Do you have what it takes to survive film school—and carve your niche in such a competitive industry? We asked Barbara Freedman Doyle, author of Make Your Movie: What You Need to Know About the Business and Politics of Filmmaking, to explain what the world of crane shots and red carpets is like. She also breaks down exactly what you need to consider when searching for the film school that fits you!
Dustin has been standing in the dark alley for three hours. He’s shivering in his parka. He’s set the lights so that the alley looks more threatening than it actually is. Samantha and Beth are spraying graffiti on the cement wall behind them. They’re using paint that will wash off—that’s the agreement that Jen, the producer, made with the landlord before he’d allow them to shoot behind his building. Ryan, the director, confers with Gavin, the cinematographer. The assistant director calls for quiet on the set. Everyone freezes. The team has been there since 6:00 p.m. and they’ll be there until sunrise, breaking only at midnight for “lunch.” It is 10:00 p.m. They have to make the most of the darkness. Their homework assignment is to tell a story that is fresh and authentic, and that will make the audience—their production class—care about the plight of the protagonist. As they shoot the scene over and over, determined to get it right, Jen turns to her sister Ali, who has come along to help out. “Welcome to film school,” she says with a smile. Ali, who has a degree in film studies, is incredulous. “You think this is fun?”
Ali loves watching and reading about films as much as her sister’s production team loves making them. Nothing makes Ali happier than discovering a little-known cinematic gem and introducing it to her friends. Jen, on the other hand, loves the life of the set. She’s a “people person” with a lot of energy and organizational skills. She’s interested in finding great scripts, but also in the entrepreneurial and operational aspects of getting those scripts to the screen. She’s combining her film major with a minor in business. Her school offers a “Semester in Hollywood” and the existence of that internship program was key in her choice of colleges. Gavin, the cinematographer, started as a photography major, then became obsessed with cinematography. Although he is required to take film history and aesthetics classes, he really doesn’t care for them. His personal goal is to hone his skills on all shooting formats (film and digital) and on as many cameras as he possibly can. And Ryan, the director, is interested in everything about film but what he really wants to do is write and direct. Do any of these students sound like you?
Film programs aren’t one-size-fits-all. Some programs emphasize production while others focus on the study of film as an academic discipline. It is unusual to find a program that will fulfill every future filmmaker or film scholar’s expectation. If you are thinking about applying to a film school or program, here are some factors you will want to take into consideration:
Are you absolutely passionate about film or are you thinking about film just because you like movies? There’s nothing wrong with studying something you like, but film majors tend to be hardcore. They love film. They eat, drink, and sleep movies. Although they certainly take part in on-campus life, they tend to hang out together doing what film students do best: watching and making films. If this doesn’t sound like your idea of paradise, or it sounds a little extreme, perhaps you’ll want to re-think the idea of majoring in favor of finding a college or university that offers film minors or more general media and communications programs.
Don’t go by “brand names”
The best film school for you may not be the most well known. You have to look at each school’s individual programs and departments. Check the websites, and read the online catalogues. Do the research necessary with any college search, but through the lens of a soon-to-be filmmaker. (This article, “Starting the College Search,” can help get you started!)
Also keep in mind that program titles can be deceiving. Will you earn a B.F.A. in film studies or film production, or in a specific discipline, such as screenwriting? How much variety and/or focus in your studies do you want? If you’re a writer and that’s pretty much all you want to do, how happy will you be taking editing and production design? If you want to make films but aren’t sure of an area of specialization, will you chafe at the restrictions of a program where you are required to select an emphasis and stick to it? How quickly do you want to dive in? Some schools prefer that students acquire a solid liberal arts foundation before even beginning their major classes. If you are on the fence about these majors, that may be a great option for you, but if you know exactly what you’re interested in and are anxious to get involved, you might not enjoy it.
What is film school really like?
The truth is, film schools vary, and to figure out what you’ll encounter—and if it’s right for you—you’ll need to do some research and ask a lot of questions…
Is it an artsy school with a lot of freedom? Are the film courses just enhancements to the English or theatre department or is it a separate entity? What’s the atmosphere like—loose, social, and collaborative, or ambitious and driven? Which feels best for you?
What’s the course availability like? Are the courses that most interest you offered only once per year or every semester? Are the courses available only to majors or to students in other disciplines? Who has registration priority? How does the film program fit in with the rest of the college or university? Is it seen as separate and somehow less serious than the English or political science departments? (This may affect the budget of the department, which in turn affects the resources available, the student-faculty ratio, etc.)
Other than a few lecture classes, you should look for small classes (20 students or fewer). Film school is all about workshops: throwing around ideas, the execution of creative work, and the cycle of critique, revision, and more critique. You need individual mentorship. You’re not going to get that if your professor sees you as just a face in the crowd.
Experience matters too
Who will your professors be? If you are interested in a scholarly approach to film, you will want to see where your potential teachers were educated and whether their work is frequently published. If you want to be a screenwriter, director, producer, editor, or production designer, you’ll want the people teaching to have actually done the professional work to which you aspire. The film industry is highly competitive, and if you want to break in, you’ll need to learn from those who have successfully navigated the creative, political, and logistical obstacles themselves. Usually the schools in close proximity to the production centers of New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago make a point of creating bonds with people from the industry to serve as faculty or to at least supplement their faculty, whether as mentors, panelists, or guest lecturers.
Life after film school
What happens to your potential film school’s alumni? Are they out there doing what you want to do? Most film schools have active alumni offices that can help you with this kind of information. You’ll want to have a sense of whether the undergraduate film studies alumni were accepted into the best graduate programs, and whether the undergrad film production majors are now working in the industry.
The currency of being current
What are the school’s facilities like? A program doesn’t necessarily need a warehouse full of top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art equipment to give you a solid understanding of historical, current, and future film practices. However, media is constantly evolving and your classes, faculty, and equipment should be up-to-date on current industry standards. This means you should do some research so you’re up-to-date on current industry standards too.
What kind of extracurricular activities does your prospective program offer? Are there travel opportunities? Does the school have an active internship office aimed at helping students gain relevant professional experience and make professional connections? These things will not only enhance your college experience but your future job search as well.
People like you
It’s important to speak with a wide variety of students enrolled in the program you’re exploring, not just the one or two names you get from the admission office. If you don’t know anyone currently enrolled, ask your friends, neighbors, and college counselors if they do. Ask the admission representatives for a few additional names and then, when you e-mail those students, ask them for a couple more students they think might be of help. You may get 10 different impressions from 10 different students—but a pattern will often emerge.
There are hundreds of film schools and film departments out there. If you do just a little research, you can find the best fit for you. Maybe there will be surprises. And maybe you’ll find that although you thought you wanted to study one area, when you actually see the course choice, a different area looks better.
College is not just about the degree; it’s about opportunities. By researching carefully and stopping yourself from being locked in to preconceptions, you will expand your world and your chance to find a school where you’ll truly thrive—and how to get there.