Attend Film School or Jump Right In

This is a question I'm often asked, and there is no right or wrong answer. I never attended film school but can see the advantages gained by those who have. Can you make it big without film school? Absolutely. Can you go to film school and then not succeed in the biz? Absolutely. This is a very personal choice.

Film school can be quite costly, but it provides a broad, well-rounded understanding of the industry, as it focuses on film history and theory as well as the teaching of many different skills and evolving technologies. Students generally walk away from school having learned at least a modicum of writing, producing, directing, acting, editing, cinematography, set design and so forth. It's where you learn the ropes, learn about the equipment and make your own film. And making your own films while in school is great training. Many a student project has won acclaim at international film festivals or other competitions, some managing to attract the attention of studio bigwigs and agents. In addition to or instead of a film, students also often walk away from school with a terrific script (or two)—another formidable calling card with which to start their careers.

Networking is another advantage to film school, because after graduation, individuals in a position to do so may help, recommend or hire their former classmates whenever possible. Many colleges and universities also offer outstanding internship programs and job placement services. And on-going support frequently comes in the form of extremely active and helpful alumni associations.

Today, in addition to entertainment attorneys, many top industry professionals hold law degrees, as opportunities do increase for those film/tv/communications majors who opt for even further education.

On the other hand, while a film school education generally proves beneficial to those who want to write, produce and direct, it may not be as practical for someone whose career goal is to become a transportation coordinator, a special effects coordinator or a location manager. An advanced education may not be as necessary for someone wanting to be a casting director, script supervisor, production coordinator, stunt coordinator or key grip as it is to someone wishing to be an editor, cinematographer or production designer.

If you're still in the "contemplating" stage, consider going to one of the fine schools in Los Angeles or New York—at least for a semester or two. I have nothing against the wonderful schools everywhere, but if you're serious about wanting to be in this business, you'll get so much more bang for your buck learning your trade in a city that has a large show biz community. You can take advantage of the many networking organizations, seminars, trade shows and other industry-related events L.A. and New York have to offer. Through your school, you'll have access to internships with major studios and production companies, which will be advantageous to have on your resume when entering the job market. You'll be exposed to the business and meeting people who work in the business, so you can start building a solid network for yourself before you ever graduate. It's definitely something to consider.

A film degree will provide you with a tremendous learning experience, and while it may enable you to make better connections, understand more or move up faster, it's no guarantee. You may be oozing with talent, proficient in any number of skills and the creator of a number of brilliant student films, but without the free equipment, free help and built-in support system, the reel world might just as well be located on another planet. And as much as you think you know, there's still a level of expertise that can only be attained by way of practical experience. So unless your first job is that of making your own movie, you've landed a great first position by way of nepotism or a law degree has earned you a junior executive slot—plan to start at the bottom and pay your dues. Check your ego in at the door and expect to be treated as any other entry-level employee—whether you're a film school graduate or not.

As advantageous as a film school education can be, I've seen individuals graduate with such a keen sense of entitlement, or such unrealistic expectations or ego-driven attitudes, they often crash and burn without ever reaching their destination. I've witnessed other film school grads who are incredibly talented but fail to establish themselves because of their deficiency in networking and/or political skills.

Then there are those who, like me, never attended film school. I landed in the business by accident, and once there, never wanted to leave. Some don't attend because they can't afford to and still others are too anxious to wait a moment longer than necessary to jump right in and learn as they go. While a part of me has always missed not having had the more well-rounded education and in-depth exposure to aspects of the industry beyond my area of expertise, there have always been opportunities to continue learning. Extension and short-term evening courses, seminars and books are plentiful to anyone wishing to take advantage of them. For those of us in production especially, vendors such as Panavision and Technicolor offer seminars and tours of their facilities, while smaller vendors, upon request, are generally quite amenable to educating both customers and potential customers about their equipment and services on a more one-on-one basis. I've also learned a lot just by asking co-workers to explain how they've achieved or are planning to achieve a certain shot, a design, a mood, a sequence, an effect, a look or a scene.

My best education has always been in the doing. Having worked on Titanic and In Dreams, I learned many of the ins and outs of shooting in Baja, Mexico, and had a crash course in international shipping. Working on Titanic, In Dreams and The Thirteenth Year, I learned much about filming in water. On Florida Straits, my knowledge of post production increased. On Hot Dog, The Movie, I perfected the skill of thinking on my feet, and my job at Orion was a good lesson in politics. Whether it's been working on a show that involves a railroad line, a circus, a racetrack, an athletic team or daredevil stunts—each job, each show is an opportunity to continue learning.

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