Back to IndieWire

5 Things Every Filmmaker Must Consider When Choosing a Film School

Acceptance deadlines are looming. What are the key ingredients to a successful film school in 2017?

The Feirstein Graduate School in Brooklyn

Chris Cooper

The growth of film schools in American universities has been exponential over the last 15 years. The film major has become the new English major — it’s the subject everybody wants to study even if they don’t know how they’ll make a living on it. This week, as acceptance decisions loom, many students are trying to figure out which film schools they’ll attend in the in fall. To help guide them through that process, here are a few basic questions prospective students should be asking themselves.

READ MORE: What Does a 21st Century Film School Look Like?

Why Are You Going To Film School?

The variety of film schools out there is immeasurably vast. The first step is to be honest with yourself: Why do you want to go to film school? What do you hope to learn and accomplish as a result? In my experience as both a journalist and educator, the students who are able to define this end up getting the most out of their educational experience. Once you’ve done that self-analyzing, it will be much easier to examine different film schools and what they have to offer you.

Is the Undergrad or Grad Film Program Field Specific?

Speaking personally, I have an aversion to undergraduate schools that place film majors in tracks (editor, cinematographer, cinema studies) at the beginning of undergraduate film studies. The beginning of your film education needs to be focused on how movies work. You need to understand how to get inside a film and break it down on its own terms, rather than through a specific professional, theoretical or cultural lens. For an aspiring director, it is vital to be exposed to the history of filmmaking in order to understand how this young art form has evolved.

Specific job training on an undergraduate level is a waste of money.  In 2017, there is nothing stopping you from learning a piece of software or picking up a camera and going to shoot something with a group of friends. That’s not to say you shouldn’t make short films as part of your classes, study film theory or develop a thesis project. Rather, the most valuable educational base you can get from undergrad film school is the ability to understand the medium on a deeper level, not a field-specific level.

Graduate school is a completely different matter. To spend tens of thousands of dollars a year and leave the job market for one to three years is a large sacrifice. This is only justified by going to a graduate school that will give you a specialized, employable skill you could not get otherwise.

NYU Professor Alex Rockwell

NYU Professor Alex Rockwell

courtesy of NYU

Who is Teaching You?

Tenured track positions are incredibly expensive and don’t allow for flexibility, which is why universities are not relying on them as much. On the flip side, there are big-name professionals who love the extra money and cachet of moonlighting as an adjunct or visiting professor. These accomplished pros bring real world experience to a program that can be invaluable, while the school spends less money and has more clout for their marketing materials.

READ MORE: Celluloid Makes A Comeback: The Resurgence of Shooting on Film Comes To NYU

There are also many professors in other departments who have created cross-listed classes where you can explore everything from feminist theory to the history of Russia through film. And those courses can be eye-opening educational experiences as well, but like the visiting professionals, the combination of a series of one-off individual classes taken as a whole is not an education.

Every prospective student must ask: Who is curating my education? There needs to be a permanent film staff who is designing a program where the pieces fit together. Higher learning is about opening doors to new ideas and ways of seeing things in a new way, but students who have been inspired need to have reliable educators and mentors point them toward new possibilities and help oversee individual projects.

There’s a trend I’m seeing in film schools who lead with bragging about their high price facilities, cutting-edge equipment and big names on staff.  All of that is nice, but I’d take a bolex or DVX-1000, basement screening room and a passionate, engaged teacher over the fancier option any day. Without permanent staff members with an open door to students, visiting professionals and cross listed courses amount to mix-and-match education that can be simulated through YouTube, a library and the alternate commentary tracks on a Blu Rays.

Is There a Culture of Watching Films?

All film school classes have screenings built into the curriculum, but as students are having their mind opened to the possibility of what film can be, it is vital they have the opportunity to further explore additional great works. If students live in a city like New York City with multiple retro houses, then on-campus screenings may not be as vital, but most schools need to have some infrastructure in place that allows for students to emerge themselves in great movies inside and outside of the classroom and not streaming from their laptops.

moonlight

“Moonlight” wins Best Feature at the 2017 Independent Spirit Awards

Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Will You Leave School With a Community?

Alumni networks are valuable. After graduation, it is wise to put feelers out about available jobs — but that’s not what is most important in 2017. You want to leave film school with is a community of peers who have a shared film passion and language.

