To go to film school or not to go to film school, that is the question. It is an age-old debate amongst aspiring filmmakers as well as many of the Greats.
Do you spend the money and learn filmmaking in an academic setting?
Do you pave your own way into the industry through sheer will power, learning filmmaking through experience?
In this blog post we will be exploring these questions and weighing the pros and cons to each method, finding an answer to the question:
What is the best way to make it in film?
First, what are the benefits of film school? There are many famous filmmakers who knew from an early age that they wanted to make movies when they grew up and they followed a very traditional path of graduating high school and making their way to film school. Filmmakers like Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, George Lucas, Rian Johnson, J.J. Abrams, Jordan Peele, Angelina Jolie, Ari Aster, Darren Aronofsky, and Patty Jenkins all went to film school. Between the American Film Institute, Sarah Lawerence College, the University of Southern California, and New York University, these directors, actors, writers, and producers all attended universities for film and used what they learned to launch their careers.
Scorsese graduated NYU with a M.A. in 1966.
One reason film school is beneficial is that it provides aspiring filmmakers with a space to learn, grow, and fail with low stakes. In film school, students will learn both practical and theoretical aspects of cinema. With a lot of schools offering access to state of the art equipment, classes will range from learning how to watch and study a film analytically, to knowing the ins and outs of industry standard editing software, to writing a captivating screenplay, and even the full process of producing, shooting, and distributing a movie from beginning to end. It would be hard to argue that one doesn’t learn a lot in film school. And, while most industry experiences are high pressure due to the thousands or even millions of dollars riding on the success of the film, in film school all of the learning and experiences are absent of risk.
Relieving this pressure can allow for a young filmmaker, especially someone in the beginning process of finding their voice in cinema, to make bold choices, try everything, and not be afraid of failure, as it is an imminent, and even imperative part of the creative process.
Another positive aspect of film school is the accountability. Although procrastination is an ever-present threat for anyone embarking on any journey, but especially an artistic pursuit, being in film school takes away some of the personal responsibility. While a film school student can make the choice not to show up to class or not to turn in assignments, for most students the school curriculum provides much easier to follow guidelines than if they were attempting to make it in the film industry on their own volition. Opposed to aimlessly writing a spec script or trying to gather funding and supplies to make a movie yourself, with no requirements to fulfill beyond your own personal desires, film school students have professors and mentors providing motivation, support, and guidance every step of the way.
For some individuals, this structure and accountability is what they need to stay focused and remain on the path to achieving their goal.
Finally, one of the most valuable aspects of film school is the networking opportunities. A lot of making it in the film industry, and really any industry, is who you know. For most people who don’t have family members or friends in Hollywood, this is a tough bridge to gap alone. Whether it be notable alumni, filmmakers brought in to speak to students, career fairs, or even your own peers, film school provides ample access to people, which in turn allows students to leave school with a large network to lean back on. There are lots of stories of legendary filmmakers meeting some of their lifetime collaborators in film school.
Some examples: Brian De Palma met Robert De Niro while studying at Sarah Lawerence and Ari Aster made a short film with Rachel Brosnahan while studying at the American Film Institute. While film school might be expensive, it is benefits like this that may make the cost incredibly worth it for people trying to make their way into the film industry.
Now for the opposition...
While there are a number of successful filmmakers who got their start using film school to propel them into the industry, there are almost just as many that made it without a formal film education. On this list you have filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Greta Gerwig, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Miranda July, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Just as notable and just as successful, these individuals, and many others, used a combination of hard work, self-discipline, and “luck” to get them where they are today.
“I think if I had gone to college I would never have become a director.” - Stanley Kubrick
Knowing that it is possible to be a filmmaker without going to film school, I think one of the biggest arguments against film school is that you are paying excessive sums of money for professors to try and teach you an artform in a controlled environment. And in such a way to almost fool you into believing that they have codified the process. The very nature of creativity and art is that it cannot be codified, there is no one way to do it. Some people go as far as to say that film school is a scam, making people believe that if you pay enough money you can make it into possibly the hardest industry to break into.
To take a slightly less extreme approach, regardless of the investment that you are making (the debt you are racking up), if you want to make movies is there really any substitute for just doing it? I guess the question to ask is, how much filmmaking can you actually learn in a controlled “classroom” environment. This is also taking into account the fact that students do get some hands-on experience in film school, practicing using cameras, light and sound equipment, editing software. But still, it is an environment that merely mimics the reality of a Hollywood film set. As all of the non-film schoolers can attest to, fighting their way tooth and nail into the industry prepared them for the reality of the industry in a way that they never could get in a test-environment.
The stories of these kinds of filmmakers are vastly different, but they all share a similar through line, perseverance. The stories go something like this:
A young aspiring filmmaker wants to make it in Hollywood. They cold call, they email, they audition, they do anything in their power to get a job, any job. Whether it be starting off as a production assistant on a no-budget indie film, acting in a student film, programming a light board in an off-broadway theater show, any job is a step in the right direction. Then, they network. Through that first job they meet people. They get another low-paying job. They meet some more people. Again and again until the networking pays off and now they know someone who knows someone who knows someone who’s friends with someone who knows a producer or a writer or a director of a bigger project. Those six degrees turn into five degrees, turn into one degree, which turns into a meeting with someone who has some power in the industry. This meeting might not go anywhere, and maybe it’s more networking, but eventually they’ll meet the right person, the person who will give them a shot.
This is where luck comes in. My belief is that luck is when hard work meets opportunity. Luck is being able to spot an opportunity coming your way and then not only taking the opportunity, but putting in the work to make something come out of it. It may not be a prescribed method of entrance, but there are a lot of cinema legends who follow the path of a lot of resistance and use their grit to make their dreams happen for themselves.
Tarantino dropped out of high school, then it took him until it was almost 30 years old to direct his first legitimate film - Reservoir Dogs.
While people could argue all day about whether or not one needs to go to film school to become a filmmaker, I think the answer is quite clear that there is no answer to the question. There is no one proper way of becoming a filmmaker, no promise at the end of any road. But, if you go back and learn about any successful filmmaker, the defining factor is quite clear, it is perseverance. The people that make it into the industry are those that want it bad enough to never give up. Go back and read any of our filmmaker biography blog posts, you will see the pattern as clear as day.
To each and every one of you in the SWILA community and beyond, if you want to be a filmmaker ask yourself the question: Do I want it bad enough? And if the answer is yes, take the road that feels right for you, begin your journey towards achieving your goal, and never give up!
Always be writing.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahwagner3932
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.