The Evolution of Film School in America: Everything to Know, From Dropouts to Disciples, Fairbanks to Francis Ford

Moviemaking has been taught almost as long as it’s been around.

The 1890s saw the birth of the medium, and a scant two decades later—in 1919—the world’s first educational institution dedicated exclusively to film studies, Moscow’s Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, was founded (though Columbia University will grumble that it offered a course in “Photoplay Composition” in 1915).

Formerly the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, the Gerasimov Institute is still operational today, and has counted among its faculty such titans of Soviet cinema as Sergei Eisenstein and Marlen Khutsiev. As for film education in America, though, how did we get from early pedagogical attempts to the hundreds of programs, spanning dozens of concentrations, philosophies and majors, available today?

The School of Hard Knocks

In the United States, scholastic pursuits in film got off to a sluggish start. In 1929 the University of Southern California became the first university in the country to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in film. Conceived of in conjunction with the budding Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was quick to realize the prestige an educational element would lend its industry, America’s first film school was founded and staffed by early Hollywood icons like D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks. By the mid-’30s student films (mostly documentary and educational fare) were screening.

Higher education, though, was not a popular gateway to a career in early American cinema. The only realistic path to becoming a moviemaker in Hollywood’s first half-century began and ended within the studio system. For their part, the studios showed little initial interest in the intellectual dimensions of film. Instead, as the studio system established itself, a cursus honorum evolved within it by which aspiring filmmakers could enter and ascend the ranks of production. John Ford, for example, entered the industry as an actor in his elder brother’s silent films. John Huston began his career as a script editor. Victor Fleming was working as an auto mechanic and stunt driver when Allan Dwan hired him as a cameraman.

Not all early American moviemakers were strangers to higher education, of course: Frank Capra earned a degree in chemical engineering from the California Institute of Technology; Howard Hawks studied mechanical engineering at Cornell. These were charismatic, willful and intelligent people. But very few of them went to film school.

Still, academic interest in film grew steadily in the United States. In 1947, the University of California, Los Angeles established what would become its School of Theater, Film and Television, which gained a reputation for a heavier emphasis on the narrative and artistic components of film than in USC’s industry-driven approach. Other institutions, like Boston University and San Francisco Art Institute, offered something that was still unavailable to most American artists outside the studio machine: access to and knowledge of filmmaking equipment. Film programs expanded slowly alongside their larger academic counterparts, until a coincidence of circumstance led to an explosion in their cultural relevance.

Film School Gets Cool

In the 1960s, college attendance surged, and institutions which for decades had only been home to a few hundred students were suddenly hosting thousands. Higher attendance meant better funding, and many schools invested this new capital in programs that had previously been financially unfeasible—like film. The ’60s saw the number of film schools in the country more than double. American Film Institute, New York University, Columbia University, Wesleyan University and University of Texas at Austin all rolled out dedicated film departments in the ’60s.

This swell in American education was followed closely by the end of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” The advent of television and rapidly changing consumer taste had combined to weaken the studios’ iron grip on the industry, so much so that studio heads were willing, for the first time in decades, to try something—anything—new. In 1969, Gene Kelly’s Hello, Dolly! barely recouped its $25 mil. budget, despite being based on a successful Broadway musical. The same year, the relatively unknown Dennis Hopper directed Easy Rider with a budget of less than half a million dollars, and raked in over $40 million in domestic ticket sales.

Dennis Hopper didn’t go to film school. But he did tap into something studio executives couldn’t ignore. The younger audience whose attention (and pocket money) they so coveted had developed a taste for more highbrow fare. A more educated American public created not only the demand for more artistic filmmaking, but also its corresponding supply. It was the era of the movie brats—Scorsese, Lucas, De Palma, Coppola, Milius and Spielberg—who alongside contemporaries like Terrence Malick and Paul Schrader occupied the forefront of the “American New Wave.”

This cinematic movement saw the ascent of the auteur in American film, and the broad re-characterization of moviemakers as a more intellectual class of creative, closer to artist than tradesman. A new faction had circumvented the traditional studio apprenticeship. They were defined by their education, which took on a wider range of film theory, and their collective style bore the hallmarks of international influences like Fellini, Bergman and Kurosawa. This was film school’s own Golden Age. Ironically, it was Spielberg, who dropped out before graduating from California State University, Long Beach, who would invent the summer blockbuster with Jaws in 1975, setting box-office records that he and his cohorts would continually break for decades to come. Thus, film schools attained the proof of concept they had lacked during the supremacy of the studio system. Moviemaking became something you studied, rather than something you just learned.

Charting Individual Courses

This philosophy would itself be challenged in the years that followed. During most of the ’70s and ’80s, film schools and film studios maintained their status as gatekeepers to the industry, guarding the means of production. Filmmaking equipment and expertise was cost and time-prohibitive to all but an ordained few. With some notable exceptions, most successful movies were still the product of the Hollywood machine.

The gradual proliferation of affordable production equipment, of course, has changed that landscape dramatically. In the 1970s, pioneers like David Lynch (who was a painter before studying filmmaking at AFI), Jim Jarmusch (who dropped out of Tisch) and Roger Corman (who graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in Industrial Engineering, took a job in the mail room at 20th Century Fox and left to study English at Oxford) proved that making films outside the Hollywood structure was not only possible, but could result in profoundly personal expressions of artistic vision. The rise of the independent film industry created a third door for aspiring filmmakers to break into American culture. And while many of its trailblazers attended film school just to get their hands on a camera, in later decades, that was no longer necessary. The success of directors like Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino—both as cinema-literate as any graduate, and both denouncing film school in favor of a more self-taught, self-funded approach—cast doubts on the value of institutions.

Film education has adapted to these concerns. For-profit film schools such as Full Sail University, The New York Film Academy began tailoring their programs to address this new reality. They now present themselves as streamlined systems through which students can gain the technical and industrial knowledge necessary to begin their careers, without getting bogged down in all the theory and student debt that come with a university degree. In many ways, they reflect a return to the learn-as-you-go style of Hollywood’s early years. The Internet has seen the reach of such schools expand exponentially with online course offerings.

Like the rest of the American Film industry, American film education has undergone a century-long process of power diffusion. As Hollywood lost its ability to dictate where its creators started their careers, the idea of “the right path” to moviemaking success became increasingly tenuous. And so, here we are—there have never been more places moviemakers can start, just as there has never been such diversity in what they can produce. MM

Illustrations by Josephine Kyhn

3 Comments

  1. drasko filmaker

    September 10, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    Today in Digital Photo and video era,time for film school have to be shorter,than ever.But film theory and film history there is only at film school.Magazines like this- Moviemaker and YOU TUBE can help in movie ART and Industry which is USA code.

  2. Tom Griffin

    July 6, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    It is not only the education/training itself that it important, but also what post-graduation support the institution provides to its new graduates. Unlike New York Film Academy or Full Sail, upon completion of their studies at Digital Film Academy (in New York) all students CONTINUE to have full access to the institution’s cameras, light kits, sound equipment and use of school facilities – all absolutely free.

  3. Frank Casanova

    July 5, 2017 at 11:40 am

    And yet, large numbers of folks are clamoring for more filmmaking education and thought. Besides being an entertainment business, Movie-making ( filmmaking ) is also the most defining vehicle of philosophy of our time.

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