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by Bryce J. Renninger
July 6, 2011 5:14 AM
25 Comments
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Is Film School for Chumps? The Indie Film Community Talks Back to Monday's NYT Article

On Monday, the New York Times published an article that professed to take the pulse of film school -- its students, their expectations and the results of their education.

Gawker, of course, responded with a tongue-in-cheek lambasting of film school as a waste of time and money. Our take: The article didn't capture the full range of experiences and ideologies of film school professors, students and departments.

So we asked a few filmmakers and professors what they thought of the piece and there's a real sense that while the classic film-school model has changed, that shouldn't discourage anyone who wants to be a filmmaker. (Not that it would, anyway.) "There are no guarantees from an education other than personal growth," says director and Northwestern University professor Kyle Henry. "Anyone selling more than that might as well be shilling snake oil."

And the fastest way to become a filmmaker remains the same: Make a movie. "We made a lot of bad films before we figured out what we uniquely have to offer the world," says "Cyrus" director Jay Duplass.

Check out the feedback below. And add yours in the comments.

Leonard Maltin, Adjunct Faculty, USC School of Cinematic Arts; Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy

It’s never been easy to break into the movie business in a meaningful way and the statistics aren’t encouraging. Yet every year, a number of people manage to defy the odds and make movies that attract attention, acclaim and even audiences. The daunting and dismal job stats may deter some dilettantes and wannabes who can’t deliver the goods, but people with a perfect combination of talent and chutzpah still have a shot at the brass ring. I know this much: Producers and studio executives are as hungry as ever for great scripts.

Amos Poe, Associate Teacher, NYU Tisch School of the Arts; Veteran Underground Filmmaker

As Dylan, my favorite filmmaker says, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." Higher education can be a great tool. NYU, for example, is like a Hogwarts for filmmakers. One can get a grasp of the magic that makes transcendent art, but in the end, no school can make a magician out of a frog, only life and the imagination can do that.

Jonathan Caouette, Director ("Tarnation," "Walk Away Renee")

My gosh, this is a weird one for me to answer, because I actually never went to film school at all, ever, although I desired it greatly. I have no experience with film school, nor have I made films in any kind of traditional way or form. I was a video store and movie-going dweeb who was and is still addicted to cinema. Everything I have personally made has been very way-the-hell-outside of any traditional moviemaking boxes, so I cannot really comment [on the value of film school].

(I might be crucified for saying this) but I have to sometimes agree (this could be debatable on a case by case basis), but I do sometimes agree with the old adage, don't go to film school; just use your money to make a film. On the other hand, I think there are some people that could benefit from it. With the onslaught of new media, and all the competition with that coming at you at machine-gun speed, the film world is like a postmodern Wild West. As Gus Van Sant once said, "There should be no more excuses;" if you want to make a film, make a film. Everything we need to do it is there. As long as you have a good story to tell, and you better have a good story (ha ha...everyone can make a cool-looking film now), your story and what you are doing with it should shine.

Kyle Henry, Assistant Professor, Northwestern University School of Communication; Director ("Fourplay" series); Editor ("Where Soldiers Come From")

I don't believe there is disconnect between film school and the "real world." Artists are both dreamers AND survivors. I stress resourcefulness. But there are no guarantees from an education other than personal growth. Anyone selling more than that might as well be shilling snake oil.

Tula Goenka, Associate Professor, Syracuse University S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication; Editor (frequent collaborator of Mira Nair and Spike Lee)

As every media platform/outlet -- including advertising, PR, print and online journalism -- moves toward incorporating multimedia, there are more opportunities than ever for an adventurous and entreprenurial television-radio-film student. And this is true all over the world. People need entertainment even in times of recession.

Stephen Ujlaki, Dean, Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television

A strong liberal arts education, combined with storytelling expertise and keen entrepreneurial skills, will produce visionaries who can bring great ideas to reality. Individuals capable of critical thinking, clear self-expression with integrity will be successful in entertainment and visual arts careers.

