It’s a tale as old as time. A young filmmaker–or an older filmmaker just starting out in their career–is trying to figure out their path forward in this strange, confusing, opaque industry. They turn to Google, or to an established filmmaker, to ask the age old question: should I go to film school?
Every single filmmaker is going to have a different perspective on this classic question. The truth is, it’s complicated, and it’s difficult to give an answer that suits everyone the same. So let’s take a minute to talk about it, really weigh out the pros and cons, and figure out what’s right for you.
Did you know that Greta Gerwig didn’t go to film school? What about Kubrick? Tarantino? Wes Anderson? Spielberg? The Wachowski sisters? Ava Duverney? Christopher Nolan? That’s right, all of these well-known directors did not attend film school. Now, I’m not saying this means you absolutely don’t need to go to film school. I’m saying that it’s 100% possible to “make it” as a self-taught filmmaker. There are pros and cons to every option. With that being said, let’s dive into the question: should I go to film school?
- Education. Obviously, education is a big perk! In film school, you’ll learn a lot of skills that will serve you well in your career as a filmmaker. As a self-taught filmmaker, you have to work to find resources and mentors that will help you; at film school, these things are provided for you. You will get a foundation of film theory, learn about the history of film and why we do what we do, and learn a lot about movies in general.
- Experience. Attending film school means you’re going to have opportunities to get on set as a student. You can create your own student films, help on classmate’s sets, and your professors may have other opportunities as well, depending on the program. This gives you experience that will look great on your resume. Not only that, but you will have the opportunity to explore, create, and make mistakes in a safe environment.
- Community. I’ve written about finding creative community before, but for me there’s no greater feeling than being surrounded by other artists who share my hopes, dreams, and ambitions. I find it inspiring! Film school is an opportunity to network and make connections. In addition to your classmates and professors, some programs hold networking events or allow access to their alumni network, which can help give you a head start if you play your cards right.
- The degree. This is twofold: some people are only going to take you seriously if you’ve been to film school. These people are rude and wrong (remember, GRETA GERWIG didn’t attend film school) but they do exist and you should be mindful of that. There’s another point too; as someone who got a degree in a totally different field, having a four year college degree has opened up opportunities for me despite the degree being unrelated. Even if you end up totally changing careers in the future, a degree will be an asset or allow you to go on to grad school if that’s something you might eventually want. This isn’t exactly fair, of course, but it’s important to think about as you plan for your future.
- The cost. Unfortunately, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cost. Higher education of any kind is so, so expensive. More than half of students graduating from a public university have student loan debt, and the number is higher for those who attend a private school. Plenty of people live with student loan debt and find a way to work it into their budget, but other people find it difficult to make a dent in their debt, especially if you work full time in an industry with an unpredictable pay schedule… like film. Before you start your application, think carefully about each program you’re looking at, the cost, and what you or your family can afford. When I was applying to college, I didn’t fully understand the way that my student loans would impact my life, because I was 17 and no one explained to me what it would be like to be in debt. If you’re on the fence about attending film school, or even if you’re dead-set on it, be thoughtful about what a future with student loan debt will look like for you, and how it will impact your other goals.
- The time commitment. Being a student is a full time job, and in order to graduate with a bachelor’s degree you have to commit to being in school for four years. Even if you really love learning or being in a classroom, you need to be aware that you are committing to not only attending class but also many late nights of studying or working on student film projects. Working in film entails a lot of long days and late nights, so this might not phase you, but it’s important to be aware.
- The restrictions. This is a tricky one, and it’s not quite a pro or a con, but it’s important to think about. Film school teaches you a very specific way to make films. That’s not strictly a bad thing–sometimes, there’s a right and wrong way to do things–but it also might feel limiting. If you go to film school, you will learn the way that your mentors and professors want you to make films, which is wonderful, but if you end up on the set of someone who wants things done in a different way, there might be some unlearning involved. A non-film example of this: I went to school for education, and I learned so much that I couldn’t wait to implement it in the classroom. My degree gave me a strong background in theory, but I wound up at a school that had a different way they wanted me to teach. What I learned in school wasn’t wrong, of course, but neither was what my boss wanted me to do. Bringing it back to film, I’ve worked with folks who know exactly how to function on a student film, but that didn’t quite translate to the exact skills they needed for a professional set. Again, not a horrible thing, but something to consider.
