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