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Getting the Most out of Film School

Getting the Most out of Film School

Articles - Directing

Is Film School Worth It?

In the 1989 movie The Big Picture,
Kevin Bacon, a down-on-his-luck film school graduate applies for
a job as a waiter. Going over his application, the restaurant manager
sees that Kevin is a filmmaker and asks him what exactly he does.
Kevin puffs himself up and says, “I’m a director.” “No
kidding,” says the manager, “So’s my busboy.” In
a nutshell, this scene characterizes the film dream/film school/film
career conundrum of the movie business. You want to be a filmmaker,
you go to film school, you end up working as a waiter. Every year,
thousands of film school graduates are holding a diploma in one
hand, a demo reel in the other hand and asking the question, “Can
I tell you about tonight’s specials?” If you’re
not sure who you are, a four-year film school can be a $60,000
way to find out. Ask people in the industry about film school and
many will probably get you wondering…

Is Film School BS?

They’ll get you thinking this way partially
because of the preponderance of pretentious pinheads that come
out of film school. And partially because so many in the business
who came out of film school are now working at jobs they could’ve
gotten if they went to business school. But mostly because much
of film school really is BS. In fact, with all due respect, so
is much of the movie industry. After all, what other industry tries
to sell you products that put Godzilla in Manhattan, Bruce Willis
in outer space or Woody Allen in Mariel Hemingway… and do it
with a straight face. Movies are basically far-fetched concepts
told well. Is there a better definition of bullshit? Therefore,
film school is still the best place to go if you want to learn
the craft of turning cockamamie into Technicolor.

The $60,000 Question

To go to film school or not to go to film school,
that is the $60,000 question. To badly paraphrase Will Shakespeare, “Whether ’tis
nobler in the mind to suffer the curriculums and student loans
that cost an outrageous fortune or take up arms and a cheap camera
against a sea of low budget troubles…” Making a movie is
the most expensive art form that exists.

“Sixty thousand dollars is postage in this business,” says
Patrick Kriwanek, Director of the Motion Picture and Video Department
at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. “You can give $60,000
to a flight crew to strap you into the cockpit of an F-18 Hornet
locked down in the catapult launch on the rolling deck of the USS
Enterprise with 55 mph headwinds and 40 foot waves. When you take
off, you’ll go about 12 feet and land in the North Atlantic.
But you paid your $60,000 and that’s how far you got.”

There are always heroic stories of brash young filmmakers
who finance their movies on credit cards like Kevin Smith with
his over-the-counter slacker comedy, Clerks. (Of course, he studied
at the Vancouver Film School for several months beforehand.) Or
Robert Rodriguez, who raised $7,000 as a lab rat so he could make
El Mariachi. (Then again, he studied film at the University of
Texas at Austin.) Kriwanek sees film school as a proactive approach,
compared to reactive. “On a film shoot, you are constantly
reacting to someone else’s fuck-ups. In film school you get
to find out who you are as a filmmaker.” He also doesn’t
believe that a filmmaker is made up of “22 classes of motion
picture courses either,” but cites that film school-trained
directors such as NYU’s Spike Lee were able to pre-stage She’s
Gotta Have It for three-and-a-half years before going out and making
it. Laura Williams, a Northern California video editor who studied
film at San Francisco State agrees that film school is where you
learn the ropes. “You get to make the mistakes on student
time before you screw up on a set somewhere.” Williams found
the environment at SF State to be “an excellent example of
what it will be like to go out in the world and ask for money and
equipment and being told no. Then you learn how to get around that.”

Make Movies with Your Friends

Clarifying your vision and learning how to use equipment
are fine, but film school offers one fundamental and formidable
advantage: contacts. “You can’t help but make contacts
at school,” says Holly Payne of USC. Payne produced a short
film and worked as an intern for an LA literary agency while she
studied professional screenwriting. “I met all kinds of people
in school and in the business because you’re working shoulder
to shoulder with them. They become your support structure. You’re
learning how to write on spec and not feel guilty about it because
you’re reading everybody else’s crap, they’re reading
yours and it’s okay.” Through the contacts Payne made
at film school, she now has several places to send her scripts.
And those contacts have led her to even more contacts. Laura Williams
also feels that contacts made at film school are born out of the
group dynamics intrinsic to filmmaking. “I read all these
articles about the horrendous ordeal it was working on the Titanic
set. Then later, I heard that those crewmembers became very close
and bonded because of the experiences they shared. That’s
what film school basically does to you.”

