Deciding to go to film school is a life-changing decision.
It was a very difficult decision, because I was in one of those "fork in the road" places. Turning left
meant Hollywood, turning right meant Not Hollywood...
I had already graduated UCLA with a Bachelor’s degree and I was ‘working in the industry’ – I put that
in quotes because I wasn’t getting paid, I was an intern, but it was on the Fox lot in Los Angeles,
and I was meeting A LOT OF PEOPLE.
I applied to 5 film schools (all of them in the Top 10 Best Film Schools list), and I got accepted to two. I'm
not saying this to brag -- not at all -- but it made the decision even harder.
Pretty much at the same time, I could have started work on a television series on the Fox
lot as Production Assistant.
Two completely different paths, but the question arose: “Should I go to Film School or should I
take the entry level position that many do that eventually leads you up the ladder in the film industry…?”
Ultimately, I decided to go to film school, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened
if I took that television job. I’ll never really know, but I am going to try to point out the pros
and cons of going to film school, and point out the top 10 film schools in the country.
But first, what are the top 10 film schools in the country? According to The Hollywood Reporter,
which puts out a list of the top 25 film schools, here is the list with the tuition
right along side it -- which is quite an eye-opener...
The Top 10 American Film Schools
Tuition $51,442 (undergrad per year); $31,710-$46,454 (grad)
Notable alumni Matt Reeves, Shonda Rhimes, Bryan Singer, John Singleton, Robert Zemeckis
2. New York University
Tuition $52,902 (undergrad); $56,454 (grad)
Notable alumni James Franco, Ang Lee, Martin Scorsese
But this article is not about the Top Film Schools or the Best Film Schools… it’s more of a “Should you go to Film School at all?”
You’re probably wondering where I went to film school. Ok, ok, I’ll tell you already… I attended Columbia University
Film School in New York. I ultimately chose that film school because of its excellent reputation for screenwriting.
At the time, Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) was the chair of the school, and he
revamped the school to concentrate on screenwriting. In terms of production, back in the 1990’s it was not the place to be.
The equipment room, (which I worked at for most of my tenure at the school) was the size of a large walk-in closet, and had
2 16mm cameras, 3 video cameras and a shelf full of half-working lights. I’m sure that this has changed a lot since then
(I would hope so, being in the top 5 film schools in the nation). But, as I mentioned before, I chose to attend Columbia
because of the screenwriting program. And I learned a lot about screenwriting. I definitely became a better screenwriter.
Trade School or Accredited University
Another thing to look for when researching film schools, is if the school is a trade school or an accredited university.
Will you receive a Bachelor’s or a Master’s degree? Schools like the New York Film Academy, Columbia College, and Full
Sail might claim to be accredited universities, but they are really trade schools. There’s nothing wrong with that at all,
but know the school that you are going to.
Does the school have a placement program?
This is also crucial. Some old fashioned schools don’t believe in a placement program, others, like Full Sail,
highlight it as a lure to attract film students. In other words (plain simple English), after spending tens of thousands
of dollars to attend their film school, will they help you get a job in the industry?
The contacts you make in Film School are important
Just like any school you attend, your fellow colleagues are all in the same boat. These are friends you will
make for life, and therefore contacts you will have down the road. Many of your colleagues will be working on the
same films that you will be working on, and you will get to see who is good as what job. Just like any field, no one can
be the best cinematographer, director, writer, and production manager. This is time, while exploring different film
courses, that you (and your colleagues) will find what it is that you have a knack for.
For example, when I attended Columbia, there was clearly the producer gene in some of the students, whereas others were clearly writers.
Film School allows you to explore different area of the film industry. There’s so much to do and you never know what might excite you.
The Hollywood Route
The route I did not take doesn’t mean you can’t do both. During my student status at film school I also worked for
several film distribution companies, and there’s nothing wrong with getting your feet wet on the ground floor of a film
production company or a studio, even if you are attending one of the top 10 film schools in the country.
You will make contacts there too, and contacts in this business is the most important thing to start doing.
You have to be social. Many writers, by the very definition of what they do, are not social. It’s a very solitary profession,
but in order to get your work out there, you have to network.
Is it worth the money?
This is probably the most important question. It’s also the toughest to answer. Film schools today are as expensive
as going to medical school. Don’t do it just because you think it would be fun, or a cool thing to do. Do it because you
want to make a career in the film industry. Do it because you want to develop and advance your craft, whether it be screenwriting,
directing, producing, animation, visual effects, etc.
Is it worth the time?
Many don’t ask this question. But in the 4 years you are in film school, racking up student loan bills, you could be on
the ground floor at a studio, making contacts with your charming personality and working your way up the ladder of success.
For just as many big whigs that came out of film school, there are many, many, more film industry giants that worked the system,
paid their dues, and eventually succeeded.