There’s a paradox to graduating film school in the 21st Century. Never has it been harder to start building a career with incremental steps up a well-established ladder while in your twenties and thirties. In fact, that ladder is largely non-existent. But because of the internet and digital equipment, it’s suddenly quite possible to get your film into the world and gain recognition for it.

Talent, persistence and hard work are still the bedrock to success. More and more, however, people are finding success in the film world as a result of developing a supportive, like-minded group that often stems from a college or other early educational experience.

Let’s just take one prominent 2016 example: Barry Jenkins. There’s no question that Jenkins has a tremendous amount of talent, intelligence and a true artist’s eye, but the backstory of “Moonlight” is particularly notable: Would Jenkins have made “Moonlight” if his Florida State University crew didn’t kick his butt and say, “Write the damn thing?” Would Jenkins have been to translate his incredible vision for “Moonlight” if he hadn’t been talking about it with collaborators he has a shared filmic language with for over a decade and who are also top professionals capable of helping turn his vision into a $1.5 million film?

The Craft of ‘Moonlight’: How a $1.5 Million Indie Landed Eight Oscar Nominations

Who knows? Jenkins is an extraordinarily talented guy. But try this quick thought experiment: Pick someone you admire under the age of 40 who has a career in the film industry. Is he or she working with people they met when starting college or another formative, early educational experience?

In the digital age, many of us have come to rely on a network to continue to produce our work together. In looking at a school, do you see a common purpose or spirit in the film community that is on campus? Can you envision yourself in that community? If yes, you have a far better chance of leaving school with the biggest asset it can offer.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged ,


Comments

Jeff

Does this sentence make any sense? “You need to understand how to get inside a film and break it down on its own terms, rather than through a specific professional, theoretical or cultural lens.” As if getting “inside” a film is not a theoretical and cultural process. Do films exist outside of culture? How does a film have “its own terms”? Films are a range of communication technologies which are applied by an individual or individuals within a cultural context and take on a theoretical position about the media and subject matter whether the filmmaker acknowledges a theoretical and cultural position or not.

    No

    This merely an assertion not based on any evidence. If you didn’t think the previous sentence made any sense why does your? You didn’t offer any example of a film or director to support your assertion. You sound like a film school graduate who knows more about the theory of “communication technologies” than film as an art form, a craft and a business.

      Simon Parkins

      Simon

      Calvin

      Jeff is right. That sentence is just pretentious wannabe-intellectual talk without any substance. Jeff’s analysis is spot on.

      This whole article is trivial and not very useful. If you really need advice, here you have it by someone who actually was at multiple ‘film schools’: Me…

      The most important thing is the money. You have to do the math. Ask yourself: Is it really worth it to spend $50.000 to $130.000 for ‘film school’ today? That’s about the money you’ll pay for tuition, food, room, materials etc. before you even get to shoot a real film.

      The chances to get a good job in the film business are not much better with your film degree: Even a so-called ‘top film school’ like the AFI has only about 5% really successful graduates. You’ll know those names, but you’ll never hear of the rest.

      Actually it’s much smarter to just start working on film productions: Maybe as an intern or an extra or an assistant…or whatever. Even if they don’t pay you well, you will get exposure to the real thing and learn very fast how it’s done. That’s the reason why so many actors start directing later in their lives, because just by working on sets, they learned how it’s done.

      All the other parts of your film education, like theory and film history, you can get for free or for a few bucks at your local library.

      More important is indeed a good supporting group, a few people who share your passion and will go with you on the adventure of making a short film. One of the best places to find those people are film courses or film sets.

      Instead of paying other people, you can put your money into your films and try to get them into festivals. That’s the smart way to go.

      That’s the way David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Bruno Dumont and many others did it. All these famous directors see no point in visiting any film school.

      Now take a good look at James Franco, who spent lots of money on NYU Tisch School of the Arts and has a degree – but still only creates trash, right?

      Nobody needs film school, except the untalented and the unemployed.

      Jeff

      No — I am a film school graduate who has been making films for over 30 years. As a film director and cinematographer, I do understand filmmaking as a craft, art, and a business. I’m not sure how to respond to someone who requires evidence that films are made in a cultural context. I do have a good grasp of film and media theory and find those very useful as a filmmaker and someone who enjoys “breaking films down” to understand how they function, as many directors have.

