There are excellent reasons to exchange two to five years of your life for a significant sum of money.
As filmmakers, we admire legends like Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Bergman or Spielberg for their mastery of the film form. They wow us with their unbelievable insights into the medium and demonstrate the highest form of mastery.
In exchange for tuition, film school will give you structured time to practice your craft in a safe, constructive environment. This is perhaps the greatest gift a school can offer.
Yes, you can omit film school and still become a successful filmmaker. By my estimate roughly half of working filmmakers do. These filmmakers, including Robert Rodriguez and Werner Herzog, as well as legendary screenwriters like Robert Towne, Bill Goldman and Paddy Chayefsky, essentially created their own apprenticeships to replace a film school education. This is definitely an option, and for many people it’s the only option.
That being said, film school is not a passive learning experience, where brilliant professors funnel the secrets of success into your eager ears. A film school education is a constant back and forth between the school’s teaching and your own personal learning and development. A film school cannot specialize in sci-fi movies or indie dramas; you have to do that yourself. A successful film school education thus consists of two parallel learning tracks; the film school curriculum, as well as your own personal development.
When you rebel against film school it’s therefore often a sign that film school is working; an indication that you’re defining your own values and your own unique view of cinema. To do so while continually making creative work, then evaluating that work against your original intentions, all while watching your classmates do the same, is a powerful experience not to be underestimated. This specific experience is also totally unique to film school; it cannot be recreated outside of it.
There is tremendous freedom within most film schools; you generally write your own scripts or work with a writer, cast your own projects and (hopefully) see those projects through to completion. Outside of film school you may never have the opportunity to work with so many different collaborators, or to safely make the many mistakes that are part of the process. Failure, confusion and strife cost you more in the real world, if only because they don’t have the candy shell of education around them. Though painful, failure is always the best teacher. Film school is a place where you’ll be able not only to learn from failure, but to integrate that knowledge into your next project.
4. The opportunity to relocate to a filmmaking center
If you do not live in New York or Los Angeles, film school can be your impetus and financing (against debt) to do so. Industries have centers for a reason; the concentration of talent and resources allow filmmaking to be done at the highest level. Filmmaking is an intensely collaborative artform, and most of the great filmmakers live, for obvious reasons, in the industry centers, where jobs and contacts flourish.
Deciding to become a filmmaker is the financial equivalent of deciding to light your parents’ house on fire, provided their house is expensive enough. Very few people who really care about you will let you make the decision lightly. Every family has a crazy artist uncle who drowned in a river in Prague, circa 1923, and your loved ones don’t want you to face a similar fate. If your family is all in the arts, maybe you will get a pass here. If they are successful filmmakers, you can probably put down this book right now.
For the rest of us, a prestigious film school can quell the overriding terror that our life choices will inevitably inflict, all while lending our decision an air of legitimacy. Being surrounded by people who share your passion can be a crucial validation for choosing a way of life, and a powerful support network for the difficult journey ahead.
The sheer commitment of going to film school can also free you from your insecurities for a time, though rest assured they will return. While attending film school, your urge to become a filmmaker will be validated and nourished in a way that the outside world simply cannot provide. Throughout your time in film school, you will learn to see yourself as a filmmaker. When you graduate, hopefully that identity will be strong enough to weather the inevitable blows to come.
Jason B. Kohl is an award-winning Austrian/American filmmaker. His work has played SXSW, Locarno, BFI London and been finalists for the Student Academy Awards. He’s currently prepping “New Money,” his first feature film, to shoot in Michigan this February. He’s a former Fulbright and DAAD Artist Scholar with an MFA in Directing from UCLA Film School. “Film School: A Practical Guide to an Impractical Decision.” was recently published by Focus Press.
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