Well here we are. It’s post-Oscars, the Super Bowl of US moviemaking. Those of you who follow me on Facebook, you know that I publicly announced how amazing I thought The Hurt Locker was before it won any golden statues. I’ll be talking more about that movie in another post.
In the meantime, you know all those folks who were saying “thank you” for their awards? Did you notice how often they thanked the colleges they went to? Cuz they didn’t.
Speaking plainly, film school – and most film professors who share their knowledge and passion for storytelling at film school – is good for reasons discussed below. The need for a film degree, though, is greatly misunderstood. In fact, I’ll be as transparent to say that I have not finished my Bachelor degree.
My lack of a college degree has not at all hindered me or many others in our paths to success in Hollywood. Now granted, I haven’t won an Emmy or an Oscar. I will say, though, that my editing work has been seen around the world by millions of people, and I have earned over $100,000 a year in Hollywood since the age of 22. Which is why when a Facebook friend asked me my thoughts on BFAs and MFAs in film and the relative values thereof, I proceeded to step up onto my soapbox and typed out the following, which I would wish every film student in the world could see before embarking on becoming the next Spielberg. By the way, keep reading for a shocking tidbit about Mr. Spielberg.
Here are some thoughts – say you’re a classical pianist. Say you have a MFA in piano performance from a music school no one’s heard of. People (whether they see your degree or not) won’t book you in a concert unless you prove you can actually play piano, and play it well.
Now say you have an MFA in piano performance from Juilliard or Eastman. Impressive. People still aren’t going to book you in a concert unless you prove – or already have proven – that you can play the piano well. Granted, an MFA from Juilliard means people are more likely to take you seriously, but the degree, no matter how impressive, will never book you a gig.
I can’t tell you how many college students I’ve met and stories I’ve heard of people who get their BFA in Film from USC or UCLA and expect the world’s gonna immediately hand them a 3-picture deal on a silver platter. Those students seriously need to put down the crackpipe, because ain’t nobody gonna give an unknown film grad – no matter their degree – a director, producer, or even key grip gig on any big project until there’s a proven body of work that’s really, really good.
Now let’s back away from the film world for a second… say you want to be a high-powered lawyer: you better work your tail off in high school, get immaculate grades, get lots of college prerequisites under your belt, and do your undergrad in a school that has a solid pre-law program, then get your J.D. from a large, famous university that has ivy hanging on the buildings outside. Same if you want to be a Fortune 500 CEO – you better get your undergrad in business and international law, and get your MBA from a school with said ivy hanging outside said buildings. Those are places where degrees and alphabet soup after your name do matter.
But in the creative/arts/entertainment industries? You have a degree? That’s nice, there’s the mail room. And refill my coffee on the way.
But, but, you say, I spent 4 years dissecting Eisenstein’s editing theory and debating the cultural philosophy of Bergman! I even took the elective in Meisner technique to understand actors! I’m an artist, dammit, I’m going places, and I deserve immediate respect!
It doesn’t work that way. Lemme explain.
In the eyes of most employers, a high school student who immediately goes for a BS or BFA in film means they’re looking at a college grad who hasn’t lived life long enough to have anything worth saying. Now if you go for an MFA in film, the MFA means you love your craft enough to spend a lot of money and time getting an MFA. It doesn’t mean you’ll ever work regularly in the industry just because you have an MFA. Now show me an MFA grad with 3 completely different careers before film school… and I’ll show you someone who knows something about life, the world, and people, and can harness that life experience to say something meaningful in film.
So why get a film degree? To learn as much as possible about as many parts of your craft as possible. That’s the initial part, though not the most important part. The biggest reason to get a degree in film is: the people with whom you go to school.
Because the fact is – and write this down, folks, because this is big:
A film degree will never guarantee you a job in film.
People get you jobs in film. And people are most drawn to people like you who don’t whine, don’t make excuses, and they make projects happen.
Plus, the people who have the most singular visions about what they want to say in film don’t wait on other people – they get off their ass and they JUST DO IT. Period. Then people take notice and say, “wow, that’s really good.”
These people of vision don’t sit around whining about how much easier it would be if they only had a real budget.
They don’t sit around whining about how the economy sucks and that’s why they can’t sell their script. If you have a script that’s any good, keep working until you meet with people who believe in it and will make it happen.
If your dream is to be a film director, then FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, GET OFF YOUR ASS AND DIRECT SOMETHING. ANYTHING!!! ESPECIALLY IF IT SUCKS!!! When you’re done, display and sell it if you can, AND THEN GET OFF YOUR ASS AND DIRECT SOMETHING AGAIN!!! THEN DO IT AGAIN, AND AGAIN, AND AGAIN!!!
Do not listen to the WHINERS who always point the finger at anything other than THEMSELVES to make excuses why they can’t make things happen in their lives. Because I’m telling you, I would still be sliding vinyl siding into semi trucks in a lumberyard in Omaha, Nebraska, unless I had decided that I was serious about getting out to LA to work in Hollywoood, and actually did it. And now it’s DONE. And by the grace of God, I continue to move forward.
Back to film degrees… the success of your activities in film/tv/whatever does not depend on your degree. The success of your activities in film/tv/whatever depends on two things:
- The PEOPLE you work with – many of whom you will meet at film school. So yes, film school is a good thing.
- More importantly the ACTION that YOU continuously take to make your film projects and any other dreams in your life a reality.
Should you go to film school? Yes, because that’s where you meet fellow filmmakers who will provide the foundation for your professional network, and can learn invaluable information from dedicated teachers who want nothing more than to pass their skills and knowledge on to you.
Should you work on your own projects during and outside of film school? Absolutely. Find people who work well with you and share similar motivation to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN. Make sure they’re trustworthy, because all relationships of any kind are the most productive in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
Do you need an MFA right away? Personally, I’d say wait for an MFA until you have enough unique life experience to truly capitalize on the value of an MFA. Then look into it.
I could rant up here on my soapbox for quite some time, but I’ll wrap it up… some closing thoughts:
It’s difficult to meet people in a specialized field if one is not in a geographic area where that specialized field operates. If you want to get into couture fashion, you wouldn’t go to Denver. You’d go to New York, London, Paris, Milan, etc.
If you want to work regularly in the American film industry, do not go to film school in Albuquerque. If you like the artsy film scene, go to New York City. If you want to get into the real US film industry, I believe you gotta move to Los Angeles. You can find gigs in Michigan, Vancouver, London, and any number of places, but the heart of the US film industry is in Hollywood. Period.
Having said that, the amazing thing is that today YOU CAN MAKE MOVIES ANYWHERE. If you live in Tahiti, you might have to do something else to keep the bills paid, but you can still make movies there if you really want because THE TOOLS ARE AVAILABLE FOR ANYONE.
So if your dream is to direct movies, or edit primetime network television, or write internet webisodes, whether you’re 15 or 75, the question is: what are you doing RIGHT NOW to MAKE IT HAPPEN?
By the way, did you know that Steven Spielberg himself never finished his college degree until after becoming one of the most well-known film directors of all time? Wikipedia says:
In 2002, thirty-five years after starting college, Spielberg finished his degree via independent projects at [California State University at Long Beach], and was awarded a B.A. in Film Production and Electronic Arts with an option in Film/Video Production.
Editmentor.com is here to spread the knowledge of storytelling through editing, including our wildly popular Top Five Rules for When To Make The Edit and high-quality packages of unedited film dailies. Check out our editing tutorials too.