Peter Jackson once said “The more you know, the less you achieve.” He is a self-made filmmaker, and claims to have proven you don’t really need film school.
Google “Which filmmakers did film school?” – and you’ll find a long list of articles about, and Top 10-lists of filmmakers who never went to film school. Is it cooler not to have to go to film school? Well, definitely if it strokes your ego to claim you did it all by yourselves.
Admitted, there are things you cannot learn at school. Like FAILING (in the real world), which is probably the most important experience you need, to build resilience in an industry as fickle as ours.
So, then what can you learn? Well, about everything else.
I had my first teaching experiences in my twenties. I love teaching, and since 2008 I have been lecturing and consulting frequently at half a dozen film schools, in Australia and internationally. (I also run my own screenwriting courses)
During this time, I have learned a lot about what students do and don’t pick up from my and other courses.
I won’t look into the cons of going to film school – Peter Jackson took care of that. So, instead, let’s look at all the great reasons why you should choose a formal film education.
Here are 10 things you will achieve at film school:
1. Re-Invent The Wheel (or not)
You will learn the origins of film, and modern filmmaking techniques. This will help you adopt principles and practices. Did you know where our screenplay format comes from?
But sometimes you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It’s great to learn from other people’s mistakes.
It’s not so smart to make those same errors others have made before you – a thousand times over. Why not move to the next stage? Raise the bar, and move forward faster!
Even if you don’t accept ‘the rules’, an awareness of the principles of good storytelling, and successful filmmaking will help prepare you to see the light.
2. Find Your Place In The Industry
So many students start film school, not really knowing what exactly they want to do. This is completely normal. There are so many different roles and responsibilities in the world of story development, film production, and digital post-production! How can you know what you love until you’ve heard about it?
Other students can’t make up their mind… Do they want to write – or direct? The best way to find out, is to just do it. At film school you have nothing to lose. You simply step into the shoes of whichever job you’d like to try.
By emulating the experience, you’ll soon find out for yourself if this is what you want to spend your working life doing.
3. Learn In A Structured Way
Sure you can go on the web and Google everything you need to build a career.
But others have been there before, done the hard work, and facilitated the process for you. At film school you get a comprehensive overview of what may otherwise seem a daunting underground world of people and systems.
When you start looking at things with an analytical mind, you will find ways to save time, or to do things more simply. This is where film school is invaluable.
Why would you spend years finding out by trial and error, if you can go straight for the kill?
4. Access The Pros
If you were to hire me directly for advice on pretty much anything, I will charge you more than any school pays me.
Your share of that fee is absolute peanuts, compared to what I would charge you directly. If your film school fees seem high, just add up the value of access to people and materials. You will soon find out that most film schools are actually super cheap.
5. Find Yourself
I love schools and colleges. They are magical places. Here, information doesn’t flow just in one direction. Teachers are learning and growing, too. And we don’t all just learn about the craft of filmmaking, we learn a lot about each other – and about ourselves.
Thinking about stories forces you to think about people, and about what matters. It helps you see the world in a different way – and discover your place in it. Your interaction with your mentors and peers will also shape you in a way you never expected.
Only a very few of us will ever be able to socialise and interact on the same level, with as wide and diverse a community as is possible at film school. Your workplace will likely be more limited in numbers, and the type of people you’ll meet more homogenous.
This deep interaction with peers and mentors is immensely valuable. You’ll probably draw more experience and satisfaction from this, than from any of the classes you attend, or the tricks you learn.
6. Fail Safely
Once you’re out in the real world trying to make money, failure is expensive and painful. A bad script sent to the wrong people may burn your reputation forever. A poor film can tarnish your career. Any major failure in the industry can instantly annihilate your future (even though Hollywood is full of exceptions).
At school, making films is play. This is immensely beneficial in two ways.
First, this freedom will allow you to be creatively uninhibited, and you may well come up with your best work ever. Nobody will fire you or make you feel miserable because you’re not fit for the job. (Sadly, that’s what the real job world looks like for many!)
At film school, you are virtually completely free to try anything you like. How great is that?!
Collaboration is one of the critical skills for filmmakers, and increasingly also for screenwriters. The days when misanthropes could escape from the real world to become writers, are long gone.
I’m not talking about the fun, team sports type of collaboration. I’m talking about the high-stakes, extreme-pressure, problem-solving kind. This is also a skill that kids straight from high school don’t naturally display.
At the very best film schools, you are introduced to various crew roles during pre, production and post-production. This will help you better understand the challenges of other people on your crew. You may also be inspired to do your own work in a way that helps others, and makes the entire process smoother – and ultimately more successful.
The best film schools hire people who are active in the industry, who themselves have extensive networks.
I have matched numerous students with each other, or with powerful industry people, as mentors, or in order to support their career.
Once you learn that marketing is just as important as making your films or writing your scripts, you’ll find out that building a strong network is half the way towards a successful career.
There is yet another important aspect to the networking potential of your films school…
Some of the people at your film school will break into the industry in a big way. If you treat them well during your time at school, there is no reason why they shouldn’t stay in touch. Big name filmmakers often go back to the people they know when they need help.
9. Challenge Teachers
The teachers may be challenging, but you should be challenging them, too.
Often the smart hecklers are a teacher’s favourite students.
To challenge teachers makes them re-think what they teach. As the market changes, course materials have to be updated regularly. And smart students with a critical/analytical spirit often help with this.
The last thing you want to do is just learn stuff by heart. Making movies is about understanding the process of storytelling. You will be surprised how many teachers have forgotten this – or never even understood it…
These people deserve some serious heckling.
10. Have Fun!
Yes, you are allowed to have fun at school.
In fact – You may have more fun making movies at film school than you ever will thereafter.
Imagine, collaborating on your own creative projects with a group of like-minded people… who are not in it for the money.
How can it possibly get any better?
Film School Fees
You’ll find film schools in every pricing bracket, from a few grand to a few hundred thousand.
If you can’t afford the big ones, try the more community driven film hubs. For writers, there are even some really cool, affordable online screenwriting courses. (more to come here soon)
When is the best time to go to film school? This is entirely up to you. Some are ready right after high school; others try a different career before they feel the creative itch. You’d be surprised how much people achieve at middle age, because their focus is sharper than most of the youngsters.
You’re never too old to learn. Some of my most devoted screenwriting students are in the same age bracket as Academy Award® winner David Seidler.
In terms of actual filmmaking experience – and don’t discard this as just a cliché – you will get out of it what you put it. You need to understand this before you dive in – or you ARE wasting your time and money.
And to counter Peter Jackson’s argument, it suffices to look at the countless alumni of a few famous film schools to find a whole army of former film students who have achieved greatness and excellence in their careers.
Please share with us in the comments what you is the most important thing you learned at film school!
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.