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Is Film School Right For You?

February 6th, 2008

I went to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Of course back then it was called the USC School of Cinema-Television. Then George Lucas donated $175 million in 2006 to expand the film school with a new building and all of a sudden it’s the School of Cinematic Arts. Go figure.

Anyway, I bring this up because I run into many aspiring filmmakers who often times ask me what film school they attend. In the 1970’s when Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and others emerged from their respective film schools and took the film industry by storm. Now there are many film schools around the country and around the world that offer degrees in cinema. The question is how necessary are these degrees and are these film schools right for you and your career.

The short answer to this question is no. The long answer is maybe. There are just as many prominent filmmakers who have succeeded without going to film school as there are ones who have. Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and Robert Rodriguez are the most notable examples of filmmakers who have had no formal film school training and Steven Spielberg was twice denied admission to USC. A film degree is just not necessary in this industry and the truth of the matter is that you could probably learn more about filmmaking working on a film shoot for one month than you can from four years of film school. Then why is the long answer maybe?

Let me begin to answer this question by telling you a little about my experience at USC. When I was in high school, I decided late in the game that I wanted to become a filmmaker so I decided to apply to film school. Naturally, living in the South I had no idea what the good film schools were and if I could even get into them. While my grades and academics were good, I had no art background or portfolio to speak of. I had not made any films as a youth nor did my family own a video camera for me to experiment with.

Through my research, I settled on applying to 7 different colleges with a film program. Why 7? Well, first, this was at a time before the internet so researching film schools was a little more difficult than it is now. I basically just looked up all the universities I could find that offered a degree in film that looked good and applied to them. Then, like I said, I didn’t know if my academic credentials would be enough for me to be accepted to a film school.

The schools I applied to were:

USC School Of Cinema-Television (now School of Cinematic Arts)
NYU Tisch School Of The Arts
Boston University
Emerson College
VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University)

Ithaca University
Sycracuse University

I ended up being accepted by all seven schools but I decided to go to USC because it was the top ranked film school in the nation and because they gave me the most money (scholarship, woo hoo!). So I moved to Los Angeles and started my film school education.

Over the next four years, I took every film course that sounded interesting including a big-budget filmmaking course taught by Michael G. Wilson, the producer of the James Bond movies. Film school was an enjoyable experience for me. Then I graduated and started working in the industry. I quickly discovered that there is a film school way of making movies and a real world way of making movies. They were not the same.

In film school, you had to take required classes on film history and film theory. Are these classes useful? Not really if you just want to make movies. These classes are there to justify having a film program at an academic institution by legitimizing movies as a medium worth studying. That being said, they can be useful in helping you find your own directing style by showing you the trials and mistakes of many directors who have come before you.

In the end, I learned a lot more about movies from my first three months working in the industry than I did in four years at the top ranked film school in the country. Still, I find my experience at USC both necessary and instrumental in my development as a filmmaker. How? Because being in film school allowed me the time to explore and find myself and my own identity. Not everyone is ready to jump into a professional setting immediately after graduating from high school. It is better to find yourself, your voice and what is it that you want to say in the sanctuary of something like film school than it is under the scrutiny of the public eye.

To go back to the long answer of is film school right for you, the answer is maybe. If you’re just looking to learn the craft of filmmaking, then no. You’re better off working on sets and learning as you go or attending one of those two or three day filmmaking seminars that focus on usable skills. Or taking the money that you would have used for tuition and shooting your own independent film. But if you’re young and interested in film and you don’t have a lot of experience in life, then maybe film school is a good place for you to find yourself as you learn the craft of filmmaking.

Here are links to the top filmmaking programs in America:

USC

USC School of Cinematic Arts

 

NYU

NYU Tisch School Of The Arts

 

AFI

AFI (American Film Institute)

 

UCLA

UCLA (University of California – Los Angeles)

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