Even though I finished film school almost ten years ago, people contact me on a regular basis for advice about whether or not it’s worth it: “Can’t I just start working in the film business?” Yes, you can. There are successful filmmakers out there who skipped the film school route entirely, but they are usually the exception to the rule. In a field where the odds of career success are stacked against you, I consider film school one of the most effective methods (albeit an expensive one) to level the playing field a bit.
If you move to Hollywood and start working on set, you will learn more about production in a week than you would have in a year at most film schools. That said, you will be working for other filmmakers instead of making your own projects. If you are a consummate overachiever, then maybe you can do it on your own. But for the rest of us, film school provides structure and feedback to develop your own voice and ideas, mentors to guide you, opportunities to actually make your own films, and a network of colleagues that you trust and who you will work with for decades to come. Very few people find these things in the film business on their own.
Not long ago a short film I shot screened at Sundance and the director asked me to join him and the other filmmakers for the Q&A after the screening. There were twelve or fifteen filmmakers standing at the front of the room, and when someone in the audience asked how many of us went to film school, all but one raised their hand. When I think back on my achievements as a filmmaker—the awards, the teaching, the opportunities, the Fulbright—I realize that none of those things would be part of my life if I hadn’t gone to a graduate film program. I’m a stubborn fellow, often to a fault, so chances are I would have tried to make it happen on my own, but I just don’t think it would have played out the same way.
To sum up: you don’t have to go to film school, but if you want to do this for a living, it sure helps. Plus, if you love cinema and can find the right program for you, it can be an incredible experience. Like everyone in this business, I’ve had days of doubt about my career choice, but I’ve never once regretted film school.
Stay tuned for future posts on how to get the most out of a cinema education.