10 reasons you shouldn't go to film school
Source: DV Guru
Every aspiring filmmaker asks the age-old question at some point: should I go to film school? Will I be a better filmmaker for it, or will I spend a lot of money on education only to end up taking a job as a waiter to pay off my debt, wishing I'd spent the money on a guerrilla DV short instead? It's a tough question, but unfortunately no one can make the decision for you; the only universal piece of advice anyone can give you is, "it depends." And while I've made my own choice--indeed, my personal site is located at nofilmschool.com--I can see it both ways. Thus this week I'll look at 10 reasons why you should skip the .edu; next week I'll throw out 10 justifications for sending in your application.
First of all, I should note that when I talk about "film school," I don't mean taking a couple of film classes in college; I'm talking about shelling out for a specialized film program like USC/NYU/AFI/etc.
Ten reasons you should not go:1. Your favorite filmmaker didn't go to film school.
Some of the directors working today who didn't attend are Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Spike Jonze... of course it depends on who your favorite filmmaker is, and plenty of famous directors are film school alumni, among them some of the most decorated. The trio of Spielberg Lucas, Scorcese, and Coppola all went to film school--but that was a different era, before the invention of...2. Digital Video.
One of the primary reasons to go to film school back when Scorcese et al. attended was to gain access to the tools. 35mm or Super 16 equipment was too expensive to own and celluloid film was much more difficult to shoot on and edit. But nowadays many films showing in theaters (well, indie theaters, at least) are shot with the very same cameras that hundreds of our DVG readers have sitting at home on their desks. The DV revolution has a long way to go, but today the obstacles are more often related to distribution and raw talent, not equipment. Gaining access to a motion-picture camera is no longer a good reason to go to film school; besides...3. Film school is expensive.
It's easy to justify spending six figures on an education because you're investing in the future. Plus there is a loan structure in place for repaying your debt, and there's a vague promise of a job once you have a degree in hand. But tuition is incredibly expensive, and you'll be paying it off for years to come, unless your last name is Rockefeller. If you think you have a great idea for a film--and that's a big "if," requiring enormous amounts of faith in yourself--then you may be able to produce your project for a whole lot less money than the six figures you'd spend on a degree. And once your labor of love is done, you can distribute your project using...4. The Internet.
The biggest difference between today and 30 years ago isn't the advent of DV cameras, it's the advent of mass, free distribution like YouTube, iFilm, and a hundred other online sites. You could have all the talent in the world and a DV master of your piece de resistance in hand, but without the ability to put it out there for some recognition, you'd be up the creek. In today's era of amateur filmmakers being snatched up off of YouTube, however, you can be assured that there's an audience out there, there's a way to put your film in front of them, and there's a cadre of scared executives ready to hire anyone who understands kids these days. Another relevant aspect of the internet is the informational aspect; you can find intelligent film reviews, interviews, and forums for discussing movies online, which didn't exist several years ago. All of these things help you find...5. The Long Tail.
Pre-interweb, it was much more difficult to find niche content that catered to your personal interests; but now, as Chris Anderson has written, even smaller films manage to find an audience, profitably. Even if you're making a niche film about heroin-addicted Latvians who skydive blindfolded while listening to Jethro Tull (actually, that sounds pretty interesting), you can find an audience for it. Ten thousand interested audience members spread across the country won't get your film seen in any one theater, because the geographic concentration of them is far too sparse to sell 100 tickets at any given location, on any given night. But ten thousand interested viewers on the internet means your film can get viewed ten thousand times and passed on many times over, through email, blogs, and myspace. Suddenly you're the authority on terminal-velocity Latvian addicts and have lined up funding for a sequel, without ever stepping foot in film school. And the Long Tail isn't just relevant as a producer, it's also relevant as a student, because...6. Netflix + books = critical studies.
Classic, avant-garde, and generally obscure films used to be hard to get your hands on. Film school, once upon a time, was a great way to see movies you couldn't see anywhere else. But 90% of the movies you'll see in film school today are available on DVD. Not only that, but instead of having to pay $4/pop to rent them on your own, you can just sign up for an all-you-can-eat DVD rental service like Netflix and watch, rate, review, and queue films to your heart's content. Combine this with a few trips to the local bookstore and some Amazon listmania to get yourself a set of film history and theory books, and you've got a halfway decent critical studies program in your bedroom. That is, assuming you're motivated enough to put in all the work on your own, without grades, peers, and deadlines--which is not easy. Still, you can always...7. Learn by doing.
Between the corporate video, television, and feature film industries, there are plenty of jobs out there. Rather than paying to learn, you can get paid to learn (Mark Cuban seems to have done okay with that). Regarding film specifically, there are advantages and disadvantages to this approach: the disadvantages are that you may not be surrounded by like-minded peers who can give you valuable feedback, you may get on a track that's not of your choosing (instead of being able to focus on one specialty at film school), and you may not have much time outside of your day job to pursue the projects you really want to. The advantages are that you're supporting yourself instead of going into debt, you're building up your resume, and you're gaining an understanding of how the real world works. And learning by doing is better because...8. You can't teach art. Can you?
At the heart of the "should I go to film school?" question is an even more basic question: can art be taught? No. Yes. A little bit? Who knows. Personally I've always felt that there's something fundamentally disingenuous about teaching how to create. Yes, as a professor you can explain how a piece of art was created, you can further a student's understanding of the art form as a whole, and you can refine a student's technical know-how. But there's no right or wrong way to create. Of course, on the flip side, having a great professor who gives you good feedback and pushes you in the right direction can make the whole film school experience worthwhile (I'll talk about this next week). But many professors teach formula as technique, and you want to make sure it's your own vision on screen, not your professor's. Regardless...9. Don't study film, study life.
My problem with Hollywood today is not a lack of craft, and my problem with film school is not a lack of theory; both of these areas of expertise are arguably more refined today than they've ever been. But what's mostly missing in Hollywood today is the writing--what's actually being said--and while they can teach you in school how to say what you've got to say, they can't tell you what to say. If film school costs $100k, I'd say you'd be better off traveling the world, reading a lot of books, doing volunteer work, and meeting a lot of people along the way. If you skip film school to travel the world and you're insecure about your understanding of the 180-degree rule, read the Wikipedia entry on it and be on your way. If, in the course of your travels, you discover that you're not interested in being a filmmaker after all, that's probably for the better too, because you would've realized that eventually, even if you got your degree in film. Because ultimately, when it comes to filmmaking...10. You either have it or you don't.
Barry Diller said recently that "talent always outs." That is, if you're talented, you'll eventually make it, regardless of whatever obstacles you encounter along the way. Film school can help you become a better filmmaker--it can refine what's already there--but if you don't have the raw creativity, ability, and motivation from the start, you're doomed even if you've got a degree in hand. Conversely, if you've got what it takes, you'll eventually make it, whether you go to film school or not. This is why there's no right or wrong answer to the film school question; it's reductive, but... you either have it or you don't.
Next week I'll be posting ten reasons to enroll.http://www.dvguru.com/2006/10/11/10-reasons-you-shouldnt-go-to-film-school/