Film School – Making The Decision

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One of the first things people worry about having decided to pursue a career in Film is the inevitable Film School question. As you begin your search for the world’s Top Film Schools it’s worth bearing in mind that Film School is not the only way to break in to the industry. Whilst Film Schools do provide a fantastic opportunity to learn your craft with other like-minded fellows it is by no means the only route into the industry.

Competition Is Fierce But Don’t Give Up

George Lucas filming, he is a USC Film School Grad

It should go without saying that winning a place at a top film school is not easy, you’ll be competing with hundreds if not thousands of applicants both domestic and international. As with traditional universities, the most prestigious schools tend to be the ones with the greatest wealth. This means they can afford first class facilities, equipment, and some of the world’s best tutors. Many of the leading film schools are unsurprisingly Los Angeles based and they boast facilities to rival some of the major film studios. Winning a place can be achieved through meticulous research and planning.

film schools in london

Try to learn as much as you can about your craft before applying to a school, make a short film, produce, write, or direct one. Document your experience, it will be great material for your personal statement and if you’re lucky for the interview stages. If you already have a showreel fantastic, make sure it’s as slick as can be, get advice from people from the industry or recent graduates. Many schools list their alumni so you could do your research and find a grad that studied a course you intend to take. It’s well worth applying to more than one school; just make sure you can answer exactly why you have applied to a certain school. Is it because of the course syllabus? A certain tutor you want to be taught by? Is it the school environment in general? Overall don’t be put off by the competition but it helps to be aware of exactly what you’re up against.

The building UCLA School of Theater Film Television looking like a Filmmakers Utopia

Show Me The Money

Film Schools aren’t cheap and the top ones command equally top dollar! Of course there are scholarships, loans, and bursaries available and you will need to thoroughly research your options before applying. Fortunately many of the schools websites have sections specifically detailing these matters so information is readily available. Course fees can be anything from £9,000-£50,000. Some schools mention that fees include all production costs within your studies but make sure you check this when applying. Of course the advantage here is that you can get access to excellent equipment for your own projects so once you graduate you should have a high quality showreel. A question to ask when applying is exactly what access you have to certain equipment/facilities. Some schools do restrict the use of certain cameras to second year students.

Welcome To The Old Boy’s Club


Tinker Tailor’s “The Circus” secret network can be likened to the Film Industries Old Boy’s Club. Who you know is everything!

Perhaps the most important benefit of Film School is the fantastic networking opportunities it provides. At a good school you will work with individuals that may go on to diverse areas of the industry. I don’t just mean your production crew/Post Production crew although of course you will work with them (From Editors, DoP’s, Writers, Colourists, Costume Designers, etc.) I mean producers, sales agents, future production/studio executives. These guys will be the future of the industry and you just never know where anyone may end up. This gives you a jump on the rest of people wanting to break in to the industry since you will already have the rapport of having worked with these individuals. You’re already in the loop! Additionally most schools have tutors who have worked and some even still work in the industry. You can pick them for invaluable advice and they may even provide further contacts. Schools often invite guest speakers who tend to be leading industry experts. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of networking in this industry. Often the most interesting jobs and projects aren’t advertised or posted anywhere until way into production. To find out about these you need either a good agent or some good industry contacts.

Martin Sheen in Terence Malick’s debut film Badlands (1973) written whilst the director was at film school

The Graduates

Some famous film school graduates include George Lucas (University of Southern California), Darren Aronofsky (AFI), Joel Coen and Steve McQueen (NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) many of these graduates still have connections to their schools and give guest lectures and sometimes even donations.

Get A Showreel

Shot from Christopher Nolan’s debut film The Following, shot over the course of a year on weekends. The Director did not go to Film School.

One of the wonderful things about going to film school is the ability to use their facilities, working in a team to create material. You will certainly work on a short film; some schools even go so far as creating webepisodes and TV Pilots. Students often submit their work to film festivals and some have even achieved Oscar nominations for their short films. This serves as one of the best calling cards out there, awards, nominations, and even just entering your work to festivals gets your name out there. Agents and producers alike will start to take interest in you. Terence Malick wrote the screenplay for his debut Badlands whilst studying at AFI.

The Other Route To A Film Career

Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino…what do these three directors have in common? None of them went to Film School! Before the commenters come back and tell me that Nolan went to university, yes he did at UCL to study English Literature not Film.

Now for those who have applied to schools and been turned down, or simply cannot afford the tuition fear not…there is another route. Many other routes for that matter, the film and entertainment is one of the few industries that require no formal path. It’s not like being a doctor studying for eight years and then some before you can practice. Sure schools provide you with technical knowledge and contacts but it’s by no means the only way to acquire these. There are many other affordable short-term courses, ranging from single days and weekends, to evening classes. These courses help give you the foundations of what you wish to learn. Want to learn about shooting a RED camera, or how to write a screenplay, there are classes for these and many more. In fact a lot of the schools provide these short courses, so if you weren’t successful in your application or even before you decide to apply why not try out one of their short courses to get a feel for the school.

