From time to time I see articles debating the worth of film school. It’s pricey. It’s competitive. It takes years and a lot of hard work with few guarantees of return. From where I stand, it was one of a few big life choices I have made that fundamentally altered my identity. I developed more as an artist and as a person. My goals changed. Some of my closest relationships were formed. My understanding of both how films are made and why I want to make them were cemented and challenged by film school. The question of worth has financial and time components to evaluate in terms of value. Both are so personal. There is no universally accepted rubric for determining the answer to this question – implied seems to be a correlation between the cost of tuition and the level of traditional success and salary in your subsequent career. By that measure it was decidedly not worth it (I’ll be paying for my MFA while paying for my kids’ college tuitions and beyond I think). However, my experiences in film school and the education I received were priceless. I cannot separate the filmmaker I am from my film school path. It is not untrue that you can become a filmmaker without film school as many articles point out. I don’t think I would have. But you can.
If you are contemplating a film school education, my suggestion for being able to conclude it was ‘worth it’ is to take advantage of as much of it as you possibly can. Do not waste a sound class because you ‘don’t want to be a sound person’ and then complain it’s a waste of time. Do you want to be a filmmaker? It’s all important. Like many things in life, I believe you’ll get out of it what you put into it in terms of effort. Squeeze the juice out of it.
When I began film school, I didn’t have any filmmaking experience behind the camera. I wasn’t one of the wonder-boy types who have been making movies since the womb. I filled my childhood with other creative endeavors and a lot of sports. (I don’t believe that makes my interest in this pursuit any less relevant, but if you read filmmaker bios very often, sometimes there seems to be an assertion to the contrary.) I knew I wanted to make films. I had done my undergraduate work in acting and history. I had experience working with actors and knew how to tell a story on the stage, but what I needed was a visual education and an understanding of how to collaborate with each department of a film. Fortunately, my film school was interested in turning out filmmakers, meaning artists who could make films beginning to end without permission, without much support. Obviously, the ideal filmmaking experience is not solo, but film school provided tools that if you took and ran with could give you the confidence to know at least cursorily how to do every job on a film set and finish a film. Not everyone took advantage of this. But those of us who did, realized that good producers and directors understand the needs of each job and can communicate well with each department because we have tried them ourselves.
I tried everything. Scared of picking up a camera? Take a cinematography class and shoot someone’s film. The AVID seems daunting? Edit someone’s thesis. Run sound, produce, do art department. Volunteer in the library and get your hands on some old films to study. Work on as many projects as you can in as many roles as you can. Do not resist the work and do not worry about if it will get you a job or not.
I agree that you do not NEED film school to follow that advice. But film school (and particularly the top tier) provides a unique space to do that in an immersive state quickly with vetted, talented people and industry/academic guides who will be constructively critical of your work. You’ll learn how to take and give notes, how to collaborate, and what your point of view is – that is, IF you are there to offer yourself up to it. That is precisely what I needed to develop into a confident indie filmmaker. I don’t think there is an equivalent experience outside film school, but the alternative paths may very well work for you without the price tag. I knew film school, paid for through student loans which allowed me to actually take the time to pursue this education, was exactly what I needed if I wanted to become a filmmaker. I got out of it exactly what I put into it.
I had a lot of rigorous academic experiences prior to film school and this was unlike any of them. I was tested. I grew a tougher skin (the press can’t be any tougher than a thesis film class giving feedback) and formed indelible partnerships (my recent feature was shot and produced by film school colleagues).
I would like to be a counterpoint to the conclusion that film school is overpriced, offering no guarantee of industry success, and therefore a bad value. Ask yourself what you value. If you want to be a filmmaker, your path is personal – don’t shy away from film school if you feel it’s your path.
Are you expecting film school to get you a job? To get you an agent? To tell you you’re brilliant? To pay for itself? It won’t. In the end, you’ll have to decide if the knowledge and experiences were enough. Particularly, as women, it will likely be a personal rather than external determination of value, given the stats for how long it will take for the majority of us to beat the odds. I’ve always felt it was worth it to me regardless of the outcomes that are out of my control.