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BACK TO THE CHALKBOARD: Should I Go To Film School - Degree Types

In his second "Should I Go To Film School" column, screenwriter and professor Brad Riddell discusses how to decide on a film school degree.

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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Last month I offered my thoughts on the ubiquitous question, “Should I go to film school?” I had planned to address how best to apply to film school in this column, but realized that before you apply, you should know your options. So for now, let’s take a look at the film school degree types:

Freshmen Considering Film School

A Bachelor of Arts degree allows students to gain knowledge, experience, and training in cinema/TV while earning a broad education in fields not directly related to their major. It’s basically the film degree with the fewest film classes, and typically offers a more liberal studies bent. The Bachelor of Science degree, however, allows students to focus more intensely on their field of interest in cinema, and at some institutions, it is the primary degree for those looking for work in technical arenas such as post production, sound, or VFX. Students seeking the most intense film training possible seek out a Bachelor of Fine Arts. BFA programs focus almost entirely on cinema, remove many standard university requirements from the curriculum, and often provide balanced training in both the artistic and technical elements of making movies. Screenwriting BFA programs provide some production training, but are mostly dedicated to training writers to write. BFA programs are selective, and usually require a portfolio review before a student can be admitted.

Film School Degree

Potential Graduate Students Considering Film School

Masters of Arts degrees tend to pair some artistic training in directing, writing, and producing with a little technical training. M.A. programs graduate what we might call “generalists,” or people who can do a little bit of everything. Masters of Science programs focus more on the technical aspects of filmmaking, such as cinematography, post, sound, or VFX, and they generally graduate “specialists.” For the purposes of academia, these degrees allow you to teach almost anywhere, but it is unlikely that you would ever be placed on the tenure track at a university unless your body of professional work is extremely strong. Most Master’s programs are two years long, and some programs allow students to apply for a transfer from a M.A./M.S. program into an MFA program before the second year begins.

The Masters of Fine Arts is the terminal degree in the arts (for practice as opposed to study and criticism), and will qualify you to teach at any level. MFA in screenwriting programs are typically two years long, and those in production are usually three or more. The MFA requires the completion of a thesis project that you must defend to earn the degree – a major difference from the M.A./M.S. The thesis should be a significant work of professional quality, and for filmmakers it is generally a short film, feature film, or even a web series or pilot. Screenwriting theses are either feature screenplays or TV Pilots, often with supporting bibles and beat sheets for future episodes. The goal of the thesis is to demonstrate artistic mastery of the field. MFA degrees are generally offered in screenwriting, directing, animation, and producing at larger film schools.

The Doctor of Philosophy degree in this field is reserved for scholarship and criticism, and does not usually involve actual screenwriting or filmmaking (though many PhDs are in fact writers and filmmakers). PhD degrees require the defense and sometimes publication of a doctoral dissertation, and the program can take up to six years or more. In addition to taking classes and conducting their own research, PhD candidates often teach at the university level. Sometimes you will find PhD programs embedded within film schools, but they are often located in Communications and English departments, as well as media studies programs.

Which is the Best Film School Degree for Me?

Freshmen have a lot to consider. Some argue that a student should actually know something about him/herself and the world before s/he can write or make art. This type of student (or more often his/her parent) is typically inclined toward the B.A. While I frequently meet freshmen who know exactly what they want to do with their education, more often than not our film students at DePaul gradually discover their interests and talents as they progress through the curriculum. A B.A. program is more flexible in this regard, while B.S. students generally know from the start that they do not want to write, direct, or produce (or quickly become aware of that), and are ready to focus on the technical areas of the field. BFA students tend be very knowledgeable and experienced coming out of high school, they often know what “above the line” field they want to pursue (if not all of them), and are driven to learn and grow as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

With regard to graduate school, screenwriters don’t have much choice. The MFA is really the only degree available, as M.A.’s are tough to find in that specialty. For those on the production side, though, you must consider your goals. Are you interested in becoming a specialist or a generalist? Do want to spend a year making and defending a significant piece of work, or do you want to move as quickly as possible into the professional world? Do you envision yourself teaching someday? The decision between a Master’s and an MFA really comes down to time and intention. The stakes are a little higher in grad school. It’s more expensive, it’s shorter (with less time to explore), and usually, students are returning to school from or during some other life pursuit.

Whether grad or undergrad, it’s important to remember that the degree itself does not make your career. Other than teaching, law, and accounting, there are no degree requirements for any job in film or television. As I said last month, film school is hardly a requirement for “making it,” but it is often extremely helpful if you know what you want from it, and are dedicated to getting the most out of every opportunity presented to you while you’re there.

Next time (finally): how to apply to film school!

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