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How to Decide Whether to Attend a Film Program
Film programs give students access to equipment, access to trained, committed peers who can crew for them (and whom they can crew for), and exposure to good teaching, which can provide them with a deeper understanding of the film medium. Film school can also provide a post-graduation support network as they pursue a film career.
Why Might It Not Be Worth Going?
Film programs can be very expensive, partly because of the equipment involved, and partly because some of the best programs are part of larger, expensive universities (such as NYU and the University of Southern California). If you are pursuing a film career where you can get training on the job, you will probably advance faster, at less expense, by learning the ropes on a film crew or in a production company.
Also, many advantages of film school (including access to crews and cameras) can be obtained at less expense by volunteering on film shoots or even buying your own equipment. As with any career in the arts, you will find it easier to succeed if you’re not burdened with heavy student loans. What types of programs are available?
Undergraduate film programs are a good choice if you are attending college anyway and want to spend time making films. They offer access to equipment, a pool of enthusiastic fellow filmmakers, and a range of classes. The degree may open some doors in getting your first job, particularly in fields like editing or production. On the other hand, some of the best programs are expensive, and you’ll be spending money you could otherwise have spent on your own films.
Graduate film programs are a good choice if you want to immerse yourself fully in film as an art. They are generally geared toward directing, though some have producing, screenwriting, editing, or cinematography tracks. A graduate degree may help as you seek your first job or agent. However, graduate film school is very expensive and may take years to complete.
Film academies are local programs that allow you to take classes without committing to a full degree. They are typically less prestigious and less expensive than graduate schools, but are a good choice if you just want access to crews and equipment or training in a particularly area like lighting or editing.
How Do You Determine Whether to Go?
Whether you should go to film school depends partly on what field you want to go into.
- Directing: If you want to be a director, you need a good grasp of filmmaking and a strong vision of what you want to say. You also need access to equipment and a willing crew to work on your films, which a full-immersion undergraduate or graduate school will provide. However, if you alreadyhave a developed artistic vision and excel at getting people organized, it may be less costly to start shooting your own digital films, without a degree.
- Producing: Producers, who organize and finance films, usually don’t need a film degree. Producers often start as assistants in a film production company (or occasionally on a crew) and work their way up to producing their own projects. They can also volunteer to produce student films. However, producers who develop new projects need a good story sense and may benefit from writing classes.
- Screenwriting: Screenwriters break into the industry by having good scripts (and sometimes by writing for television or another short format), so they benefit more from writing programs than filmmaking programs. They should be familiar with great, classic films, but can gain this exposure without attending a film production program.
- Editing, animation, and sound design: Breaking into these more technical fields requires two things: a strong reel of previous work, and knowledge of particular computer programs (such as Final Cut Pro or Pro Tools.) You can gain the relevant technical training through either a film school or film academy, and can build a reel by volunteering to work on other people’s projects. A full-immersion film program is not essential, but can help land a first job.
- Film production crewing (electrics, grips, cinematographers): If you want to work in a crew-oriented field, you will advance faster by working on film shoots (starting as a production assistant), rather than paying for an expensive film program. Cinematographers may benefit from the artistry they can develop in film school, but they will gain many of the same skills by volunteering to shoot films, by studying art or photography, and by watching classic films on their own.
Everyone who works in film can benefit from studying film. A film degree can help land a first job, and more importantly it helps develop an understanding of film as a career and an art. However, it is wise to consider carefully whether film programs are worth the time and money.