Oh, the things we would do if we had $100,000. Not the things we could, or even should, do, like, say, kill our debts, invest, invest, contribute to that often mentioned, although surely imagined, nest egg.
I’m talking about what we would do: travel, build a cabin in the woods, heck, make a movie, or maybe, just maybe, we’d blow it all on a single piece of paper with our names stenciled out in calligraphy.
Okay, okay, I’d like to think most of us are not foolish enough to spend $100,000 (that we likely don’t have to begin with) just to see our names written out as though we signed the Constitution. But as I embark on an important (and potentially pricey) decision in my own life, I’ve begun to doubt this presumption. Worse yet, it’s looking like I may be one of the fools. I’m toying with the idea of going to film school.
The alluring mistress known as film school has done well to woo me from the start, whispering promises in my ears, sending me love letters in the form of catalogs, convincing me I need her, that I’m better with her in my life. And, oh do I want to believe her, believe she’s my golden ticket (or golden snitch, if I’m to be contemporary). Logically it makes sense. How can I expect to be a filmmaker without a degree? I earned a B.A. in journalism and became a journalist; a master’s in education and became a teacher. I’m no math-magician, mind you, but the equation seems clear to me – a degree is what I need to make films, right?
Well, not so fast.
Films were made long before degrees were issued, by people like Joe Schmoe, Jane Who, and their kid, Baby Do Nothing. No certifications or licenses are required to make a film. Filmmakers aren’t doctors or lawyers (unless they play one on TV). You want to be a filmmaker? Great! Just let me get my magic wand (buried underneath that damn invisibility cloak; ironically, it’s always in the way), and, ah yes, - Poof! You’re a filmmaker. Congratulations.
Now the question is, are you a good one? And if you’re not, can film school save you?
ALUMNS AND THEN SOME
Coppola and Scorsese went. Cameron did not. Spielberg has a degree, bur earned it three decades after he initially dropped out, long after he became Hollywood elite (he used “Schindler’s List” in lieu of the 12-minute short film requirement of seniors). Lucas went, which led him to meet future friend and collaborator Coppola, but even a degree didn’t land Lucas sure work. He begged a studio to make “Star Wars IV,” and took out personal loans to make V and VI. Favreau dropped out so he could start a comedy career, which landed him a role in “Rudy.” So far there seems no direct correlation between film school and success.
Here are some other names for you: Rashaad Ernest Green, Sara Colangelo, and Holdan Abigail Osborne, all NYU Film School grads (NYU being the desirable hipster, dreadlocked chick in the harem of film-school mistresses). How many of their films have you seen? Yes, I know an artist’s success is not rooted upon one’s fame or wealth, but as alumns of the prestigious expensive, NYU, shouldn’t we all know more about this trio? Doesn’t spending $100,000 guarantee filmmakers at least this?
These NYU grads are making films, telling compelling stories, pursuing their dreams, launching their careers. I envy that. But did the years and money spent out NYU put them in any better position than someone who opts for a detour?
I hate to center this discussion on economics, but money makes the car go vroom, the heat turn on, and the belly say yum. Face it, we all need the paper (the green kind, not the degree kind). So, if we want to be filmmakers, how can we expect to do so, with artistic freedom, when we’re chained not only to our everyday bills, but to the repercussions from our love affair with Lady Film School?
IT’S NOT ALL BAD
There are considerable negatives for going to film schools – cost, debt, years spent as a student, not working, not to mention, as a friend put it, the potential that film schools will spit out cookie-cutter filmmakers. I can’t say I believe that theory, but we can all agree the one thing Hollywood does not need is more of the same.
But there are positive aspects of campus life as well. Assumedly, you’re given access to equipment and software typically deemed out of your reach. You’re the boss of a film crew for a variety of projects, and usually wear many hats on the sets of your classmates’ films. The collaborations and contacts you make are potentially endless. You’ll take acting classes, learn how to line produce, scout locations, and you’ll edit, edit, edit. You’re encouraged (particularly if you’re a grad student) to submit your work to film festivals. Some schools set up internships. And just imagine the cachet that comes with saying “I’m a film student,” (and you better take advantage of it because the prestige is not as prevalent when you declare, years later, that you’re jobless and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt).
