Why I skipped film school: I’d rather learn on the job.

Professional camera man at work
No other industry in the world offers more opportunities for on-the-job training than film/tv.

By far the most common question I’ve been asked by aspiring filmmakers over the 20+ years I’ve worked in the feature film and television industry is: “Should I go to film school?” The answer I always give is the same question – What is your end goal? The following is an excerpt from the advice I recently gave to a high school senior seeking advice on how to get into the film and television industry:

This is a hard question to answer simply, so I’ll give you the perspective from my life and career. I knew at the age of 14 that I loved movies, but I didn’t really decide until the age of 17 that I thought it was something I really wanted to pursue as a career. The problem I had was that I had absolutely no one to give me any sort of perspective on how to get there. Everyone’s advice for me was rooted in the “traditional” model of “go to school, get a degree, get a job”. The problem with this model is that it does not work for someone who is entrepreneurial minded. To be a producer in the vein of the true independent movie producers like myself, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, etc. (I use these guys as examples because they took the same route and training that I did, and we share the same mentor, Dov Simens), you have to have an insanely driven personality – one who starts with why, not how. In other words, successful producers and directors are entrepreneurs. They won’t do something if they don’t see a point in it (at least not for very long).

That being said, if you want to be an entrepreneur (i.e. run your own business), then a degree is really negotiable. You have to look at it not as a degree, but as the sum of “who is teaching me, and what can they teach me?” A degree in filmmaking, quite honestly, is worthless. Nobody is going to give you a job directing movies with a “filmmaking” degree. In the film/tv world, what matters more than anything is experience. What have you done, what can you show me? You will find that most professors in academia have more experience in the bureaucracy of academia than they do in the real world of business. You cannot teach someone how to do something that you’ve never done!

I went to business/marketing school at IU for about 2 years out of high school, didn’t see any point in it, and dropped out. A year later I was producing my first feature motion picture, and 6 months after that I won Sundance and made my first deal with Sony Pictures – and had a career. It very easily could have gone the other way, though, so I don’t recommend using my route as a road map – only as inspiration. 

Do I recommend a degree? I recommend education – not to be confused with getting a degree. Make sure you know what you’re going to get out of it. The notion of “if I get a degree someone will give me a job” is wrong. It is a lie perpetuated by a system that needs people to believe in its inevitable necessity. You hear this lie from people in the academic world – “you need us”. What you need to realize is that it is YOU who will make yourself successful, not some piece of paper.

You need to know your end goal to know what education you need. Education for a career does not always come with a degree. Do I recommend a degree in film? Not so much. By the time you finish your film degree, the people you’re competing with will have spent that same 4 years working, and they’ll have experience that you don’t.”

Mariel Archer Maloney
Me, the college dropout, directing Oscar nominee Mariel Hemingway 2 years later.

In summary, then, I want to make sure that my advice on this subject is clearly understood. The question of “should I go to film school” is different from “should I get a college degree”, and it really depends upon what your final goal is. Is your goal to “get a job”, or is your goal to produce and direct feature motion pictures, because those are not the same thing.

Successful independent filmmakers are the Navy SEALS of the production world, accomplishing the seemingly impossible against seemingly impossible odds with virtually zero resources. Whereas, film schools – and academia in general – specialize in turning out grunts with the “have degree get job” mentality. That’s not to say that there aren’t successful independent filmmakers who have film school backgrounds, but they will all tell you that what’s made them successful has nothing at all to do with their degree, and everything to do with being out-of-the-box thinkers and problem solvers.

Academia is incapable of teaching you how to be a successful independent filmmaker, because they are comprised of people who have a vested interest in their tenures, grants and endowments for survival, not in producing, marketing and releasing product that returns a profit. It’s very simple. You cannot teach what you do not understand.

Education? Absolutely. College degree? Not if it’s in filmmaking. If you absolutely want to have that college degree, get it in something useful, like finance or engineering, but don’t waste your time or money on a film degree.


4 thoughts on “Why I skipped film school: I’d rather learn on the job.

    1. Hello Luiz,

      The best education in filmmaking is to learn it on the job. I started by freelancing as a production assistant, working my way up to grip, then eventually convincing someone to hire me as a videographer. The real key to advancing in a film career is to get yourself onto a set any way you can, and then make yourself invaluable to someone on the crew. If you show up, on time, and do more than you’re asked – you’ll be asked back, and you’ll find yourself advancing very quickly through the ranks. You won’t get paid for your first few gigs, but as soon as you become invaluable and they want you back – and you tell them you can’t because of your income needs (“job”), they’ll offer to pay you. Now you’re working as a paid professional in the business. The rest follows with time, hard work, and networking.

      Look for a future post where I’ll outline this further.

      Thanks for your comment,
      -Mark Archer

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  1. Mark, what are your thoughts on being an “owner operator” ? That’s basically what I’m doing and getting an education in the business side of things. My goal is to be an indy filmmaker, and make music videos and short films ( documentaries or promos ) The problem as I see it, is that no matter how much equipment you buy, it’s never enough! Technology is always changing and anything you buy requires stands, tripods, batteries, hoods, etc. A lot of expenses and not much potential for revenue!! And all the jobs I see advertised for freelancers, the jobs that I could do, all pay ridiculously low rates or offer no pay!

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    1. Hello Eliman,

      By “owner operator”, I’m assuming you mean that you are a shooter with a camera package / your own gear? You’re on the right track. Owning the gear allows you the unlimited flexibility to shoot and edit whatever you want whenever you want, without being hostage to a rental rate.

      That being said, the struggle of keeping up with “all the latest” is one that we all face. It is a truly dizzying pace of simply trying to figure out what you need to invest in and what to pass on.

      I’d like to address your question in an upcoming blog post. With your permission, may I use your text as part of the post? There are so many more in your same position and state of mind that would benefit from a proper response.

      Like

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