Alex Ross Perry, Director ("The Color Wheel")

This article incorrectly suggests that the idea of selling scripts and clawing your way up from the bottom is not an outdated, broken model (R.I.P: 1985?-2004). Film programs are apparently stuck in a rut of uselessness that can only be escaped if they understand/educate students about microbudget options. Graduate, scrape together a fraction of a year’s tuition and declare yourself a filmmaker rather than waste time as an assistant and hope somebody recognizes your talent while you answer phones.

Jay Duplass, Writer/Director ("Cyrus," "Baghead," "The Puffy Chair")

Mark [Duplass, Jay's brother and filmmaking partner] and I feel very strongly that the most important thing an aspiring filmmaker should do is to make lots of films and to make them as cheaply as possible. The technology permits us now to make a feature film for a few thousand dollars, affording us the opportunity to mess up, recover and try again. But there is still a mythology that a kid wakes up one morning, makes a film and it's either good or bad -- thus divining whether one has talent or not. That's bullshit. We (and everyone else we know who's working in the industry today) made a lot of bad films before we figured out what we uniquely have to offer the world. For us, film school was a small part of that process, but learning how to work with our demons and finding something unique to contribute to cinema is something we did mostly with our own blood, sweat and tears, as well as a healthy dose of whining and complaining.

25 Comments

  • Michael Elder | June 9, 2012 10:17 AMReply

    Film schools on the east coast, have traditionally been theory oriented, and at best will teach their students on old 16mm cameras, with black and white film. This is a terrible lie to the aspiring professional filmmaker ! Cinema East Film Academy in Wilmington, NC, however, is
    quiet different: they teach a ten week class on Arriflex 35mm motion pictures cameras, and use
    color film for the student's final project. Cost is around $2,500 for in-state, and $ 3,500 for out
    of state. The instructor's seem to be very able, and most have feature credits. Well worth checking out.

  • Ray Carney | April 7, 2012 7:04 PMReply

    I posted a comment to this story more than six months ago, but can't resist a bit of a P.S. at this point. I am a Professor at a major (if not important) film school and, at the time it appeared on IndieWire, sent a link to this page to my film students, thinking it would stimulate thought and discussion about the careers they had chosen and the nature of film education. Some thanked me; most didn't write back. Months went by. I forgot about the whole thing. Then (and this is the reason I am adding this Post Script today) I received an email from my Dean, a guy named Thomas Fiedler, vehemently objecting to my having sent this link to the students. He criticized me in nasty, and at times even vulgar language, for undermining the Boston University film program by sending out such information to the BU students. (I describe his criticisms of me in more detail in a letter Jon Jost posted online at: http://jonjost.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/my-brilliant-academic-career-1/ (search for "New York Times" and you will find the relevant section, since I sent the IndieWire link out with a link to the New York Times article to which the IndieWire piece is a response). Anyway, just wanted to record that for the historical record. IndieWire (at least on this page) is apparently too dangerous and subversive for Boston University students to read! Betcha didn't realize that, IndieWire, didya? You are undermining the minds of the next generation! Watch out. Beware. Soon enough, if my Dean and my university has anything to say about it, Joe McCarthy will be brought back from the grave, and faculty will be forced to take a "loyalty oath"--at least in the Boston University College of Communication Film Department...... Young minds are being corrupted right and left with too much reality..... too much truth..... too much discussion of the meaning and value of a film education..... Watch out, America; watch out Boston University..... IndieWire and the New York Times are the new Communists.... What is America coming to? -- Ray Carney, Professor of Film and American Studies, Boston University

  • Mac | August 4, 2011 3:18 AMReply

    Something to think about, and I've heard Tarantino say this himself, take the money you would've spent on film school and use it to make a movie. I also think that death to your career is staying out the big "film" towns. You can go to film school, have a great time and move to LA to start your career and get stuck being a key grip for the rest of your life instead of making your own movies.

    If you're looking for some help, my blog, http://moviemaverickblog.com is specifically geared towards this type of independent "Maverick" thinking. We teach and show you how to make your own movie and get it out there for people to see.

