BACK TO THE CHALKBOARD: Should I Go To Film School?

Screenwriter and professor Brad Riddell's first in a series of columns about film school. Do you really need it?
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Brad Riddell has written feature films on assignment for Paramount, MTV, Universal and independent producers. Brad’s first film, American Pie: Band Camp, sold over a million copies in its first week of release on DVD. Brad serves as an Assistant Professor at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts in Chicago. Follow Brad on Twitter @bradriddell.

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Here’s a question professional screenwriters and filmmakers get asked a lot:

Do I Really Need To Go To Film School?

I taught screenwriting at USC for five years. In all but my first, I was assigned to what you might call the “boot camp” class. My job was to teach a group of arguably the best new screenwriting students in the world how to master format, develop a unique visual writing style, and understand the fundamentals of cinematic narrative. The first thing I would tell them, which as a working USC screenwriting alumnus I had learned first hand, is that no one really cares where or if you went to film school. They care about how you are in the room and what you have on the page.

film school

I'm now an assistant professor at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts in Chicago, where I teach MFA in Screenwriting Thesis Classes each year. My message to writers who are a year from graduating is exactly the same as it was to the newbies at USC: unless you want to teach, it’s not about the degree. It’s all about the product.

So Then…Why Should I Go To Film School?

When I decided to pack up and leave Kentucky for Los Angeles, I went to film school because I knew enough about myself to realize that I wasn't going to be able to plant a “Screenwriter” flag in Hollywood and hustle my way into the business. A lot of people do that, and there are a great many who have been successful, but that’s not who I was back then. In fact, I applied to several MFA producing programs before I applied for screenwriting, and USC’s Peter Stark Program rejected me because, as they said on the phone, “you lack savvy.” They were right. I was totally raw. I knew nothing. I needed training, experience, time to mature and improve, and I needed to get a clue how to operate. I also needed friends, connections, and a safety net.

This is what I got from film school:

  • Expert training from people who had been where I wanted to be.
  • The time to intensely focus, develop, and improve.
  • A safe place to experiment and fail.
  • Access to equipment and facilities beyond what I could afford.
  • A network of lifelong colleagues with whom I built a career.
  • Insight and access into the industry.
  • A Portfolio of well-developed material.
  • A terminal teaching degree.

But Film School is Crazy Expensive, Right?

It cost me $83,000 to get my MFA degree from USC in what was then a three-year program (now two). A two-year MFA in Screenwriting degree at DePaul, also a top-twenty school, will generally run you around $51,000. There’s certainly a broad range of costs, but no matter where you go – I agree, that’s a big chunk of change.

But here’s the thing: I knew what I wanted. At 28 years-old, having held a real job and paid my own rent for while, I knew I was not a 9-to-5 guy. I wanted to work in movies so bad it hurt. I figured making a movie myself would teach me a lot, but also cost me a lot, and as a first-time filmmaker and inexperienced screenwriter, that movie would offer extremely long odds of paying off in a significant way. I wasn't convinced that staying in Kentucky, teaching myself to write, and then submitting to script contests was going to lead me anywhere, either. So I came to realize that if I was going to make my dream come true, I had to go into business for myself. If you want to build a T-Shirt company or open a gourmet food truck there will be startup costs, right? I decided film school would be the seed money for my personal screenwriting business. In my case, fortunately, the return on that investment has been huge. For an A-List writer like Shonda Rhimes, the ROI is astronomical.

Making the Call on Film School:

In the end, it comes down to knowing what you want, knowing how badly you want it, and knowing yourself well enough to determine how best to get there. Yes, it’s a tough business, and true, not everyone makes it. But, in my ten years of teaching I've seen a great many graduates succeed because of what they've learned, what they've written or made, and whom they've met in school. There are also the intangibles: film school graduates generally aren't the kind of people who are looking for lifeboats back home after a few tough years. Those people have gone all-in, and right now, there are more of them than ever before.

Next month: How to apply to film school.

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