In this post I will dismantle once and for all any delusions you might have about the merits of going to film school. The film school industrial complex does not want you to read this article.
First things first: I have a lot of respect for higher education and I myself had the privilege of attending a wonderful University, but not every area of human endeavor lends itself to being taught in classrooms. At University I studied a real subject (Biology) and subsequently taught myself filmmaking with a lot of private study and practice. It took a lot of work, but when you’re in love with something it doesn’t feel like work.
You can go to school to be a doctor; you can go to school to be a lawyer; you can go to school to be a biologist. You cannot go to school to be a filmmaker.
It would in principle be possible to teach somebody how to be a decent filmmaker (assuming they have reasonable potential) by teaching it as a highly practical profession using cameras, actors and scripts from the outset, but to the best of my knowledge there is no school out there that does this.
Some film schools allow you to start shooting from the very beginning, but they don’t actually train you in the art and craft of film direction: there is no professional development. By “training” I mean proper, solid, practical training of the type that you might receive as a doctor or airline pilot. There is quite simply no institution out there that trains film directors in the same way that airline pilots are trained.
Film schools vary enormously in reputation, but they all have two things in common: they are scandalously expensive and they all break down the course into units, each one taught by an instructor who gave up on filmmaking a long time ago.
Why do people go to film school?
I cannot help wondering why people choose to go to film school in the face of abundant evidence that the most talented and successful filmmakers in history made their own destiny by eschewing film school and building a reel instead.
In my opinion people go to film school as a means of shifting responsibility to someone else and delaying the day of judgement. It is essentially a manifestation of “magic pill” thinking, whereby they throw themselves into a film school and just hope against hope that when they get out of it three or four years later they have miraculously turned into filmmakers.
“Magic pill” thinking is the same thought process that lures people into the deluded hope that they can improve their physique by taking pills when the reality of being physically fit is that you must eat a sensible diet and exercise regularly and correctly.
Those who hope that film schools will somehow turn them into filmmakers are no better than those who seek to avoid physical exercise and a healthy diet by taking magic pills instead. None of these folks will ever get the results they hope for, because they are not willing to take right action. They are lazy and afraid.
The truth about learning to be a film director is that you will have to take responsibility for your own training. There are plenty of free resources out there to help you, and some very useful books that you can buy for a few bucks. Ultimately, however, if you want to become a highly skilled filmmaker, you must accept that there is a lot to learn and that only regular practice will aid the transition from the mediocrity of beginners to the smooth professionalism of mature work.
The right path to “becoming” a filmmaker entails improving your skills and building your reel consistently and systematically rather than placing your hopes in film schools.
Let’s take a look at some of my favorite film directors and consider whether they went to film school or not:
* James Cameron – Did not go to film school
* Steven Spielberg – Did not go to film school (he dropped out after being hired to direct episodic TV at Universal on the strength of a short film he made: glory!)
* Ridley Scott – Did not go to film school (I believe he studied set design, which has absolutely nothing to do with traditional film school)
* Stanley Kubrick – Did not go to film school (the story of his first few years as a filmmaker is absolutely fascinating — Stanley Kubrick is truly the forefather of all independent filmmakers, and followed a path that was deemed unthinkable in the 1950s, when he started).
* Franco Zeffirelli – Did not go to film school
* Quentin Tarantino – Did not go to film school (his opinion on this issue: “To this day I actually think that…rather than go to film school, just get a camera and try to start making a movie” – source).
Two other famous film directors who did not go to film school are David Fincher (“Fight Club”) and Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings”).
Two famous film directors who did go to film school are Martin Scorsese (NYU) and George Lucas (USC). For the record, they are two film directors that I emphatically do not admire — make of this what you will.
At this point I must caution you against inferring a causal link between a successful film director’s attendance of a film school and his subsequent filmmaking success: the fact that a film director went to film school does not in any way infer that his success is due to the film school, whereas the fact that a film director did NOT go to film school shows quite clearly that it is perfectly possible to learn filmmaking without going to film school. Indeed, bright folks will learn better and more quickly away from the toxic failure and sluggish pace associated with film schools, and in any case film schools do not train film directors, but merely churn out exhausted graduates — it is worth repeating.