  • Bill Granik | August 1, 2011 1:35 AMReply

    My daughter, after graduating Brandeis University and having taken every film and video course offered there, was stuck in the Boston area doing short documentaries and "how-to" films for television. To free herself fr45om that dead end, she went to NYU Film School, and teamed up with Vera Farmiga (Syracuse -Performing Arts)to make "Snakefeed", a short feature. After that, she made it into a full-length film ("Down to the Bone), with Vera again as her leading lady. . This film was an intellectual success but far from a commercial one, and Vera went on to bigger and better things (e.g., "Up in the Air", with George Clooney). The commercial success was yet to come.
    Debra's next film was "Winter's Bone", with Jennifer Lawrence. This film earned the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and four Oscar noms, including Best Film and Best Actress, giving Jennifer's career a great boost. She has done two films since "Winter's Bone".
    I believe that the NYU film school gave Debra the power to break through the sticking point

  • Actor Tom Truong | July 17, 2011 2:06 AMReply

    Please list 5 top film schools for people that want to become great directors.

  • Lisa at JourneyCraft | July 10, 2011 10:02 AMReply

    To go to film school or not to go to film school: apparently, that's the question. I'd argue, however, that whether or not you go... it's your drive, talent, dedication to making your own opportunities and sheer perseverance in the face of the impossible that will determine your ultimate destination.

    The major problem I see with film school is that it typically lulls students into thinking that letters after one's name = opportunity. I'm seeing more and more film school grads that simply don't understand the nature of our Industry. Living gig to gig? Getting jobs based on past jobs or based on self-produced work that's viewable online? It's like a foreign language to them. So many grads ask me how to get 9 to 5 jobs at a production company, working their aspect of the craft! And in my mind, I'm asking, "What WERE they teaching you in film school?" Apparently... whatever it was... it had nothing to do with getting a job in the Industry.

  • Eliza | July 8, 2011 4:40 AMReply

    This is a go-no where debate, but here I am chiming in against my better judgment. I have an undergraduate degree in theater / liberal arts. Believe me, I read lots Chekov and staged plays in my dorm room. Nothing in that theater education prepared me with the knowledge to make a film. After 6 years in the "real world", scrambling to find money to direct theater, teaching pre-school, fucking around with photography, getting deep into drugs, and unhappy relationships... I gave up and went to graduate school to detox from all that "reality". I went to art school and studied film. (Yes, there's a difference) I relocated to the outskirts of Los Angeles, from New York City where I grew up. I spent three years, documenting a new landscape, writing my tail off, studying the formal choices of Tarkovsky, Cassavettes, etc. I learned to see the mechanism behind a film, beyond a story. I had access to evil loans to support myself and my work. I made lots of work! I made friends. A strong community that had time to help crew on my films sets. I found my love, my main collaborator who has immeasurable confidence in me and my talent. I made a thesis film that played at Sundance in 2011.

    I choose a path that I felt would enrich my life, career, and education. It gave me resources, funds, contacts and time to develop a body of work, which I am so proud of. I did it on my dime and its my debt to pay. Sure there's lots of people who will tell you how to do this and how to do that. Fuck 'em. Your instincts will guide you, if you have them. Someone please, in these comments, what is "the" movie that film school tries to force you to make? I never saw that one.

  • E | July 7, 2011 5:45 AMReply

    Film school is good for one thing: getting into major film festivals. You'd be hard pressed to find an American (non-celebrity-driven) short film (or first feature, for that matter) at Sundance or Tribeca, that wasn't made with the help of one of the big film schools, typically in their graduate programs. This is absolutely no indicator of the quality of the film, mind you, only that these schools have strong relationships with the festivals, and that gets their students top priority.

  • Strongbad | July 7, 2011 3:37 AMReply

    I think you had the wrong Matthew Chapman there.

