When you’re in the position of choosing a career path, film school is an appealing choice. The allure of a vocation filled with excitement and creativity is no doubt tempting. But while film school can unlock tremendous opportunity, it’s designed to accompany—not replace—some necessary skill sets earned outside of the classroom.
As you weigh your options, it’s important to recognize the myths versus the realities of film school if you plan to get the most out of your education. We’ve collected five of the top myths of film school that every aspiring filmmaker should be aware of before choosing a major.
Myth 1: Film school is the ONLY place to gain knowledge of filmmaking
Because of the cost of film equipment, film school used to be the only place to learn filmmaking. However, the newfound affordability of digital equipment along with the rise of online filmmaking communities (e.g., No Film School, Filmmaker IQ, The Black and Blue) and online tutorial sites (e.g., Lynda, Mac Pro Video) have made it possible to learn the art of film without paying tuition to a university.
Consumer-grade DSLR cameras have taken the filmmaking landscape by storm, bringing with them access to a quality of filmmaking never before attainable outside of professional studios. When used correctly, these DSLRs can match the look and quality of big-budget Hollywood films. To learn the proper techniques, a beginner need only visit one of a growing number of online communities formed in the spirit of promoting and sharing filmmaking knowledge.
Still, whether you aim to study at NYU or from your home computer, it’s important to remember there is no “right” way of doing things in the film industry. Established professionals can teach you various techniques, but the best way to find your own style is through ongoing practice and experimentation.
What film school can offer you is access to professional lighting, audio, and video equipment that could be cost prohibitive to rent or purchase on your own. Plus, you’ll have professors with decades of experience using that equipment to guide you in using it properly.
Myth 2: Film School is the ONLY place to make connections
Just about every university has a filmmaking organization—if not several. Often, they are inclusive of students outside of film majors who share a common interest in furthering their knowledge of film. If you’re attending college and can’t find a film organization on campus, that might be a reason to start one.
For those not in college, film festivals and regional clubs are yet another way to connect with local filmmakers eager to join a network and discuss their craft. Festivals will give you direct access to directors and writers anxious to share their experiences, while clubs will connect you with people who specialize in various crew positions. The most important thing to remember is that filmmaking is not a one-man job; it takes a whole team to create a movie, so the more people in your filmmaking network, the better.
Of course, while film school isn’t the only place to make connections, it might be the best place—as it’s likely to offer a higher concentration of career-minded film enthusiasts than hobbyists who might not aspire toward long-term film careers. Not only will you meet people in film school you can learn from, but you’ll gain connections you can tap in the future when on the market for jobs or projects.
Myth 3: ALL famous filmmakers went to film school
Yes, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas all went to film school—and benefited tremendously from their experiences.
But do you know who dropped out and also benefited tremendously? Kevin Smith (Clerks), Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and dozens more.
In a five-part tweet summarizing his advice for filmmakers, Mark Duplass advises the following in lieu of attending film school: 1) major in something other than film so you can get paid while honing your craft, 2) focus on perfecting the ten-minute short before moving on to anything longer, 3) take the best of your shorts to every film festival you can manage—along with a draft for an inexpensive feature, 4) dedicate two years—but less than $10k—to obsessively making that feature, and 5) be nice to everyone along the way.
Similarly, in his book Rebel Without a Crew, Robert Rodriguez writes about financing his first feature film not through film school connections, but by volunteering as a medical test subject. You’d probably do well to draw the line at potential bodily harm, but it goes to show there is no shortage of options outside of academia.
Myth 4: Film school is the ONLY place to learn how to write and direct
If your goal is to share your world-view as a screenwriter or director, you might do better to grow that perspective by majoring in English, philosophy, theatre, or political science rather than film.
As Kevin Smith opines, “If you want to be a film historian, film critic, or write about film, absolutely go to film school. But for the two jobs that I wanted to do, which were write and direct, that can’t be taught.”
You can learn how to communicate through books, classroom interactions, and online tutorials, sure—but learning what you really want to say about the world comes from living in that world, not just within a film program.
Film school can certainly enhance your perspective by introducing you to some lesser-known filmmakers and theories you might not come across on your own, but that’s far from its primary goal of fostering technique and won’t compare to genuine life experience.
Myth 5: You will NOT get a job on a film set without film school
Perhaps the largest misconception about film school is that graduating will land you a job. Conversely, experience trumps education 99% of the time. The best way to build a career in the industry is to build your resume, film reel, and network. Most professionals won’t ask where you went to film school; they’ll ask to see your reel.
Instead, many aspiring filmmakers get their start by volunteering on film sets for little to no compensation. The more time they spend on sets, the more industry professionals start to rely on them—and eventually, hire them for paid gigs.
That isn’t to say film school can’t help lead to an eventual job, but you’re going to have a tough couple of years if that’s your primary goal—or if you expect that job to be very high paying. That’s not what film school is about. It’s about gaining a vast understanding of the art and technique of cinema. You’ll see films that will inspire you, discover directors you’ve never experienced, and meet collaborators that might help propel your career if you work hard enough.
Film school certainly has a wide range of benefits; they’re just not the same benefits many wrongly associate with it, so it’s important to know what to expect before you start writing tuition checks.
It’s a great option for sure, but isn’t an option for everyone. Similarly, it’s not the only option for anyone. If you can’t afford to go to film school, there’s no reason to lose hope, as there’s no shortage of great filmmakers who either dropped out or skipped it to begin with, yet found success in spite of this.
Whether you choose to attend film school or not, the best lessons you’ll learn will ultimately come from practice, so get out there and start making some films.
Ben Palmer studied electronic media and film at Towson University, where he was a member of co-ed media production society Lambda Kappa Tau. He has worked on set for productions including “House of Cards” and several indie projects filmed in Maryland. A member of the VideoBlocks Experience Expert Team, Ben recently returned from shooting a documentary in India and Central Asia for a non-profit.