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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” wins Best Feature at the 2017 Independent Spirit Awards


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.

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