Luke, I’m Your Father

George Lucas is arguably the poster child of the
cinema academe tidal wave. While at USC, Lucas pushed the outside
of the envelope with his avant-garde student films such as THX-1138,
a futuristic, sci-fi thriller about totalitarianism, dystopia and
technology. In 1970, Lucas expanded it into his first feature-length
movie, starring Robert Duvall. It was executive produced by Francis
Ford Coppola, who did his filmmaking graduate work at UCLA. Lucas
was a man with a plan. He finessed his film school experience into
the pre-production staging period of his career. To do this there
are three basic components:

Open Your Eyes

The film industry exists because of its enormous
pool of creative talent. It’s also a magnet for hustlers,
bamboozlers, charlatans, sleazeballs, scuzbuckets, schlock meisters,
lechers, poseurs, rogues, pogues, psychos, whackos, dinks, dorks
and disillusional fops. Film school is its petri dish. You will
find people there who, if they haven’t pierced it, tattooed
it or shaved it; they’ve colored it to a tint not found in
nature. But like the industry, film school is also laced with random
acts of genuine, 18-carat talent. George Lucas might have the laconic
public persona of a doorknob, but imagine sitting next to him,
or a young Brian DePalma or Marty Scorsese in a Directing 101 class.
They all went to film school. You wouldn’t choose them for
your basketball team, but you’d fight to have them on your
student crew. You know they’ll show up, do the work, and you
can always find them in an editing suite Saturday night at 11 o’clock.
A student film project is a royal pain in the butt: you are working
with cheesy equipment, a ridiculous shooting schedule and a pizza
budget. Don’t encumber yourself with a flaky cinematographer
or sound tech because he or she is cute, funny and/or has matching
nipple rings. Go with the best you can get. They are the ones who
are more than likely going to move on to a real crew, set or production
company when they get out of school and that gives you an inside
contact.

Make a Game Plan

In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective
People, Stephen R. Covey says, “Begin with the end in mind.” Create
a shopping list for yourself of what you will want by graduation.
This should include:

A Demo Reel – This shows that you have an aptitude
for lighting, sound, directing, editing, storytelling, etc. Ideally,
your demo reel is a short film of 7-10 minutes in length that is
a compilation of all these skills and, even more importantly, doesn’t
suck. Better to have five good minutes in soft focus than 15 minutes
that’s tedious but well lit. As the late comedian Jack Benny
used to say, “If it’s always interesting, it’s always
good.”

Feature-length Screenplay

Unless you’re tracking into the technical side,
a script can be two things; a resume and a product. As a resume,
it demonstrates you know how to blueprint out a story for a cast
and crew to produce. As a product, it has the blue-sky potential
of recouping your cost for going to film school in the first place.
There are pitifully few term papers you’ll ever write in an
academic setting that can do that. And although a demo reel shows
that you can direct, your script may very well be the thing you
get to direct next.

Contacts

When it comes to the film and video business, Hollywood
is not the only game in town. However, it is just as tough to get
a production gig in Peoria as it is in Burbank. In both cases,
it still comes down to who you know. Make friends in film school
because it’s a contact-heavy business. Most people get on
sets and into production companies because of recommendations by
people already on the inside. Don’t be shy – work on other
student projects and stand out as a stellar crewmember. Nobody
makes it in show business by blending in. Apply for every internship
that’s posted on the job boards outside the department office.
Although anybody can schlep coffee, production companies, casting
agencies, film labs and equipment houses usually seek film and
video students because they historically will work for cheap (read:
free). Nobody wants to intern at a nice, clean dentist’s office,
but they’ll line up around the block to push a broom at a
rat-infested production studio.

