and in management, so I figured why not continue to rise the corporate ladder?
I continued to write throughout my 20’s and my writing grew more ambitious and visual. I would sit with my friends and pitch movie ideas or sequels to films we loved. Around this time I was also growing rather tired of the limited creativity in the retail field. I was always angry and just dreaded waking up to go to work. The writing was my escape, and I really began to look at how films were made. I would sometimes watch the behind the scenes before a movie on DVD. After a few years of this, a friend suggested I try my hand at a screenplay.
As I began writing my first screenplay and researching everything I could online, I realized that the film would never be what I wrote. I would sell it, (if I was lucky) then it would be rewritten, then a director would film it as he interpreted it. I decided I wanted to shoot my own films. I knew what happened in the stories and what the final product looked like, I just lacked the skills to make it a reality.
I quit my job and used my savings to buy my first camera, computer, and lighting kit. I thought about going to Film school, but I decided not to, and this is why. I never did very well in school. Some of it may have been because of a lack of effort, but I also didn’t fit into the school system of teaching and learning. Not everyone learns in the same way, and I knew plenty of people like myself who were smart but failed at school. The years since high school I had learned much more about everything by doing it myself. Trail and error. Visually and many other different forms of learning.
With the rise of the internet in full force at the time and sites like YouTube and many more, learning became much easier for anyone wanting to try their hand at filmmaking, and all from the comfort of my own home. Since I had the desire, passion, drive and some talent, it was on me to push myself and accomplish what I wanted to.
It took me about 2 years of writing, filming, and editing a bunch of videos to get to a point where I was proficient as a filmmaker. Not only was I able to produce something real and tangible right away, I also was making contacts and meeting mentors along the way. I saved over 150k by not going to Film School and spent a measly 5k buying equipment I could actually use myself. I met other people like me and we collaborated on film races and each others projects.
If you are going to spend 8 hours a day working and going to school 3 times a week, where will you find the extra time to hone your craft? I flipped the situation and spent 8 hours a day working and learning in every way I could, and took odd jobs to survive. After a few years, I started getting asked to film events and small commercials and actually get paid!
I don’t regret not going to Film School, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the value for others. There is a reason so many great directors Like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola came out of Film Schools. Not only do you get an education on film itself, but you have access to equipment you won’t have a dream of using once you graduate, not to mention a ready-made crew for your student films. Will this help you get a job? No. I have seen both sides of the coin not only be turned down for jobs but also working completely different careers still trying to break into the industry.
It’s all about how you learn. There are many of us who learn in the teacher/classroom setting much easier. It keeps you focused and the deadlines are created for you in a way the drives many. And the truth is not everyone knows what they need to learn to become a filmmaker. Here is a hint: A LOT. Film school already has what you need and there is no guessing or trying to wing it yourself. I was lucky that I dedicated so much time and had a great support system that helped steer me in the right directions. Some people need the discipline of school and if you learn in that way I suggest you go to Film School. Play to your strengths, and maximize your potential.
For others like me, it is possible to achieve success without a formal education, especially in our field. I have never been turned down for a gig based on my lack higher education. It’s the same way we don’t care if a painter or a band went to school if we like the art or love the music.
Was my path easier? I can’t say since it was the only path I took. When I talk to filmmakers who did go to school I see that the amount of effort was equal to what I did, and perhaps for them an easier path. There is a lot that can go wrong by teaching yourself. There were times I learned things either the hard way. or the wrong way. I believe that is a part of how we all learn no matter how or where.
You have to have the drive and dedication to teaching yourself and not give up. Be a sponge and absorb every bit of information. Go find mentors and ask to work as a grip or anything on set to get some experience. I was able to do this because I hassled people often until they said yes just so I would shut up. If you have the talent and want it badly it will show to others and only help you grow as a filmmaker. There many bad films and videos made every day by those who went to Film School and those who didn’t. Bad videos exist everywhere and come from all types of people, just take an hour and search short films on Vimeo or Youtube. With the industry becoming over saturated because of the ease of the entry into the industry, it gets harder to get your voice heard.
Just remember whether you choose to attend a Film School or not, the path won’t be easy. Learning continues every day for the rest of your life. The real goal is growth. Do the research, know yourself and what’s best for you, and hit the ground running and don’t look back. Push ahead and keep the faith in yourself. Filmmaking is calling and a passion.
So stop reading all those gear reviews and spending years developing the perfect story and go make a movie!