Simon Parkins

NO – you sound like a poop head

Jason

Steve McQueen, the director of “12 years a slave”, left NYU film school after a few months, because it sucked bad. He hated it. And Laszlo Nemes, last year’s Oscar winner hated it, too. He did just what Calvin said: He asked for a job at Bela Tarr’s film production and he learned there everything he needed to know.

Both Laszlo Nemes and Steve McQueen complained that NYU Tisch School of the Arts is far too conventional and you don’t learn how to make interesting films there. McQueen learned his trade doing Fine Arts. Nemes learned from Bela Tarr.

Film schools are for suckers, who have too much money.

    Jeff

    Bela Tarr studied film at the Hungarian School of Theatrical and Cinematic Arts. I guess he is a sucker. He did make films prior to attending film school. In recent years “he set up the film.factory at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology with the hope of honing a new generation of voices.”

Tashi

Since I myself am planning on transferring to a college soon I’ve been thinking of where to go and what to study. I’m an aspiring filmmaker so I do want to take production courses. After looking at about 50 successful directors working today, most have gone on to college but majored in something else like literature, art, philosophy, anthropology, theater, and communications. Out of all the people I researched very few didn’t attend a type of college and only a couple dropped out. I would say unlike some people here in the comments that going to a University, or another type of college is great. Film schools on the other hand you want to be cautious that you’re not wasting your money on experiences you can get for free.From what I’ve heard the biggest plus of going to film school is networking. It sure sucks to pay thousands of dollars for networking. Of course you get an education though that will carry on with you. This is just my two cents.

Gabrielle Kelly

Thanks for a useful article Chris O’Falt. It was the producer Adelle Romanski who urged and nagged Barry Jenkins to write and kept him on track. Shout out to producers who are often reviled and sidelined, sometimes I’m sure for good reasons but they are also the person who often does what everyone thinks someone else is doing and crucial to a film like Moonlight – indeed it would not have happened without the producer. Having taught at top film schools and many other types of film training around the world, there are so many factors that influence whether it’s good to go to film school at all, let alone the top rated ones in the USA which cost a great deal and are out of reach for so many. To tashi’s point about it sucking to pay so much for networking yes, it does but it’s why people go to Milan to study opera or apprentice themselves to genius Korean potters living on small islands – you go where your soul is fed because although it’s called show business – it’s not called show art, your path is to find where your passion and talent can be nurtured and develop your voice alongside your technical skills. There are amazing film programs in India – I’ve taught there and the writers had as good stories as at the top film schools i’ve worked in – even better in ways for a global market that is tilting away from America. Asia is a blazing patchwork of amazing opportunities – see my article in Moviemaker magazine for more info on this. Kubrick urged those who wanted to make films to go out and live life. That’s certainly good advice, so is looking at what you have in resources, what you want to try and achieve in the cross hairs of luck, opportunity and talent that make up being a visual storyteller. Dont’ forget VR, that’s the game changer and look to film schools who have that underway – it’s why when George Lucas gave money to USC he required changing the name to School of cinematic arts not film, which is the name of the stuff stories used to be shot on Not a good description anymore of what is at the bottom of all of it. You need to learn what goes into telling a great story.

Max

Hey everyone, as someone who went to Tisch and is working in the industry let me just say the answer is very simple.

If you want to get a college degree and at the same time study film, then film school is great option. Half of my courses at Tisch were about filmmaking, and the other half of the BFA courses were general studies (philosophy, psychology, history, astronomy etc).

Saying that you must go to film school to be a good filmmaker, is as stupid as the comments here saying that going to film school is a waste of time. You can be a great filmmaker by going to film school or by studying the craft on your own.
Just like some great businessmen when to good business schools and some never attended high school.

It’s the same for any industry and any profession. It comes down to hard work, persistence and learning with the tools that are available to you.

In short being a good filmmaker comes down to one thing, YOU…

Max

If you want to get a college degree and at the same time study film, then film school is great option. Half of my courses at Tisch were about filmmaking, and the other half of the BFA courses were general studies (philosophy, psychology, history, astronomy etc).
Saying that you must go to film school to be a good filmmaker, is as stupid as the comments here saying that going to film school is a waste of time. You can be a great filmmaker by going to film school or by studying the craft on your own.
Just like some great businessmen when to good business schools and some never attended high school.
It’s the same for any industry and any profession. It comes down to hard work, persistence and learning with the tools that are available to you.
In short being a good filmmaker comes down to one thing, YOU…

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *