Somewhere between 11th and 12th grade, when most of my (then) classmates were taking weekend trips with their families to check out prospective colleges, I was goofing off.
I know, I know. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that.
But at age 17, a college education wasn’t high on my list of priorities. And besides, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make movies.
I can’t remember exactly what drew me to movie making. But I was always intrigued by the camera and how you could look through the lens at something and bring it to life in a new and unique way. I know there are a lot of fancy technical terms to describe the cinematographic stuff I played around with, like forced perspective, snap zoom and the excitingly overused P.O.V. shots! But I didn’t think about any of that stuff. Back then, I had a VHS camcorder with a built in microphone and I had one movie making mission: I just wanted to have fun.
One summer, my buddies and I build a skateboard half-pipe in my parent’s back yard. We would spend hours and hours under the hot summer sun, almost always capturing our sessions on videotape. And then as the sun was setting, we would go inside and use 2 VCRs to edit the footage. (Push play on one and record on the other, etc.) Being able to play around with the footage and also add some much appreciated heavy medal music to the final cut was not just a great way to end an exhilarating day of skateboarding – but the work and effort we put into making the skate videos look good was enough to make me realize a career making movies would be the only type of career that mattered.
As such, when asked about my college plans, I had only two criteria:
- The school would have to have women.
- And the school would have to offer a film program.
Back then, I thought a traditional film school with hot women was heaven. Not to mention, I was also convinced that a traditional film school degree would help my chances at becoming a successful Hollywood filmmaker. I remember doing my research and trying to determine which school of cinema offered my best chance at success for a career making movies.
Whether fortunately or unfortunately, after calculating the cost of a four year film school coupled with the realities of my family’s let’s-further-your-education budget, both my parents and I were persuaded to vote unanimously for one of the many Pennsylvania state schools. So, instead of NYU or UCLA, I ended up at Bloomsburg University of PA…
And while the school did not have a formal film program, it was a great experience. I mean, at least there were woman (Huge education and nursing school!!!). And as a result, I forgot about my film passion – for a bit…
It wasn’t until my senior year of college, when I once again caught the film bug.
I had learned of a movie making class where everyone in the course bucked up and paid to produce a 16mm short movie. The class wasn’t offered every year… And it was only offered in the summer. Suffice it to say, I did everything I could to get into that class. And while it was clear from the fist day that some folks were taking it for (what they thought would be) an “easy credit,” I took the class, well, because I HAD to!
With shall we say, a very strong level of passion – I convinced the class to let me write and direct the movie. I got a lot of push back. But after some heated negotiation, the instructor permitted me to have half of the directing credit. The other half was shared with my buddy Ryan (I’d like to add that Ryan also caught the movie making bug and he is now working as a well respected grip on some of the biggest movies in Hollywood). But anyway, we went out to various locations and made our movie. We even animated a title sequence (the old-fashioned way, I might add). Then we got the film processed, edited on a flat bed and physically cut the film. And when we finally projected our movie on the screen, we thought we had something spectacular!
After graduating, I moved back with my parents in Pennsylvania and took a job selling household appliances. Since promoting dishwashers and garbage disposals was not inline with my movie making aspirations, I got a little depressed. I kept wondering how I would make a career making movies. The only piece of work I had was that 16mm film. And it was literally film. So, in order to show it to someone, I needed to get it transferred to video. As such, I contacted various Pennsylvania production houses in the hopes one of em’ had the equipment to transfer the film. And after several calls, I eventually found someone.
As luck (and life) would have it, the people I met at that production company put me in touch with the local film community (Harrisburg, PA). And through those guys, I found work fetching coffee, which eventually led to other jobs (boom operator, dolly pusher, production coordinator), which introduced me to new people who eventually opened a door to New York City, where I basically took every production job I could find… Student shoots, corporate video, TV commercials and the occasional hockey game upstate. All of this happened while I lived in the corner of some dude’s kitchen and slept on an inflatable air mattress. It was also during this time that I put the finishing touches on my first screenplay.
Eventually this work and networking led to a position as an assistant to an indie producer. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Now, after having produced numerous short movies and three features, I’m beginning to think my on-the-job training was a pretty good film education.
I share this story for any parents or aspiring filmmakers weighing the options between traditional film school or other alternatives. If you just want to learn the nut-and-bolts of filmmaking, then the basics can be learned in a much shorter time-frame than four years! After you learn the basics, it’s having a sense of clear goals, combined with a great work ethic and a subsequent hard working reputation that will ultimately open the doors to your dreams. And when these doors open, you’ll quickly realize your Hollywood success has more to do with your experience and attitude than your degree.
I repeat – experience and attitude are major prerequisites for success in any endeavor, especially making movies.
So to wrap this up, my thinking is: Film school is good for aspiring filmmakers who want to meet and spend four years with friends who share similar interests, determination and drive. These people will form the foundation of your professional network. And if you attend one of the BIG schools, it’s going to look great on your resume…
Problem is, unless you plan to teach, most people will never ask to see your degree. The other problem is, depending on your film school, you may never get permission to direct or produce your own projects. This could be a bit disheartening when you’re paying FIFTY-THOUSAND-DOLLARS (or more) for an education that allows you carry cables and fetch coffee. (Come to think of it, if you’re going to fetch coffee and carry cables, you may as well get paid for it!)
I’m not saying you should forgo college – I certainly didn’t. And being completely frank, my four year degree has accelerated my success in some very non-direct ways. But I am saying this: Before you set yourself up for a traditional film school degree (and the debt that goes with it), you might consider testing the water by attending one of the many short term, hands-on filmmaker workshops offered by reputable filmmaking organizations.
Most of these workshops are taught by working filmmakers and industry professionals, and are conducted at various times and locations throughout the year. For the most part, these workshops will provide you with a basic education, a peer group and importantly, enough nuts-and-bolts filmmaking experience so you can make an informed decision on whether or not a traditional 4-year film school is right for you.
As always, take time to do the research.
And if you want to start your film education, check out these filmmaking tools.