  • Claire's Knee | July 7, 2011 1:36 AMReply

    Maybe what's really wrong with the film biz if not film school is illustratedin your photo that accompanies the article: Four "filmmakers", all male, all white. Probably making one of those awful bromance flicks.

  • Kevin | July 6, 2011 11:20 AMReply

    I wish they had taught me a better way to find work on film crews other than signing with a booking agent who tells me there is no work despite my watching major productions being shot up the street from where I live.

  • Joe Rubin | July 6, 2011 9:12 AMReply

    'Film' school is now, for the most part, 'video' school. Film itself has been all but done away with by almost all academic institutions that teach the art of movie making and as a result, most of this new crop of 'video' programs function as glorified tech tutorials. Most of these 'video' schools are populated by students who enroll in cinema programs because they think moviemaking is going to make them look cool (i.e. they wanna be able to attend ironic, po-mo urban loft parties and be able to say "Yahhh...I'm an artist") and that they'll be taking nothing but blow-off classes. Cinema has been relegated to another sub-genre of 'New Media' with more emphasis placed on teaching mechanics of specific cameras and programs and less on theory.
    For the few serious potential filmmakers out there, please realize that 1) you don't need to waste a couple grand taking a course in how to use Final Cut Pro (aka 'Editing 101'), 2) nor do you need to waste tens of thousands of dollars so you can access the HD handicams that most 'film' schools hand out to their students. Back when they actually learned FILMmaking in film school, being able to access Arriflex, Aaton, or Eclair 16mm cameras was really beneficial. Now they hand out HD cameras that you can buy new for less than the cost of 3 classes.

  • Randy Finch | July 6, 2011 8:16 AMReply

    Focusing on how many graduates get jobs in Hollywood mailrooms or sell spec scripts to studios simply misses the point. There's a New World of online motion picture content exploding all around us - and the NY Times (and even indieWIRE) do young filmmakers a disservice when they measure success only in terms of Old World jobs.

    Film schools (like the one where I teach, UCF Film's MFA track in Entrepreneurial Digital Cinema) are filling the demand for New World filmmakers with entrepreneurial skills.

    Aspiring filmmakers need access to equipment, mentors and the opportunity to be part of a filmmaking community. Our students make films. Lots of them. Every MFA candidate at UCF Film makes their own microbudget feature. They are free to make mistakes, connections, and breakthroughs - while learning about all sorts of things - including transmedia storytelling and the entrepreneurial skills they'll need to navigate the New World of digital filmmaking and distribution.

  • Len Feldman | July 6, 2011 8:12 AMReply

    The problem, as the NY Times article alludes, isn't with the top-tier film programs (like those at USC, UCLA and NYU)--it's the many second- and third-tier schools and for-profit programs that sell students on the promise of having a career in the film industry without really being able to help them get a job. You can find many of them advertising in magazines such as MovieMaker.

    If students fully understood the odds of success (defined, in this case, as being able to earn a living in their creative specialty), and understood that degrees from very few schools are likely to increase their odds of success, they'd follow the advice of some of the people quoted in your article and focus on making their own short films. It's a much better investment than paying thousands of dollars for what, in most cases, is a worthless degree..

  • Jay | July 6, 2011 8:06 AMReply

    Film School can be crap is what I meant, sorry!

  • Jay | July 6, 2011 8:04 AMReply

    *Film school, not film - sorry!

  • Jay | July 6, 2011 8:02 AMReply

    Film can certainly be crap, and in many instances it is...you get teachers trying to tell you how to make films they want you to make, scriptwriting teachers butchering your work just so they can see dialogue that they wrote in your film, and lame students stuck in group projects with you and bringing down your quality, but the fact is, not everyone has the chance to do what film school offers; just "spending your own money on making a film" rather than going to film school is much, much harder than it sounds. Where do you get that money? Where do you find people who are going to be as dedicated as you need them to be for pay that basically boils down to sandwiches and bottled water? Nowhere outside of film school. Film school, even if it's crap, should at least allow you the opportunity to network with other people who need the same things you do, which will allow you to to learn from each other's mistakes. It should also allow you to use equipment that you would normally never buy or be able to afford, either (granted, you can shoot awesome stuff on DSLR's now, but audio should never be scrimped on, and getting great sound is hard with cheap gear). Also, if you really want to go work in the film industry, you have to remember that it is an entirely different world, where you have to learn the language enough to make sure you can survive, and there is a language to it.

