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Why Should You Consider Film School If You Want to Make Films?

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My name is Marco Williams.  I am a filmmaker and a film educator.  I have been making films for more than thirty years.  I have been teaching filmmaking for twenty-five years.  I have been associated with seven different film programs in my career.  I learned filmmaking at Harvard.  I received a MFA from UCLA in their Producer’s Program.  I have taught at The University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Duke University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, New York University, and Northwestern University in Qatar. 

This background does not make me an authority on the question of, “why consider film school,” if one wants to make films.  But, it has given me the opportunity to reflect on the merits of attending film school.  And yes, students that I have taught have gone on to have fantastic careers, as well as having struggled after graduation to make a living making films.

What follows is a list of reasons for attending film school.  It is general.  I do not make distinction of undergraduate or graduate program, nor do I delineate a fiction versus a non-fiction program.  My goal is to provide you with information, ideas, and perspectives to help you undertake the journey of why to consider film school if you want to make films.

What I elect not to do is to give the other side of the argument.  For every point that I make, I or someone else could make a counter argument.  I trust you can do this yourself.

Going to film school gives you an opportunity to develop your own creative voice.  This is hard, though not impossible to do, when you’re working production on someone else’s film, You are only helping with someone else’s vision. Film school carves out the time to develop yourself artistically.  What a benefit.  This is potentially even more critical for women and people of color, people with disabilities, and/or members of the LBGTQ community.

Film school creates community.  You grow with a cohort of classmates.  Upon graduation you might be inclined to create a film company with fellow graduates.  Also, filmmaking is a network-driven field. People get jobs from the connections they make at film school.

At film school women, students of color, veterans, LBGTQ, and disabled students get access and resources, unlike in the industry, which is dominated by and geared toward straight, white males.

Film school education provides mentorship.  Professors provide critique and support of your growth as an emerging filmmaker.  This is not to be taken for granted.  The professional ranks do not necessarily provide such support.

Black Is...Black Ain't

A film school education provides access to ideas, some of which will challenge you.  You get forced to see and think things you wouldn’t necessarily find easily outside of the academy. Where are you going to learn about “Black is... Black Ain't”?  Where are you going to have an in-depth discussion about a Bruce Conner film, or feminist filmmaking, the French New Wave, or African Cinema?

Film school teaches you to perform each role on a film: direct, film (not “shoot” let’s retire that triggering word), edit, produce, camera operation, write, grip, art direct, animate. You are taught documentary production, fiction production, experimental, etc.

If your desire is to make films, I would encourage you to apply to film school.  If you’re going to consider film school, there are many things to consider when deciding where to go.   There is a proliferation in the last decade plus of film schools and film programs, which makes the choice of where to apply even more challenging. 

Some considerations:

  1. In Southern California there is UCLA, USC, Chapman, Cal Arts, St. Mary’s, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, Cal state Long Beach, Cal State Fullerton.
  2. In Northern California you have Stanford (grad doc), Berkley (grad doc) SF State, UC Santa Cruz (grad)
  3. Southwest and South: UT Austin, NCSA, Duke (grad doc), University of Miami, Florida State, American, George Mason, Howard University, George Washington University;
  4. Traveling north: Temple University, Rowan College, Brooklyn College, Pratt Institute, Fashion Institute of Technology, City College of New York, Columbia University, New York University;
  5. MIT, Harvard, Emerson, Boston University,
  6. Midwest: Ohio University, Northwestern (grad doc)

I’m sure I've forgotten a school or two or three.
As you think about film school, certainly, cost would be first and foremost.  What is the tuition?  Does the school provide financial and equipment resources for you to create films?  Is there a capstone or thesis project expected?  Who pays for this?  Who owns the final project? 

Other considerations: does the school offer the type of film education that you are interested in—documentary focused, experimental, fiction-oriented?  Does it train you in writing—television or film, studio or independent?

Have an awareness of the diversity of its faculty, of its curriculum, of its student body.  Are the students primarily from one particular region? Are they from only the United States? Does it have a large international student population?

Who is teaching at a particular school?  Does the faculty consist of adjuncts, visiting professors, full-time professors? Are the professors filmmakers or film theorists?   Have you heard of the professors, admire their work, heard or read an interview?  What is the student to faculty ratio?  A smaller school affords more contact hours with your professors.  A larger school offers a broader cohort of classmates.

Where do you want to live for two to four years?  Think about what the city or town that the school is located in has to offer in terms of your interests, and expanding your interests.  Your education is not only on campus. 

Can you make professional contacts outside of school?  Does the institution have a good track record for helping make contacts?   “In the middle of nowhere” schools might surprise you because they are looking for students and they will offer a generous financial aid package. 

Figuring out whether you want to go to film school, and then where to go to school is a path that must be taken by any aspiring filmmaker.  Consider what I have shared as a guide; a road map of sorts.  But, it is up to you to determine the destination and how you will navigate your journey. 

I can say, from my own experience to the experience of colleagues, and former students: if you really want to become a filmmaker, attend film school.

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