From time to time someone will ask me my opinion on whether they should go to film school – whether it’s worth it. Now, if you know my background you might assume I’m biased on this issue. I have a BA in film production and an MFA in screenwriting from USC, one of the top film schools in the world. I also teach screenwriting at Art Center College of Design.
And maybe I am a bit biased. I do believe you can learn valuable things in film school. But I don’t know that film school is necessarily right for everyone.
I went to high school in a very small town in Alaska where I didn’t know anybody who worked in the film or TV business. I read once that George Lucas had gone to film school at USC so I asked my guidance counselor about it. She didn’t even know there were film schools. I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker but had no idea how to go about it. Film school gave me a door to the industry. Someone growing up in L.A. or New York with friends and relatives working in the business wouldn’t have needed that.
One of the arguments people make against film school is that you’d be better off spending all that money (and it is a LOT of money) making a film. You’ll learn a lot more that way, they argue, and have a film to boot.
When I was in high school the Internet, at least as we know it today, didn’t exist. DVDs with their commentary tracks didn’t exist. The explosion of how-to books was mostly still to come. I had a Super 8 camera but no way to edit the film, and a VHS camera that I could roughly edit by connecting two VCRs together. HD Digital Cameras and Final Cut for your home computer were years away.
I couldn’t have made a feature film at eighteen because I simply had no idea how to make a feature film. Film school was useful to me because – believe it or not – I actually learned a lot.
Today of course things are different. There are probably high school kids in small towns in Alaska that know as much about the process of filmmaking as I did after getting an undergraduate degree. (I doubt many of them know as much about the art and craft, though.)
In any case, if you’ve been making films and studying the tools and process for years film school may not be as valuable to you. If you don’t know what a pre-lap is or how to calculate depth of field on a 50mm lens then you will probably learn something useful in school.
Film school also gives you the opportunity to fail with minimal consequence. You can try different things to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s a safe environment. Your career isn’t affected if something doesn’t turn out well. You may get a bad grade but so what? I tell my students on the first day that they will never get a job or lose a job because of the grade they get in my class. The industry doesn’t care about your GPA, it cares about the work you can show.
If you spend all your money making a movie and it turns out bad, what do you do then?
You may have noticed by now that I’ve been talking mostly about film production rather than screenwriting. If you want to be a director or editor or cinematographer or sound designer or production manager the value of film school is evident and quantifiable. For screenwriters the situation is a little murkier.
I obviously believe you can teach screenwriting craft. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be a screenwriting teacher and I wouldn’t be writing this blog. I tell my students that I can’t teach them to have good ideas but I can teach them an awful lot about how to execute those ideas most effectively.
However, that knowledge doesn’t have to come from a university degree program. There are excellent books and stand-alone classes and seminars out there. There are weekend writers’ retreats and conventions. You can get individual consultations from professional screenwriters and coaches (I myself take on clients from time to time, as does my friend, Liar, Liar screenwriter Paul Guay).
These things cost a lot less than a year at film school. The difficulty is knowing which are valuable and which aren’t. Because frankly some of them will do you more harm than good. A screenwriting program at an accredited university is a little easier to evaluate.
And of course you learn the most by doing. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper to write a screenplay than to make a film. Assuming you already have basic writing skills, if you sit down and write six screenplays over the next two years I bet you’ll become a pretty decent screenwriter with at least one good sample screenplay. And it won't have cost six figures to get there. To be fair, you still might not be good enough to make it in Hollywood, but then film school doesn’t guarantee that either.
(Does six scripts in two years seem like a lot? That’s an average of four months per script – though in practice the writing of individual scripts might overlap. That’s very reasonable if you put in the same time and energy that you would to earn a graduate degree. Still skeptical? When I was in school I wrote two feature scripts, a half hour television spec, and dozens of shorter exercises while also making six short films and passing classes in things like film history, acting and the business of Hollywood…all in two years.)
What film school gives screenwriters are structure and deadlines, a (hopefully) well thought out and tested education in the craft, feedback from (hopefully) qualified instructors as well as your fellow students, the aforementioned freedom to fail, and networking opportunities. Most programs also give you exposure to the overall filmmaking process, an education in film history and theory, and some kind of connection into the industry. Is that worth the enormous amount of money it costs? Some say yes, some say no.
(Another advantage is you can get student loans and financial aid for a degree program, and your loved ones will generally respect the endeavor. People don’t seem to have the same respect for the six-scripts-in-two-years, teach yourself approach.)
If you do decide to go to film school, I advise you to think carefully about why you’re there. The goal is to prepare yourself to compete in an incredibly competitive business. This means both becoming the best writer you can be and creating a portfolio of work with which to storm Hollywood.
I advocate doing a little experimenting while you’re in school. You may discover that what you thought you wanted to do – the specific job or the genre you want to work in – is not what you end up loving the most. Then as you start to near the end of your educational career be sure to build up a portfolio of work that demonstrates your voice at its best.
Because at the end of all this the goal is to be a filmmaker, not a student.