Mentors

Mentoring has become a watchword in the ’90s.
It may be due to the passing on of the torch by graying baby boomers.
To get a mentor, cull through your alma mater’s alumni list
for names in the biz. Forget about high profile directors and big-name
movie stars, as they’re generally not available or accessible
anyway. Besides, all they really want you to do is answer their
fan mail for them. Great mentors acts like godfathers or godmothers
and introduce you around to their friends, whispering words in
their ears on your behalf. A good mentor is like Obi-Wan Kenobi
who guides you and shares wisdom so that you may use the force
for good and profit. A bad mentor crashes on your couch, eats your
food and drinks your booze. And the really bad ones do all that
plus want to sleep with you, too. Beware the would-be mentor’s
dark side.

Get Real

The film business is an exceedingly difficult road
to hoe. More people fail than not by a factor of Grand Canyon-size
proportions. Ask anybody going to film school what they want to
do when they get out and you know what they’re going to say.
Statistically, that’s impossible. If you feel you have the
stamina, talent, personality and luck to cut it in a business which
doesn’t want you, need you or even like you, then go for it.
Film school can shave years off your learning curve, but you have
to be realistic. There’s only one pitcher on a baseball team,
one quarterback on a football team, one center on a – you get the
picture. Find your niche. Moviemaking is a collaborative art form
and there’re plenty of disciplines: writing, producing, lighting,
shooting, acting, editing, as well as a ton of support crafts.
Film school can get you there. However, in order to succeed, as
writer Mark Leyner observes, “Find something for which you
have a modicum of aptitude and then work like a fucking lunatic
at it.”

Making it All Pay Off

Staying focused becomes increasingly difficult
as days become divided between work and creative time.

Every year graduate film schools churn out hundreds of eager filmmakers ready
to reinvent Citizen Kane or become the next Spike Lee. Statistically, everyone
can’t succeed. Realistically, most won’t even come close. The majority
will spend years trying to figure out how to jump-start their careers. This
process keeps therapists vacationing in all sorts of wonderful places and
keeps graduates plodding away until they land that screenplay sale or save
enough cash to make a film. This is not to say failure is imminent. In fact,
it’s those “overnight” success stories that keep grads going
and makes them bitterly determined to achieve. In truth, there are few legitimate “overnight” successes.
There are, however, great numbers of struggling filmmakers who depart film
school and begin a lifelong pursuit to make their mark. Any wily agent or
publicist can capitalize upon that moment when they finally succeed, but
arriving at that moment and managing to eat in the interim can prove to be
extremely arduous. But it can happen for the diligent die-hards who are willing
to commit to the long haul of making film school pay off. As one of those
die-hards myself, I decided to speak with other graduates to see how I compared
with my peers. Please note that names have been changed to protect future
overnight successes.

When asked about their self-projected success upon
graduation, all grads that were interested in directing had truly
believed they would direct a feature film within five years.
The bad news is few if any accomplished this goal. The good news
is that even if graduates don’t make a big splash initially,
many do eventually achieve at least some level of success. However,
discernible success seems to happen, on average, somewhere around
the seventh or eighth year post graduation. This approximation
depends on lots of variables, like drive, goals, location, financial
situation, gender and all the other pieces of personal baggage
that affect one’s life. It also depends on how long it takes
to admit to the necessity of a revised game plan in order to
succeed.

Life definitely does go on after the free equipment
and safety nets are taken away. It just may not be the life once
imagined or in the exact manner hoped for. It could be having
a screenplay optioned and becoming established as a mostly unknown
but periodically working writer. It could be developing a career
as a special effects technician. It could be directing cable
films. These are all respectable jobs that former graduates have
achieved within three, six and seven years respectively. They
are success stories in that these people are working in the industry
and earning a decent living. However, there are a lot of people
who don’t even get to this point.

Many grads initially accept some entry-level position
in film or television. The key is recognizing how long to stay
in any job that is not exactly what you want and how to turn
that job and those connections into something that works for
you. Steve, 29, graduated two years ago. Although he laments
about working 14-hour days for $500 per week as a sitcom production
assistant, he’s optimistic about the future. “I think
TV is about paying dues. I really think I can be a line producer
in five years.”

It is extremely common for graduates to eventually
fall back on the careers they had before film school, but somehow
adapt them to the film industry. Advertising, film and television
companies are littered with film majors working as computer specialists,
writers or producers. While not ideal, these jobs usually pay
better and are more satisfying than any of the assistant positions
available. The risk is that they are also comfortable. It’s
not so easy to forsake an enjoyable job that pays well to make
time to produce a film.