Don’t feel that you need to study film in order to make films. It really is dependent on what role you wish to play in the industry. As an example it’s very common for people to start off as editors and become directors (Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon). Another common move is from screenwriting to directing (J.J. Abrams, Quentin Tarantino) but all manner of moves can be made so don’t limit yourself. Guillermo del Toro went from make up and SFX to directing; Billy Bob Thornton is one of the many directors that came from an acting background.

Producers are also known to come from varied backgrounds, perhaps the most famous being Harvey Weinstein, though a University at Buffalo grad, he and his brother were music promoters initially. Bronson producer Danny Hansford was almost a professional golfer. Lawrence Bender (Pulp Fiction) wanted to be a professional dancer! Sometimes those pursuing the producer or studio executive route have an MBA background. Lorenzo di Bonaventura (Transformers, RED 2, Salt) MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Do The Intern Stint

Since the film industries inception people have come from all walks of life and developed successful careers, traditionally people migrated from theatre and vaudeville. In the febrile days of Hollywood’s naissance no one had the answers (and none do today!) everyone that entered into the business was deemed a chancer, a risk taker, or reckless though today we can say we are “entrepreneurial”. We test out different methods with whatever resources we have available and see what works best. People would start out right at the bottom doing odd jobs on set, what we know today as a “runner”. Back then someone could work there way right up from these positions to become directors, producers or even studio owners.Today we live in a different climate; it’s not so easy to acquire even “runner” positions and although people can still work their way up the ladder, now you will be competing with film school graduates who already have a solid foundation of knowledge. So how does one get a foot in the door? Welcome to the dawn of the intern.

Interns seem to be the new vogue across all industries in particularly Film. Almost all production companies offer these roles; unfortunately many of them are unpaid. They can be vital to gaining that initial experience but like everything else, competition is fierce. You’ll need to be persistent with your approach to companies and patient too. One way you can build up your credits before hand is to offer to work on student films, again these are likely to be low paid and many are unpaid but students will often need an extra hand on set.

Rebels, Oddballs, and Exceptions

Without further ado, let me present to you some popular names who haven’t taken the Film School route and still have ended up with remarkable success.

The only formal training Tarantino did by his own admission is acting classes. This no doubt helped him to write exquisite dialogue. Famous for his quote “When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, ‘no, I went to films’.” Tarantino began to write screenplays, most notably True Romance, and Reservoir Dogs that would mark his debut as a director.

Lee Daniels – The Butler, Monster’s Ball

Daniels couldn’t afford film school, so he started in a liberal arts college in Missouri but realized it wasn’t for him. Then he started working as a receptionist in a nursing agency in California. Realizing he could do it on his own, he quit the job and started his own agency. At the age of 21, his company had 5000 nurses affiliated with it. He sold the company and went to work casting actors using his skills from ‘casting’ nurses. So really his entrance into the film industry was as a casting director.

Guy Ritchie – Sherlock Holmes, Snatch, Lock stock & Two Smoking Barrels

Guy didn’t attend film school but directed a 20-minute short film in 1995 called The Hard Case. This would effectively become his calling card and was used to help get his debut film made.

Ridley Scott – Aliens, Gladiator

Art was Ridley’s first passion and he studied at the Royal College of Art. After graduation he secured the job as a trainee set designer for the BBC. It’s said that the director still paints sometimes and even occasionally draws the storyboards for his films.

Sam Mendes – Road To Perdition, Skyfall

Mendes attended Magdalen College School and Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he graduated with a first in English. Whilst at Cambridge he began directing university theatre productions. Upon graduation Mendes gained employment as a director in London’s West End.

Paul Andrew Williams – London To Brighton, Song for Marion

Paul began his career as an actor before writing and directing a number of short films, music videos, and viral ads. In 2001 he wrote and directed the short film Royalty that would later inspire his debut feature London to Brighton.

Paul Thomas Anderson – There Will Be Blood, The Master

Anderson knew he wanted to make films from a very young age with his dad’s Super 8mm. Anderson began his career as a production assistant on television movies, music videos and game shows. With some money he won gambling, his girlfriend’s credit card, and $10,000 his father set aside for college, Anderson decided to make a twenty-minute film that would be his “college.”

The film was Cigarettes & Coffee (1993). The film was screened at the 1993 Sundance Festival Shorts Program. He decided to expand the film into a feature length film and was subsequently invited to the 1994 Sundance Feature Film Program. At Sundance Feature Film Program, Michael Caton-Jones (Director of Rob Roy) served as Anderson’s mentor.

Fernando Meirelles – City of God

Like many filmmakers, Meirelles began experimenting with film in his youth, using a Super 8mm camera. He studied at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of São Paulo. Whilst at university Meirelles became more interested in film and after graduation after many years he would work his way up to become an advertisement film director.

Finally let me just say this industry is by no means easy but those that make it seem to be persistent at chasing their dreams at all costs. Never give up, remember there are no rules.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Theodore Roosevelt

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