10 Reasons Not to Go to Film School

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Film School Practical Guide to an Impractical Decision by Jason B Kohl

The following appears as a chapter in the new book Film School: A Practical Guide to an Impractical Decision (out today on paperback from Focal Press).

As the founder of a website named No Film School, I should first state that I actually agree with the ten reasons author Jason B. Kohl gives for going to film school in his book Film School: A Practical Guide to an Impractical Decision. We are not named No Film School because we are against the concept of film school; we are named No Film School because not everyone has geographic access or the financial wherewithal to go to film school, and we want to make valuable filmmaking information available to everyone.

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For many prospective students, film school will be a career-boosting, connection-making, work ethic-encouraging choice. Indeed, sometimes I wonder where I would be right now if I had gone to film school myself. It’s been fourteen years since I won my first filmmaking award, and I’m only now on the cusp of getting my first feature made. Had I gone to film school, would that have accelerated my career as a writer/director? You never know  and that’s what makes the decision hard for so many students.

I want to make it clear that to argue against going to film school is not to argue against the benefits of education and hard work. Jason notes in his book, “Mozart famously practiced until his fingers were crooked. The only way to get to greatness is to get your fingers on the keys and keep them there.” I could not agree with this statement more! But nowadays you don’t need to go to film school to get your fingers on the keys — or cameras. The decision to go to film school in the 21st century has changed entirely in a digital, connected era, and it’s these changes that I’m going to focus on.

Here are ten reasons not to go to film school:

1. It has never been more expensive to go to film school, and it has never been cheaper to make a movie

The internet has disrupted a laundry-list of previously irreproachable institutions, and specialized schools — especially film schools — are prime examples. We are living in an age when digital tools have drastically lowered the cost of shooting, editing, and distributing movies, and they have democratized the ability to make a movie. We are also living in an age when, in my lifetime, the cost of higher education has outpaced the cost of inflation by a factor of five. Thus, and it bears repeating, it has never been more expensive to go to film school, and it has never been cheaper to make a movie. Financially, film school makes less sense than ever.

2. Many of your favorite filmmakers didn’t go to film school

Some of today’s top directors didn’t graduate from film school: Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Spike Jonze, to name a few (a couple of those guys — and I’m sorry these offhand examples are all male — dropped out of film school, in fact). Of course, you also can find plenty of famous directors who went to film school. But when pointing out famous film school alumni like George Lucas, Martin Scorcese, or Francis Ford Coppola, keep in mind that many of them enrolled in a very different era. The next two reasons highlight two of the major differences between film school back when movies were actually shot on film, and film school today.

If you think you need that super expensive cinema camera, keep in mind that for almost all film students, the camera is never the obstacle to making a quality film

3. You don’t need access to expensive celluloid equipment

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 costly to shoot on and edit. Back in their day, the only way to get a high quality image that didn’t immediately scream “amateur” was to shoot on film. Video cameras yielded interlaced, smeary footage that seldom worked for narratives. Nowadays, however, most films are shot digitally, and the 24 frame-per-second, shallow depth-of-field aesthetic that is the generally accepted motion picture standard is attainable as a setting in almost every digital camera. Today, you can approximate the film look on a camera costing a few hundred dollars. I cannot tell you how lucky you are to be getting into this today! When I was getting my start, we were shooting on VHS cameras, and the gap between what was possible for us and what was possible for a “real” movie was never wider. If you think you need that super expensive cinema camera, keep in mind that for almost all film students, the camera is never the obstacle to making a quality film. Focus your energy elsewhere; gaining access to equipment is no longer a good reason to go to film school.

4. Every movie and book is at your fingertips

Classic, avant-garde, and generally obscure films used to be hard to get your hands on. The school’s archives, once upon a time, were a great way to see movies you couldn’t see anywhere else. But 99% of the movies you’ll see in film school today are available online (or even on “old fashioned” media like DVDs). Many film schools have excellent film libraries, including out-of-print films, but in the face of six figures of debt, seeing a rare 35mm print of a classic is a luxury, not a game-changer. In addition to film libraries, book libraries have also moved online, and that gives you the ability to create your own critical studies course. A few trips to Amazon — be sure to check out the topical user-created lists — and you can get yourself a set of film history and theory books. You can even browse many syllabi online and read the exact same books they’re reading in the high-priced classroom…. on your own. Access to a physical library is no longer a good reason to go to film school.

5. A film degree is optional

It’s easier to justify the cost of a specialized graduate program in a field that requires a specialized degree: for example, if you didn’t get a law or medical degree, good luck starting your own practice. But no one puts “directed by so-and-so, Ph.D” in the credits. At least if you graduate from law school, the job applicant pool will be narrowed down to others who also spent a lot of time and money passing the bar. If you graduate from film school, on the other hand, the job applicant pool will consist of other film school graduates like you… and everyone who didn’t spend any time or money on film school too. You’re putting a lot of stock in that one line on your resume.

Finally, unlike lawyers or dentists, the vast majority of filmmakers don’t make a lot of money. Offsetting the cost of your student loan is a lot harder when you can’t bill $500 an hour for a legal consultation or $2,000 for putting a crown in someone’s mouth. Often it takes years of grunt/free/spec work to work your way up a well-paying film gig. Paradoxically, what this means in practice is that a lot of more lucrative, non-film jobs are going to end up looking more attractive after you graduate from film school because of the debt attached to your expensive film degree.