Upon his graduation eight years ago, Rich was heralded
as one of the hot, new writer/directors. He had a very successful
thesis film for which he was interviewed on national television.
He signed with an agent and moved to L.A. Between adjusting to
the West Coast and trying to grasp the Hollywood system, his
moment in the sun faded. “In retrospect, I would really
recommend just enjoying those 15 minutes, because that’s
all it really is. When it’s over, you’re right back
in pack.” Today, Rich is a well-respected graphic designer
for feature films and television programs—a progression
of his pre-film school graphic arts career. While he enjoys a
good income and likes what he does, he would still like to direct
a film someday.

Film school stars with the most touted films and
screenplays might quickly land agents or sell scripts right after
school. A few could actually wind up with lucrative studio deals.
They are the exceptions. And often those deals have a tendency
to sour. By the end of the first post-school year the majority
of students, many as equally talented as their deal-making comrades,
will be left out in the cold. Even some of the chosen few will
find themselves floundering if they don’t deliver as expected.
It can take years for a first-time director to bounce back from
a failed or mediocre feature. However, energy and enthusiasm
levels will never again match the initial post-graduation bravado.
The connections and strides made in this first year are rarely
surpassed down the road. If there is any hoopla over a student
or a film, it must be capitalized upon in this crucial first
year. Without a screenplay sale or a film in production within
two years of graduation, any initial heat wanes. A new crop of
grads hits the market every spring and soon it’s just a
matter of another wannabe filmmaker with a day job.

Trish was an established journalist prior to graduate
film school. “I just figured that I’d come to Hollywood,
write a few specs and become a television staff writer in two
years.” She quickly landed an agent and an executive producer’s
assistant position on a TV show. She was on schedule until the
show got canceled, the agent lost his job and she still had to
survive. Since that time she has held several other assistant
positions, continued writing and has had some success selling
animation TV scripts. But after six years, she is no longer content
to live on $650 a week and the sporadic TV writing assignment.
She’s sworn off assistant gigs. All graduates eventually
reach this point. The time frame may change, but everyone eventually
is forced to consider how much he or she is willing to give up
in order to achieve his or her goals.

Without foresight, it’s also easy to begin
the unbalanced lifestyle that seems to plague so many degreed
filmmakers. Ready to take on the world, it’s not uncommon
to immerse oneself totally in the film or television lifestyle.
Long hours, bad eating habits, and exhaustion become the norm.
Personal lives are commonly put on hold while people pursue their
careers. It seems to make sense until years down the road when,
career-wise, things don’t pan out.

Those intent on chasing the Hollywood dream discover
early on that success is not a meritocracy. It’s more of
a shmoozeocracy where relationships and connections can make
or break careers. If not one of the lucky handful, life becomes
about deferring loans and searching for some sort of bearable
job that still allows for time for writing.

Outside the Hollywood system, it just takes cash
and determination to make a film. Too bad locating the cash can
be a full-time search. But there are independent filmmakers who
do manage to find ways to make their first and even second films
for paltry sums. Many are like Joe, who has been out of school
for five years and has finally decided to put his own resources
on the line to make his first feature film. “It’s why
I went to school. At this point I can’t expect any outside
help.” It becomes important to make films not necessarily
to establish a career, but to once more harness that creative
spirit and feel productive; to prove you still can.” After
so many years laboring in the shadows, there comes a time when
grads are forced to create their own opportunities.

Although most former film students still cling
to the belief that they will direct at least one more film, with
the passage of time comes career compromise. As they age, the
larger life picture becomes just as important as the narrow artistic
view that once brought them to film school. Like it or not, things
like health insurance and a steady income start to matter.

If you’re currently in the throes of film
school or if you’re contemplating this life-altering option,
make sure to start out on the right foot. Remember to go full
force with that first year of energy. Find a mentor to buoy your
cause. Be aggressive about making connections, and don’t
let rejection mire you in the quicksand. And when you feel yourself
stagnating, find ways to keep your outlook and creative spirit
alive. During my many interviews, one student likened the film
school life choice to childbirth. “If you knew how painful
it would be, you might prepare for it better.” Hmm. If only
it were possible to adopt a film career. MM

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