I find it highly significant that the two most technically gifted filmmakers who ever lived — Steven Spielberg and James Cameron — started making films completely independently and did not go to film school. Steven Spielberg attended some university classes, but he dropped out as soon as he was given a seven-year TV directing contract at Universal Studios on the strength of his 35 mm short film “Amblin’.” It is sweetly ironic that he abandoned his sanctimonious instructors at college after being hired as a professional director by Universal Studios after they watched a short film that he shot with some friends in the desert. Food for thought!
Steven Spielberg’s advice for aspiring filmmakers
Don’t take my word for it — listen to the most talented and successful filmmaker of all time, Steven Spielberg:
“If you get bitten by that bug you can make a lot of little movies and somehow those films will get seen by people hopefully that will hire you to do a music video someday, or a TV commercial, or a television show or someday a feature film.”
The quote is from the video below — Spielberg’s advice starts at 08:27:
There you have it — Spielberg’s advice is to build a reel until you are valuable enough to be hired as a director. At no point does he recommend film school. He knows that is not how directors are made.
The reality of film school
I will now consider some undeniable, cold, hard facts about film school:
1. Film school is scandalously expensive
The cost of film school is absolutely ludicrous, particularly in the United States. I visited one film school in particular in California and one thing was clear to me: there is very much an atmosphere bordering on embarrassment, because the college employees know that they simply aren’t delivering enough value to justify the exorbitant fees, and the overwhelming majority of the graduates will never see a single day of employment as a director. All they have to show for it is a gigantic bill, which they will take years to pay off by working in a job that does not involve cameras and lenses.
2. Film schools do not train film directors the way they ought to be trained
As I wrote above, in principle the profession of film direction could be taught properly, in the same way that dentists and engineers are trained, but for some reason no such course exists, to the best of my knowledge. Instead, they treat filmmaking as an academic subject, breaking it down into units that are taught separately. Part of the problem with this approach is that film direction is a highly integrated skill that cannot be deconstructed. It is instead something that you gradually get good at, but it takes a few years of mediocre work before everything suddenly clicks — and believe me when I tell you that when it clicks it is with you for life, just like learning to ride a bicycle, but there is an initial period where your work is embarrassingly weak and self-indulgent, and most people are not sufficiently motivated and disciplined to get past that hump. Most film school instructors probably don’t even have the faintest idea of what I’m writing about here.
3. Making useful contacts at film school is a ridiculous myth
It is a fact that most film school graduates never see a single day of employment in the movie business, so it is difficult to see how meeting these future failures in film school will help you. Film networking is one of the topics that is most replete with myths and wishful thinking.
4. Film school will give you access to filmmaking equipment — true but irrelevant
The fact is that you could get access to the same or better equipment for the fraction of the cost of film school. They no longer have a monopoly on giving young filmmakers access to quality equipment.
You can now achieve a remarkably cinematic look with any DSLR camera, if you have to stoop that low.
5. You will not get “valuable feedback”
Feedback from film school professors is generally useless or even dangerous. The feedback you really need will come from those who are actually in charge of hiring directors: for feature films, that would be producers or whoever is really controlling the film behind the scenes (follow the money); for TV commercials, you want feedback from Executive Producers (who sign new directors) and agency creatives (who decide who gets to direct the TV commercial they wrote); and for music videos…good luck with that.
If you want feedback on your spec spot reel, why pay a film school to get advice from a dusty retired director who won a few Clios 30 years ago when you get totally free feedback from an Executive Producer who is signing new directors right now? Or from an agency creative who selects TV commercial directors every week?
6. “But I’m not smart enough to learn filmmaking by myself!”