- The BS. With literally any undergraduate degree, you’re going to have to learn a lot of things that you’ll never use in your career. It might take several semesters to get to the really relevant, exciting stuff. Some people really enjoy learning in a classroom, and might have fun taking general requirements, writing papers they’ll never think about again, or mastering skills they’ll never use on set. Other people are frustrated with working hard on things that feel useless, inapplicable, or like busywork. Think about your experience in high school and try to figure out what type of learner you are while you’re considering this question.
No film school
- The cost. Becoming a self-taught filmmaker can cost as much or as little as you want it to! You can shell out for things like classes, tutorials, and other resources that can teach you anything you want to know. There’s a ton of stuff out there! There are also free and cheap resources; blogs, Youtube videos, and other things that might benefit you. You can set a budget that works for you and stick to it while you learn everything you want to know. Your area might have filmmaking clubs, low-budget films that are looking for less experienced help, and in-person classes at places like community centers and local colleges. Regardless of how much money you dedicate to learning the art of filmmaking, life will be much easier long-term if you’re not saddled with student loans. With the ability to work full-time while you’re learning, you can direct your funds towards whatever you want, not towards Sallie Mae’s bottom line.
- The flexibility. As I’ve already indicated, when you’re self-taught, you can mix and match. If you have a bunch of extra time to dedicate to this, you can spend nights and weekends dedicated to learning about film and getting on local sets. If you don’t have much time–for example, you work multiple jobs or have kids–you can listen to podcasts on your commute, watch Youtube videos on your lunch break, or scroll filmmaking blogs before bed. Not only is your time commitment much more flexible depending on what season of life you’re in, you can also be flexible about what skills you want to learn and what on-set experiences you want to have. If you’re a self-taught filmmaker, you can basically approach this in whatever way works for you.
- You can start right now. If you go to film school, you will have to go through the research process, the application process, and then spend four years in a classroom. If you’re self taught, you can start right now. You can literally finishing reading this article, close this tab, and open up Youtube to start learning new skills.
- You have to work for everything. I want to be clear: film school is a huge commitment, and I have so much admiration for anyone seeking an education. Film school is not, in any way, the easy way out. But when you go to film school, certain things are laid out for you: the curriculum, proximity to other filmmakers, and access to mentors. When you’re self-taught, you have to find all of that yourself. If you’re 100% self-taught, you have to figure out everything from what you need to learn, to how to learn it, to how much you’re able to commit to it. You are responsible for laying out your own curriculum, finding mentors, getting on sets, and building a community of like-minded people.
- The assholes. As I’ve already mentioned, there are people who won’t take you seriously if you don’t have a four year college degree. These people are assholes, but they exist, and you need to be aware of them. I want to assure you that this isn’t a good enough reason to go to film school, and it’s 100% possible to build a wonderful community of filmmakers who respect your skill and talent, so don’t take this con too seriously, as you’re asking yourself “should I go to film school” it should be something you consider.
- The solitude. Maybe you already have a community of artists and filmmakers, but a lot of people don’t have that. Maybe the biggest con to not going to film school is that it can get really lonely. You have to work on building your own community, and there are probably going to be some false starts. Film school doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make lifelong filmmaking BFFs, but it gives you a head start. Film is not an art form you can tackle alone for the rest of your life, so this can be extremely discouraging when you haven’t found your people yet.
Should I go to film school?
I can’t give you the answer to this question, because it just depends on the person. Our beloved production sound engineer and producer Cecilia Keirstead attended film school at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. This was the right path for her. Our founder and CEO, Raven Angeline Whisnant, is a self-taught filmmaker. This was also the right path for her. Regardless of the path you take, it’s 100% possible to build a career in film if you work hard and really dedicate yourself to learning the craft of filmmaking.
Take a moment to think about your priorities, goals, and dreams. Is it important to you to have a four year degree? Does the idea of taking out student loans make you a little queasy? Do you learn well in a classroom setting, or is it easier for you to process new information when you’re studying on your own? Can you tolerate assignments that feel like busywork, or will that drive you crazy? Do you want to have the traditional college experience, or do you want to jump start your career now? There’s no right choice, there’s just what’s right for you. Good luck! We’re so excited to see what movie magic you create, either way.