Directing on a Dime: The Great Film School Question

Welcome to Directing on a Dime, where indie moviemaker Andy Young provides tips and insight for moviemakers whose budget is more The Blair Witch Project than Avatar.

For many of you, this is the time of year where you’re pulling up to that big fork in the road that every young moviemaker eventually approaches: Film school. Should you go? Or is it best to just jump headfirst into making movies?

In a way, I kind of did both: I went to film school in Montana for my first semester of college then moved to Austin, Texas. I’ve spent the past two years taking core classes at community college and at the University of Texas at Austin. In my spare time I’ve worked on hundreds of projects, made a feature length film and have even started directing some commercials, television shows and plays. I’ve spent two years here with the intention of eventually being accepted into UT Austin’s school of Radio, Television and Film so that I could take production classes. Along the way, I’ve repeatedly been told that the boring core classes—and even the cool film classes—are just a “necessary evil” if I ever wanted to be a real moviemaker. But eventually, you get to a point where you have to ask yourself… Is it? Is film school really such a crucial step for people who want to make movies?

I’m a biased party, so I can’t weigh out the pros and cons by myself and still be objective. However, I had the fortune of interviewing some of my favorite moviemakers last year, and in just about every interview I’ve done, I popped the “film school question.”

Whether it’s worth it to go to film school is something that every budding moviemaker has to answer for themselves, but for those needing some guidance, here are what some successful indie directors and producers have to say on the subject.

Pros (Or, reasons to go to film school):

Networking Opportunities

“At film school, you’re not creatively constrained. Anything goes. Everyone is in the same boat together, and you form a bond and a sense of camaraderie with your fellow students. There’s a lot to be said for forging those relationships. Your time at film school is the freest time in your career, since your only real constraint is your budget.”

—Dan Myrick, writer/director, The Blair Witch Project

Testing Ground

“I recommend [going to film school] because the first few movies you’re gonna make will be terrible, and to make them in a film school environment means that you’re working with other people at the same skill level. It’s a lot less pressure than spending real money out in the real world and trying to work with a professional crew that has way more experience than you as a director. I think film school is still a great testing ground. It’s a place to meet people and, ideally, learn a lot without the pressures of the real world.”

—Joe Swanberg, writer/director/editor/producer Nights and Weekends, Hannah Takes the Stairs

Community

“For me it helped because it pushed me into a setting with likeminded individuals interested in filmmaking…. it gives you a community of other filmmakers. I remember one of my teachers once said ‘Look around the room. Some of the guys in this class may be the most important people in your career.’ And you look around the room and see a bunch of dorks. But one of those dorks was Matt Stone, so there is some truth to that.”

—Jason McHugh, producer, Cannibal! The Musical

Cons (Or, reasons to just start working):

Money

“I can’t say that [going to film school is] smart financially, because now low-budget films are so easy to make, especially with something like the Canon 5D. It’s probably a better move to just make lots and lots of movies.”

—Jay Duplass, writer/director, The Puffy Chair, Jeff Who Lives at Home

Just Do It Yourself!

“I don’t think you have to go. I personally had a great time and met people who I’m still working with today. But I don’t think the fact that I was at film school was essential to that, since we were making our own videos and putting them online ourselves. It wasn’t like film school had any ‘key’ into the industry.”

—Dan Eckman, director/executive producer/editor, Mystery Team

Real-World Value

“I think there are many different paths that can lead you to what you want to do; it’s an evolving situation. Depending on the instructors that you have and who you’re working with, there’s a lot to learn and a lot to value from film school, but there’s also a lot of value in apprenticing in real situations… I never finished my degree, and I haven’t felt any damage from it.

—Jerry Rees, writer/director, The Brave Little Toaster

What do you think? Whether you’re a moviemaker with years of experience or someone who’s just starting out, I’d love to hear your two cents, so drop me a comment below or send me an email at

Just remember, whether you opt to go to film school or not, that throughout their interviews all these moviemakers gave me what boils down to the same basic advice: Practice. Work hard. Make movies. MM

 

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