In this age of YouTube tutorials and 4K smartphone cameras, it’s easy to see why so many people consider film school past its expiration date. As James Cameron, Terry Gilliam, and many other iconic directors have proven, it’s entirely possible to climb your way to movie-making greatness with little more than a passion for film and a few PA gigs.
That said, the success of these lucky few is by no means an indicator that film school no longer relevant. There are some serious advantages to going the traditional route that you simply cannot get from learning the ropes on your own. And with the back-to-school season coming up, what better time to shine a little light on them!
The Benefits of Film School
1. Build Professional Networks Fast
It’s impossible to underestimate how vital your professional network will be throughout your career as a filmmaker. And the best place to start forming that network: school.
Even though your classmates won’t have much to offer right away, over time they’ll accumulate more and more professional capital — in the form of technical skills, industry savvy, or both — to the point where eventually your alumni represents one big goldmine of movie-making assets that you can tap into whenever you need.
None of this is to say that you can’t build these valuable relationships out in the real world—just that it will take a lot longer compared to going to school where you’re brought face-to-face with dozens of potential collaborators from day one.
2. Learn How to Watch Films Critically
Critiquing a film requires you to interrogate many different facets of its overall production, from how the plot adheres or deviates from traditional narrative structures, to what mise-en-scene techniques are being used and why, to which themes are present.
Getting your head around the conceptual framework needed to conduct this kind of analysis takes time — for students and non-students alike. The only difference is that at school, you have the big benefit of being spoon-fed everything you need to know and pay attention to.
What’s more, you’ll be forced to apply your fancy schmancy new analysis skills to films you wouldn’t ordinarily watch. While any aspiring director can sit down and study movie after movie à la Quentin Tarantino, the chances of them scrutinizing movies that don’t fall into their preferred genre or style is pretty slim. Whereas at film school, you’ll be required to critique a diverse range of films—many of which you never would’ve otherwise watched—thereby pushing you outside of your comfort zone.
And ya know what happens when you’re pushed outside of your comforts zone? You overcome boundaries, boost confidence, and, most importantly, you expand your creativity!
3. Learn How to Give and Receive Feedback
Being placed in the painful position of having to constantly provide and receive constructive feedback is one of the best educations you can ever get— especially when it comes to the receiving part. Listening to people poke holes in your work not only helps you identify areas of improvement, but it also help open your eyes to how vital feedback is, thereby making you more willing to seek it out on future projects.
Compare this to self-taught filmmakers who often work in silos and lack access to people with the credentials to adequately critique their work. While it never hurts to get the opinions of your mom and best friend, their feedback will pale in comparison to what a whole classroom of film nerds (and professors) can give you.
4. Access to Professional Movie Making Equipment
One of the biggest struggles of going it alone is the cost. Cameras, mics, lighting, dollies — it all adds up. So unless you have a lot of savings, Steven Spielberg as a dad, or you’re the heir to the B&H empire, chances are you’re going to struggle to get the things you need to make the movies you want.
At film school, you’ll score access to a huge supply of professional quality equipment and you’ll also get all the necessary training in how to use it. Add to that a bunch of classmates/crewmembers, and you’ll be ready to rock and roll at the drop of a hat.
Of course, there is the patent fact that any film school’s tuition would far exceed three years of equipment costs. But hey, for the convenience of not having to run around sourcing the gear you need, a lot of people would say it’s worth it.
5. Access to Great Mentors
Film professors aren’t just super knowledgeable, movie-making oracles, they’re also people who’ve taught countless students, observing which ones succeeded, which ones failed, and no doubt developing some pretty solid theories on why that was. When it comes to learning how to make movies, they’re some of the best mentors going around and at film school, you get open access to a smorgasbord of them.
And sure, if you PA you might be able to strike up connections with similar mentor-like figures on-set. But getting them to read your scripts and review your rough cuts…well that might be a different story.
6. A Safe Space to Try and Fail
Before you start making any good movies, you’re going to make many many many bad ones. One of the best places to embarrass yourself in this manner is at film school, where you’re surrounded by dozens of other students who are embarrassing themselves just as much as you. I
In many ways, film school is like a kid’s playground. You make a mistake in front of your pupils, you fall down in front of your pupils, you’re helped back up by your pupils.
When learning how to make movies out in one real world, you don’t really have anyone to make these mistakes in front of. Except for, well…YouTube. And we all know unforgiving that website’s comments sections can be.
7. You’re Forced To Put In The Time
According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field. Regardless of whether you believe in this idea, you cannot deny that it has a kernel of merit—after all, practice makes perfect!
At film school, you’re guaranteed—nay you are forced—to get a lot of that practice out of the way in a super jam-packed two-to-four year period. During your degree, you’ll be constantly acquiring new insights skills and applying them to film project after film project after film project. Just like ripping off a band-aid or being thrown into the deep, it’ll be intense, a little terrifying, but definitely worth it in the long run.
Obviously, you are just as likely to hit the 10,000 hour milestone outside of school. But without a group of whip-cracking professors to answer to every week, it will take you a lot longer. Ultimately, it all depends on you!
It’s been established by many a great director that there’s no right or wrong way to go about learning how to to make films. So really, much of the decision about whether or not to enroll in film school should come down to you and your learning style.
If you’re someone who learns best in an environment ensconced in structure and guidance, then film school will probably serve you very well. However, if you’re someone who learns by ‘doing’ and is blessed with the gift of self-motivation, then perhaps you’re better off going it alone.