Focus on your own personal needs by examining and acknowledging what kind of learning environment is best for you.

6. Not everyone learns best in the classroom

Different students learn best via different methods. Some are visual learners, others auditory. Some need guidance and encouragement while others thrive when left to their own devices. Personally speaking, I was never a great student in the context of a classroom environment. After graduating from college with a decidedly average GPA, however, I learned that in the context of the real world it turns out I’m a very hard worker. There was something about the classroom — or more likely, something about being told what to do by an authority figure — that failed to motivate me. I knew that I would be better off cutting my teeth outside the insular environment of the classroom — but that is not true for everyone. Don’t focus on general debates (like this one) about what is “best,” as there is no one-size-fits-all approach; instead, focus on your own personal needs by examining and acknowledging what kind of learning environment is best for you.

7. Lessons and answers can be found on websites, forums, and DVD special features

Film used to be an industry where the secrets were closely guarded. Movies were considered magic because so few people actually understood how they were put together. But since the advent of DVD special features and behind-the-scenes breakdowns, the doors have been blown open to anyone to discover how a film is made. Don’t underestimate the impact of director’s commentaries and “making of” features… which are not tied at all to film school.

Similarly, you can learn a lot about film online, where some of these behind-the-scenes materials live today (with the demise of the DVD). I won’t name particular websites because, well, you’re reading this on one, but beyond tutorials and case studies and interviews, the internet also offers a great place to ask any questions you have. For example, I didn’t know how to write an expression in Adobe After Effects, so I posted my question in an online forum for filmmakers. A fellow filmmaker showed up and not only helped me with the issue — he actually wrote the expression for me. It was amazingly helpful, and I would’ve been hard pressed to find a classmate who had that expertise. At this point I probably sound like a broken record for touting the internet so much, but it is the most important invention of our lifetimes, so here’s one more for good measure:

8. An online network

Of the ten reasons Jason lists in his book, I personally think “a professional network” is far and away the most important benefit to going to film school. Capable and collaborative classmates are tangible benefits you can see and touch for years to come, as opposed to abstract concepts like “knowledge” and “craft.” Just kidding (and don’t touch your classmates unless they want you to). However, if you live somewhere where you’re not able to find proficient, like-minded collaborators, that to me is the largest obstacle to getting work made in your current locale. This was the reason I left my home state of North Carolina and moved to New York.

But… again, there’s this thing called the internet! Millions of people network and even find work through social sites like Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, and yes, No Film School. I felt my physical location was important, thus I moved to NYC, but you don’t need to pay a school in order to pack up and relocate. Instead, I used the internet to network, and got hired at MTV. Not everyone will be so lucky — but anytime you can get paid to learn, that is a better route to new opportunities than accumulating debt.

9. You’ll probably make it (or not!) either way

Media titan Barry Diller once said, “there’s not that much talent in the world, and talent always outs.” Which is to say, if you’re going to make it, you’ll find a way — regardless of how long it takes, and regardless of the particular obstacles you encounter. Film school can help you become a better filmmaker — it can refine what’s already there, and it may accelerate your development (and debt) — but if you don’t have the motivation and grit necessary to overcome the disappointments and failures you are sure to encounter, even the most prestigious degree won’t help. If you’ve got what it takes, you’ll eventually make it, whether you go to film school or not! In light of Diller’s reasoning, it’s harder to argue for paying to learn (in a school) over getting paid to learn (in a job).

Your perspective on the world is more important than any amount of craft or production value.

10. The most instructive school… is the school of the hard knocks

They can teach you in school how to say what you’re trying to say, but they can’t teach you what to say. With the six figures you’re likely to spend on film school, what would happen if you instead spent that traveling the world, reading a lot of books, doing odd jobs or volunteer work, and meeting a lot of people along the way? Your perspective on the world is more important than any amount of craft or production value. 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 — this way you didn’t spend all of that money on a degree in film first! Live life and discover what makes you unique — that is something no school can give you.

If these reasons helped push you toward not going to film school, great! If after reading these reasons, you still feel like film school makes sense for you, also great! There is no right answer that applies to everyone.

I should note that the cost of film school varies drastically from school to school. If the economics of a well-known, faraway film school don’t work out for you, there may be a public school closer to home that offers film studies for in-state tuition at a fraction of the cost. These schools can be wonderful options if you want the structure and guidance of a proper film program. Also, if your family is on board with the idea of you becoming a filmmaker, and they can also afford to cut a check without you bearing the burden of student loans, then the calculation is also different. Finally, I want to note that majoring in film as an undergrad generally works out to be the same cost as majoring in anything else. These reasons not to go to film school focus on expensive, specialized graduate programs that will tack on additional student loans.

If you are going to film school, my one piece of advice is this: don’t think you’re better than anyone. If you look around the classroom and think you’re the best writer/director/DP/editor in the room: forget about it. Plenty of people with more talent than you have failed in this difficult industry. Unlike in a sport like track and field, for example, there are few ways of objectively measuring and rewarding ability in film — and it can be incredibly difficult just to gain access to the track, as it were. It might take decades to find your niche, your approach, and your voice, so if you’re enrolling in a film school (or not, for that matter), my advice is to stay humble… and make friends

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