But I wonder not only if it’s all worth it, but also, can filmmakers be created, or are they born?
THE SCHOOL OF LIFE
At their core, all filmmakers are storytellers. Sure, Cameron’s a gadget geek, Tim Burton’s a dark artist, and Peter Jackson moonlights as a wizard. They all have their niche, but they’re also all storytellers. I’m willing to bet they had the knack for telling stories from the get go, and schooling had little impact.
In order to tell stories you need to live life, take adventures, work jobs in retail stores, as valets, janitors, not only to pay the bills, but to understand how everyone lives, because it’s not your story you’re telling, but everyone’s story.
Schools can teach you the lights, camera, and action, but can they teach you how to tell stories, or is that as much as part of our nature as the way we laugh? And is it really that important to know how to use all the equipment you’ll need on a set? In an interview with moviemaker.com’s Tom Allen, filmmaker Edward Dmytryk admitted, “I never loaded a camera in my life … because I had people loading them for me … same with lights.”
Dmytryk goes on to say the chief responsibility of a director is to bring a good script to life by using instinct and intuition, two traits I’d say are rather innate.
But here you are, still protesting, insisting that as a true filmmaker you’ll need to learn how to load cameras, rig lights, direct actors. How can that be learned without film school? Well, I’m so glad you asked. First, I direct you to James Cameron, you know, the creator of the two highest grossing films of all time (“Avatar” and “Titanic”). As a truck driver, (ahem, real-world experience, and, hey, didn’t Robert Patrick in “Terminator 2” drive a truck? Coincidence?), he’d visit the USC library (as a non-student), and read student theses and studied special effects. He learned how to operate a camera by taking it apart and spending half the day putting it back together.
In other words, you can learn on your own, if you’ve got the will. Remember that $100,000 you were considering spending on a degree? Let’s see if we can get you the same experience (if not more), for a whole lot less. And if you still really want that fancy piece of paper, head down to Staples. Yeah, they’ve got that.
WELCOME TO UNIVERSITY YOU
The admission staff would like to congratulate you on your acceptance into the prestigious University You, a unique school where you are the dean, professor, student and bullish frat boy (if you so choose to be).
This may sound foolish to you, but the teacher in me is convinced there is a way to develop your own film-school curriculum to rival what’s offered at a hefty price. Let’s break it down and remember, if you were ready to take out a student loan, you’re ready to take out a personal loan.
Equipment – One of the primary concerns I have about not going to film school is losing out on the access to all that equipment.
Solution - I’m not going to enter the debate of film vs. digital (that is a topic for an upcoming column), but, at the very least, digital is an acceptable tool for educational purposes (med students don’t cut open living humans from day one, now, do they?). And the beauty is, digital is comparatively inexpensive and easily accessible to the masses.
So, what’s next? Well, let me push aside this bloody invisibility cloak, and, oh yes, there it is. My free catalog from B and H, the video equipment Mecca, in my opinion. While visiting B and H in Manhattan should be on your to-do list, shopping via the catalog (and on-line) will do just fine for now. Browse the pages and figure out what you need (and want). As for me, I’m looking at two 4D cameras (one being a DSLR), a shotgun mic kit, some lighting equipment, memory cards, external hard drives, tripods, and a DVD duplicator (for a videography business I aim to start to help me pay my way through University You). You might also need editing software and computers. Regardless, my grand total, including the extravagance of two cameras (again, mostly to aid in the videography business, but will benefit me in many ways), is less than $15,000, cheaper than the average cost of one semester at a graduate film school.
IGNORANCE AINT’ BLISS
You now have all this equipment (you won’t get that at USC), but you don’t know how to use it, or don’t know how to use it well. Now what? Well, that’s simple.
There are so many places to learn the ropes, and, in my humble opinion, it’s preferable to spread out your education rather than soak it all up from one spot.
