To Film School or Not to Film School?

^ Is that even the right question?

Often I hear from people new to the film industry who want to know if they should attend film school to get a leg up. I can’t give them a straight answer.

Years ago, I too was wondering the same thing. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, with nary a film production to be seen, I didn’t know how I was supposed to “get in” especially when I couldn’t afford a plane ticket to LA, let alone the cost of living there while trying to break into a notoriously difficult industry.

I eventually found myself completing a Masters of Fine Art in Film and Television at the Savannah College of Art & Design. My time there was awash in good memories — I met some amazing friends I’ll carry with me the rest of my days, as well as picking up select skills — such as the Steadicam — that I may not have had the opportunity to try out otherwise. But still, I sometimes look back on my time at SCAD and wonder “Was it worth it? Should I have skipped the school?”

If you’re wondering why I still have those doubts, even after having graduated four years ago, it’s because when I look at my student loans, I begin to feel faint and need to find something else to do. It’s also because of how I calculated what I was paying per class period, and certain classes that didn’t live up to expectations.

Some of the best film makers and cinematographers I know personally today were self taught or were brought up in the ranks of hierarchy on film sets over time. I also know some who went through film school and have nothing more than an ego to show for it.

The answer to “How do I break into the industry?” is never going to be a simple formula and no two paths are the same.

So, how do you break in?

The most common paths are variations on these — please note that these are aimed towards the Camera Department since that is mostly what I’m familiar with:

1.) Film School: After or during school, start getting on “real” sets, most likely as a production assistant (read: entry level) or, rarely, jump right into camera assisting/producer assisting/etc.

2.) Work at a Camera or Equipment Rental House, gaining knowledge and experience working with the equipment. Get hired on sets. Work your way up.

3.) Get on sets as an office or set production assistant. Slowly migrate into the department you are interested in. Impress people and try to move up the ladder.

4.) Self-taught. Start by making really bad films. Learn from your mistakes. Keep going. Self finance your passion.

5.) Be related to Spielberg/Nolan/some big whig in the industry already.

All this circles back to whether or not film school is the answer for you. I don’t feel my job is to convince you one way or the other. Rather, I feel a list of pros and cons is more helpful, to allow you to make an educated choice.

PROS

Direct access to professional equipment without rental costs and insurance.

Professional networking at the student level. Film school is where many of the greats of filmmaking met for the first time. Maybe that will be your story too.

Directors/Cinematographers/Producers who are easily accessible because they’re grading your homework as professors at the school.

Amenities: professional equipment, film festivals sponsored by the school, meet and greets with industry professionals who might talk to your class.

CONS

Expensive. Tuition, books, and financing your own films costs serious money.

Certain Classes. I’m still mad about Professional Development, a class in which we basically paid full price to just work on our own stuff.

Limited scope. Students who are into non-traditional forms of telling a story, such as with experimental film, may feel limited by the standard Hollywood method taught at school.

Lack of resources. Along with the pro of having equipment and space to borrow for free are the limits of actually getting those things when they are in high demand.

In many ways, attending SCAD was the best thing I’ve done to get myself into the right trajectory for what I’m doing now. I’d never have picked up the Steadicam and I’d never have made the connections I did. But I also know that it would have been possible (but not guaranteed) to get where I am now without the tuition cost.

Deciding whether or not to attend film school is a big decision. Until you’ve made that decision, you can check out this book:

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Media Parodies Media: The Bojack Horseman Story

Bojack Horseman is a Netflix Original that premiered in 2014. It’s a dark humor animation with anthropomorphic animal people navigating the shallow world of Hollywood. Somehow, I didn’t get around to this show for four years. Then I binged four seasons in an embarrassingly short time.

I was surprised by how emotionally invested I became with Bojack‘s cast of characters. Real human drama and timeless themes exist within the animated packaging featuring a talking horse.

At first, Bojack Horseman is a very nihilistic look at a ex-sitcom star’s messed up life. Booze, drugs, one night stands, many questionable decisions… it’s a fun ride to watch Bojack spiral out of control. But from the beginning the writers subtly tug at your heartstrings by fleshing out his character as well as those of the ones around him.

Bojack acts out and gets himself into trouble because, plain and simple, he’s not happy. There are the glimpses into his truly awful childhood and parents who never really wanted him, all of which ended up with Bojack becoming a washed up ex-sitcom star.

Portrayal of Media and Hollywoo(-d)

What the show does especially well is parodying the media and entertainment industries. From “A Ryan Seacrest Type”– a vapid Hollywood reporter who comments on whatever inane news has surfaced, to media-fueled squabbles over apple muffins and the insane things stars do for attention.

Amid the laughs are some really poignant digs at Hollywood in general (re-named Hollywoo after Bojack stole the D in a booze-addled stupor).

In the episode where Mr. Peanutbutter and Todd come up with the Oscar nominees, reading the whiteboard behind them was insightful and relevant. Last year’s #OscarsSoWhite scandal was put in sharp relief as they had written down “black people” and then crossed it out.

If you notice, the board also includes only female names in “Best Director” — a stark contrast to the reality. In 2018, Greta Gerwig became only the fifth female director to even be nominated for the Best Director Oscar for Lady Bird. So far the only female director to win has been Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 for The Hurt Locker.

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Bojack also parodies what happens to some child stars. With Sarah Lynn, you see the stark contrast between the innocent girl on the 90’s sitcom to the coked out mess she becomes later in life.

The Human Element

Part of the reason we care so much about these characters is because of their very real struggles:

Princess Carolyn — Cutthroat in the world of being an agent/manager, but almost always at the brink of failure. She also feels unfulfilled and wishes for a family, but is possibly past the point of no return.

Todd — discovering his sexuality. I think so far this is the only time I’ve seen a character in a show discover they are “Ace.”

Diane — Just…everything about Diane. Her issues with her family and her career struggles make her a relateable, anxiety-ridden character.

Season Five

Bojack Season 5 premiered recently. There were a couple of episodes that really stood out, like the one that centered around Diane’s exploration of her ancestral routes (for a Buzzfeed-like story she was writing) and an episode that centers around Bojack giving a speech at a funeral that doesn’t cut away and is simultaneously hilarious, dark and uncomfortable.

Season 5 wasn’t my favorite, but it still represents part of a quality piece of entertainment. If you haven’t tried this series yet, it’s about time.