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Just Film School

Should you attend film school? Know the benefits of attending film school, but also see how the film business is changing.

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If you enjoy debate, not many questions ignite more argument than whether or not an aspiring filmmaker should attend film school. I've observed the film school question from a number of angles; I was a film student at Florida State University, I've taught film at Quinnipiac University, and I've worked with filmmakers who are both film school and non-film school grads. I know the benefits of attending film school, but I also see how the film business is changing. There's a few different tracks for future filmmakers now, and you might be surprised how accessible they are.

 UCLA campus

UCLA campus

For this article, let's assume you have the money to go to any college you want. (I know you don't. These days, no one does. But don't worry. I'll get to the financial part of this in a little bit.)

Now that everyone's rich, you can look at any school and analyze their offerings on an equal playing field. Here's the first of my observations on college preparing someone for a film career: the way the business currently is, there are skills filmmakers need that go far beyond those learned in filmmaking classes. True, you need to learn about screenwriting, camera work and editing, but there are many other skills that correspond to above-the-line jobs. So you want to find a school that can teach you all these skills.

Now before we get into skills for particular jobs, there are two major experiences I believe every prospective filmmaker should take part in:

  1. Volunteer on as many movie sets as you can. If it's part of a film major, or by working on films being made in your local area, you need to get on set. (Even if you want to be a writer.) The more you work on set – in any position – the more you'll understand how movies are made. And that'll help you in any position.
  2. Play a sport, or join the military. Huh? Yes. Strange as it sounds, filmmaking is remarkably close to athletic performance or military activity; it takes physical and mental stamina to complete a film. Honing your competitive instincts will help you immeasurably once you get into this crazy business.

Screenwriting 101:

So now that you're working on set, and you're doing something physical, it's time to figure out what classes to take. Let's take screenwriting as an example. If you want to become a screenwriter, you obviously want to take screenwriting classes. But there's a slew of other classes to help you become a better writer:

  • Literature – if you want to write, you have to be a reader
  • Creative writing – fiction writing will help you learn the difference between “showing” and “telling”
  • Theater production – working with actors will show you how the written word sounds when it's performed by actors
  • Journalism – writing news stories can help you write with economy
  • Psychology – learning how the human mind works can help you create three-dimensional, believable characters
  • Sociology – learning about human social activity can also help you create strong characters
  • Anthropology – learning the evolutionary and physiological origins of man, and the social and cultural organization of human societies, can help you create believable worlds for your characters to interact in
  • Political Science – learning how political systems work can also help you create a vibrant, complex world for your characters
  • Marketing – learning how to identify, satisfy and keep a customer can help you determine who your audience will be for your script
  • Advertising – understanding how customers are persuaded to purchase products can help you determine how your movie might be advertised
  • Social Media – knowing how to utilize social media networks can greatly expand your network, and help you find work

Not exactly a traditional film school, huh? The point of this “program” is to teach you how to create stories, and to create a voice for yourself, and your characters, that you can then turn into strong screenplays.

Directing 101: 

Want to be a director? Your skillset overlaps a little with the prospective screenwriter; you should take classes in screenwriting, theater, and psychology (to work better with actors). But you also need to understand the practical skills of filmmaking in this job, among other things. A prospective director should take:

  • Photography – learning how to light and compose with a still camera can translate directly to motion pictures (especially with DSLR cameras)
  • Graphic arts/visual effects – learning graphic composition techniques can help with your camera work, and understanding visual effects can help you incorporate them into your work
  • Theater Set Design – understanding mise-en-scene (sets, props, costumes, lighting and blocking) can translate directly to motion pictures
  • Video Editing – a director does not have to edit their own work, but they need to understand basic editing techniques
  • Audio – understanding how sounds build upon each other, and the importance of recording good audio on set, will help your work dramatically
  • Music/Composition – learning different styles of music, and how they are created, will help you develop instincts for what music to use in your own work
  • Management – learning how to effectively manage people will help you immensely on set, when you have to manage a cast and crew
  • Public Speaking – learning to communicate with your voice is one of the most important skills a director can have

Again, a nice cross-section of classes that develop skills you might not normally associate with a film director. In this curriculum, a student will be exposed to all the crafts they will oversee as a director, along with interpersonal skills that I've found are too often missing.

Producing 101:

If you want to be a producer, you'll find overlap with both the writer and director; you should take classes in screenwriting, literature, theater set design, psychology, sociology, management, public speaking, marketing, advertising and social media. But the producer also has a few other areas to study:

  • Entrepreneurialism – to understand the basics of how to run a business
  • Accounting – so you see the importance of good record-keeping
  • Economics – to see how money flows through societies, and how goods and services are produced, distributed and consumed
  • Finance – to discover how and why investors put money into different opportunities
  • Foreign Languages – (Chinese or Indian particularly) – to communicate with those who have money in other parts of the world

A producer really needs to understand both the creative side and the business side of film production to be successful. They should also be exposed to marketing and distribution (both traditional and new models), and these additional classes will give you the basic knowledge of how it all works.

Now do you need to find a school that provides all these classes? Not at all. You need to find a college that can provide all these experiences. Volunteering, extracurricular activities, and internships can provide many of the skills a school might not address in its curriculum. A student at a community college, then, with the right planning, can come out with an education as valuable as an Ivy Leaguer.

And here's where the finances of college come back into the picture. There's a dirty little secret no one tells you about the movie business: Nobody cares where you went to school. If you have the skills, you work hard, and you're not a jerk, you can make it. So look at your education as an opportunity to gain the skills you need, not a chance to get a piece of paper from the right school. In the long run, it will pay off much more.

Remember that everyone in the movie business starts in the same place: the bottom. Make sure that your education puts you in the best position to start your career strong.