    Just think about what you have to have just to get started:
    A DSLR at the very minimum, just to be able to get decent picture quality. Then you add a lens (or several) to that. Do you build your own focus puller, or do you rent one? Boom mic and recorder, and someone to hold both. Lighting, if you need it (if you don't you're going to have to plan on shooting fast). A computer, which you can get for cheap, and software, which isn't always so cheap if you're going legit. A couple of actors, who you have to feed and provide facilities for. Sci-Fi? Throw in FX time, and if you have aliens or monsters, count on that FX time being big. That's all at the minimum, and all shooting a story that takes place in the present day in a very familiar setting, like your neighborhood.

    There's only one place where you can get all of that on a regular basis without blowing your every dollar and burning out all of your friends, and that's film school. Maybe you can do it just by paying for college for a couple of semesters, but considering the resources you get for the money, it's worth it in equipment rental, editing facilities, and networking alone. You can pay $15-20k for a year at film school and get easily 4-5 times the value out of it if you go in with the right attitude and a few great scripts - do it right, and you could shoot something that could get you noticed, with a much greater payoff that what you invested in paying to go to school. Of course, if you're the kid who can afford all of that, then go do it, but count yourself lucky...that's a rare circumstance.

  • Ray Carney | July 6, 2011 8:00 AMReply

    It obviously all depends on the film school, the teachers, the classes. Sitting in the dark watching junky movies and then attempting to redeem them with a lot of fancy French or German terminology (or listening to a professor attempt to do it) is a hell of a way to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars and waste the best part of four years of your life. So is making most of the kinds of movies I sit through at student film festivals--stupid joke-movies, parodies of this and that, shakey-cam, run-down-the-street gagsta' movies, imitation Cassavetes movies, imitation Tarkovsky movies, imitation Coen brothers movies, and all the rest.

    Education can take place in a film school, but the odds are stacked against it. All the pressures are the other way: in favor of narrative flash and dazzle, stylistic preciousness, and narcissistic self-display. The same pressures that beset the rest of American culture and cultural commentary. Not unique to film study needless to say.

    If one of my students is determined to be an artist, really determined, I often say to them why not major in history or English literature or philosophy or biochemistry, or something else and teach yourself how to use a HD camera over a weekend so they can be a deeper, more knowledgeable, more thoughtful person when they use it?

    Watching junky movies (or being told how to make them by production teachers with bad advice on "how to do it") will only pollute your brain and fill it with bad ideas. If you want to learn about dramatic structure, why not put on plays in your dorm lounge or conduct dramatic readings of other playwrights' works with your friends? You'll learn more by working your way through a few plays by Chekhov, Moliere, and Tennessee Williams than you'll ever learn in a film class. But the goal is not to imitate them either. Imitation is death. The greats (Bresson, Ceylan, Ozu, Renoir) don't make movies like anyone else; they make them like themselves. Much harder to do than to say.

    Jay Duplass is right. Becoming an artist is about deep-diving into yourself and your understanding of the world, about wrestling your personal demons and making scary discoveries about your emotional limitations and blindnesses, and using your work--the actual work of doing your work--to go even deeper and toward the dark, unknown places, the confusions and uncertainties, of your experience. (And if you don't think you have any, that's proof positive you shouldn't be an artist in the first place.) That plunge into the abyss, that wrestle with the unknown, can't be taught in any course in the world. And it can't be learned by anyone who isn't already ready to learn it. It is the work of a lifetime, work that can only begin after all of the formulas and recipes and rules about "how to make a movie" that film school teaches have been left long behind.