For starters, figure out your weakest points; for me it’s sound and lighting. Find workshops, seminars or community college courses that focus on these areas. These courses can range from a few hundred dollars in cost to a couple thousand. And, if it makes you feel better, some offer a certificate at the end. Even if you end up talking five $1,000 courses, your total debt so far (including your equipment) is around $25,000, about the cost of one semester at grad school.
MATERIALS TO ADD TO YOUR SYLLABUS
In addition to these classes, scour the Internet, DVD racks and bookshelves for resources. If you’ve gone to college you’re familiar with a class syllabus, including the section on required books. Filmmaking at University You is no different. Here are some resources I feel are vital for your journey:
VOLUNTEER AKA – YOUR INTERNSHIPS
Volunteer to work on sets for film students and indie filmmakers. Post on Craiglist, visit campuses, read film magazines and web sites that highlight budding filmmakers and e-mail these cinephiles. Volunteer yourself for their projects, even if it means you have to travel somewhere. Think of it as a semester aboard. If you were willing to spend the next 2-4 years as student, you should be willing to spend some time volunteering. If work gets in the way, use some of your vacation time. In the end only you can decide how dedicated you are to your education. Collaboration and networking are much easier to come by at a formal school (think of all the home-schooled kids in your town who felt left out), so you need to put forth the extra effort, and be creative, so you don’t lose any ground.
And, of course, you have to shoot. Don’t be like the characters from “Igby Goes Down”: a dancer who doesn’t dance and an artist who doesn’t paint. The only thing separating you from filmmakers is the act of making films, so, close that gap. If you think it’s silly to spend what likely amount to peanuts to make a film, consider this: “Paranormal Activity” cost $15,000 to make and earned $107 million; “El Mariachi,” cost $7,000 and made $2 million; “Clerks” cost $27,000 and made $4 million. Spending that much to make a film, on top of the cost of books, equipment, and your various “internships,” still has your total debt coming in far below the $100,000 mark.
KEEPING IT REEL
Speaking of shooting, you ought to expect to leave film school with some form of reel in your hands, and University You makes sure this happens. In order to get the most out of your education, and to seem attractive to potential employers down the line, I recommend completing the following projects for your reel: A short feature, which you can submit to film festivals; a silent short film; a music video (offer your services to a local band, they’ll gladly give you their time); a commercial (even if it’s for a made-up product); and a short documentary (consult your local newspaper for potential topics if you need ideas). You also tend to leave film school with the makings of a screenplay as well, so if, you’re a reluctant writer, courses like NYFA’s online class may be worth the cost. And oh, by the way, the company Celtx offers free screenplay formatting software.
Now that you know what you need for your reel, it’s time to become the producer. Create a timeline for the next few years to complete your projects, factoring in potential costs, crew/equipment needs, desired locations, etc., etc. Make budgets for each project and stick to those budgets. Not only does that make for good habits, but remember, your goal is to leave University You wiser and unencumbered by staggering debts. Find volunteers for your productions, folks just like you hoping to gain experience and a solid reel. Make connections. Network. Facebook does not own a trademark on that word. If you’re unhappy with the final product, figure out what went wrong. Critique your film, hold screenings, take notes and learn from each project. Make every moment a teachable moment.
THE COMMENCEMENT SPEECH
There is no experience like the real world. Just ask Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (RIP). You may have heard of those two college dropouts? In the digital age, with so much at our fingertips, there are plenty of ways to create your own film school experience. Or, you can spend six figures to have others tell you what you need to know.
The choice is yours. There are no guarantees for success either way. As for me, I’m leaning towards University You and am now formulating a rather detailed syllabus, using, by the way, course descriptions I’ve found in catalogs sent to me as a framework. I don’t know if I’ll become the next Scorsese, but I do know I wont’ be buried in debt. And I’m sure I’ll meet a lot of good people along the way, I will have gathered plenty of stories to tell, and, as an added bonus for flying with UY, I’ll have my own equipment too!
Unless I get into NYU, that is. I mean, come on, saying you’re an NYU Film student, that’s got all sorts of cachet, doesn’t it?
R.C.Varenas is a writer and a filmmaker based in NYC and Boston. He is co-founder of Pilotgroove Pictures and founder of Reel Ink Spot. He can be reached at