A film student actually told me that once! If that is what you think, filmmaking really is not for you. Filmmaking is the epitome of intellectual independence and initiative. If you cannot pick up a camera, read a few books, watch films and gradually hone your skills by practicing, you have no realistic prospect of “becoming” a film director. It might also be a sign that you are not sufficiently besotted with filmmaking — after all, one has to be mildly unhinged to pursue this line of work 😉
Still not convinced? Let’s see what Forbes et al. have to say about film school
“Should I go to film school?” — My verdict
Due to the highly integrated and vocational nature of the film director’s profession, I would say that what it comes down to is this: if you truly have what it takes to become a highly skilled filmmaker, you absolutely do not need to go to film school, and indeed the time and money you would waste on film school might actually make it less likely that you will make it; conversely, if you do not have what it takes to become a talented filmmaker, I can assure you that no film school will be able to help you, even if they taught filmmaking as a practical profession, which they most certainly do not.
Here are some things you can do that will cost you little or no money and that will make a real difference to your filmmaking skills:
1. Get a cheap camcorder and start learning about framing and focal length.
2. Read Grammar of the Film Language— an absolutely amazing book that I am happy to recommend personally.
3. Read any decent book on screenwriting — the basics of screenplay structure are not that difficult to master and you will learn more by reading a good book than by following a 16-week course taught by a long-winded professor.
Film schools willfully sell kids a very expensive dream. I don’t know how they can teach their students with a straight face when they know that most of them will never, ever see a single day of employment as a film director. It’s time to say enough; it’s time to go your own way, like Stanley Kubrick, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg.
Update (8th July 2016)
A young reader emailed me to describe his situation. His analysis and strategy are so sensible that I thought the text of his email was worth adding to this page, which I am doing with his consent:
“I just wanted to say thank you a ton for all the work you put into this website which you really don’t have to do. I find your tips on directing and cinematography and such very helpful and your advice on career paths very believable. I really appreciate that. Whether or not everything goes according to the way you have described, I get the notion that you have thought through this and are not giving us any bologna. I’m a senior in high school and I’ve been making videos on my own or with friends since 3rd grade, most of which were pretty cringeworthy. However, growing up it has been one of the few “hobbies” that has not faded because I really enjoy doing it and think there is a purpose behind it.
“I’ve been reading your stuff at least since I started high school and now as I’m faced with the beginning of the national ritual of applying to colleges, your article on not going to film school definitely spoke to me. I’ve concluded for a while now that I wasn’t planning on majoring in film simply because of one of the reasons you stated, being that it is a huge investment of time and money that could be spent on something more practical. However even as I have made that conclusion, young people (definitely not my parents) tell me that they think I should “go for it” and by going for it they mean go to film school because it shows you are really dedicated purely to pursuing film.
“But this article has conclusively convinced me back to the rational side of the fence (if I ever was on the fence) and on the side of my parents, which, although they are not explicit, I can tell they think that film school could be a waste of time and money, even if I am going to pursue a career in film (which they are all for if it’s what I want to do). So thank you for your advice. Since I live on the East Coast, I was thinking of going down a path of studying business and accounting, and using that knowledge to start a production company here which could sustain an income by providing video services, and use that money (in conjunction with crowd funders) to expand and create feature or short films. A part of this conviction is based on your advice, so thank you for your time and help.”
You’re most welcome. Keep me posted!
Update (15th October 2016)
A reader from Australia sent me this email (shared here with her consent):
“I just read your article ‘How to Become a Film Director: a Sharp Reality Check,’ and I just wanted to thank you enormously for what you have said. I worked really hard in school to get into the most reputable film school in my state of Queensland, Australia, and honestly I have not engaged at all this whole year with my peers or the content of the course, because it seems to be a lot of amateurs talking themselves up and patting each other on the back, whilst not really doing a lot of serious film making. I have been feeling torn for the past few months about whether it was my own fault and I lacked passion, or it was the course itself – and I’m so glad to hear that Film School really isn’t all its cracked up to be which is what I’ve been thinking for ages. I still want to pursue film as a career but now I feel like I can do what I’ve been wanting to do this whole time, just begin making things, teaching myself, and finding like-minded people wherever I can rather than the select pretentious assholes at my school. Thank you so so so much!”