  • Claire's Knee | July 6, 2011 7:59 AMReply

    Blame the "gatekeepers" (publishers, studios, et.) and the paradigm shifts in distribution models, the ridiculous tuition inflation and the unconscionable formulae for "selectivity" colleges and universities scam us with, not the kids who burn to go into the creative arts. They're not "chumps"! They're just up against nearly insurmountable odds and old guards who are clinging to the death to the old ways.

    No one should come out of any school with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Likewise nothing can replace the Gladwellian 10,000 hours of practice, or the fire in the belly, but spending four wonderful years doing what you love with people who share your passion is never a "chumpy" thing to do.

    Locate the blame where it belongs, please unless, like all the other media, all you want is to generate heat but never light.

  • Paul | July 6, 2011 7:57 AMReply

    Of the 16 films in competition at Sundance 2011, 14 of the directors went to a film school of some sort.

    Dee Rees (NYU), Andrew Okpeaha Maclean (NYU), Sean Durkin (NYU), Amy Wendel (NYU), Jeff Nichols (North Carolina SOA), Maryam Keshavarz (NYU), Rashaad Ernesto Green (NYU acting), Braden King (USC), Vera Farmiga (Syracuse - Performing Arts), Gavin Wiesen (NYU), Matthew Chapman (Florida State), Drake Doremus (Chapmen University), Azazel Jacobs (AFI)

    Funny that.

    So did, David Gordon Green, Cary Fukunaga, Ryan fleck, Anna Boden, Peter Sollet, Debra Grannick, Courtney Hunt, Lisa Colodenko among MANY others.

    Not saying its the only way to go. But it sure looks helpful.

  • Dina | July 6, 2011 7:44 AMReply

    so glad to see a response to that weak NY Times article. here's a comedic (sort of tragic) take on what it's REALLY like getting out of film school with loans, a little bit of hope, and no guarantees: http://lostinasupermarket.com/2011/06/bureaucracy-for-breakfast-vol-xviii-sallie-mae-can-suck-it/

  • Matt | July 6, 2011 7:09 AMReply

    My film school was hours spent in movie theaters. My teachers were John Ford, the Marx Brothers, Roger Corman, Coppola and Spielberg. But when Hollywood wouldn't recognize my "talent" as a screenwriter and teacher, I cobbled together $3,000 and made a feature film. Since that time I've guided my son who has directed two feature films for less than $500 a piece. Including one that had its World Premiere at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival.

    Now, my 19 year-old son is on the cusp of going to a college film school. My hope for him is that he'll learn more the "nuts and bolts" of story and film-making. Have access to better equipment, to teachers who can teach him to look "outside the box" and find a way to see his true visions and stories to be complete and get a feel for more advanced "tools."

  • Nicholas | July 6, 2011 6:49 AMReply

    Film school isn't going to make you a filmmaker... But film school will help you work in the film / TV / advertising industry... Most film schools are glorified vocational education centers like a DeVry...

  • Tom | July 6, 2011 6:10 AMReply

    Great recap, Bryce. This is a nice selection of responses and the Duplass write up is especially inspiring and dead on.

  • Ashley Lynch | July 6, 2011 6:10 AMReply

    Film school was great for me, for a few very important reasons that took me longer than it should have to realize.

    I was always in the camp that believed I'd be better off taking money for film school and putting it into a movie, and many times I set about making my first film Rodriguez-style, but it always fell apart. The honest fact was I didn't even have the funds for film school, much less a low-budget film, and everytime I tried to run on passion, I quickly found I was trying to drag everyone else along.

    Many years later a scholarship and student loans actually made film school a realistic option for me. Suddenly I was surrounded by people eager to cam op and record audio on my films and was given the meager equipment needed to do so. Granted, I was also constantly fighting with the institution to make the types of films I wanted rather than the types they wanted, but I figured that would be good practice for later.

    Now finally, after 15 years, I am actually working in the film industry. My primary vocation right now is as editor-for-hire and I seem to be doing quite well as I build my name and craft, and put the pieces together for me to shoot my first feature film.

    Yes, film school was good for me.