Is Film School Worth It in 2011?

This is a guest post from filmmaker Seth Hymes. He is particularly qualified to discuss the pros and cons of film school as he is a graduate and former instructor at NYU Film School.

Film schools are a wonderful opportunity to acquire basic filmmaking techniques and mingle with others interested in making movies. They allow a chance to experiment and study in a very structured and thorough way.

But, sad to say, I’ve gotten to know so many USC and NYU film school graduates who find themselves deeply in debt, without a job, and having no clue how they can make a living working in the film industry. At the same time I’ve gotten to know many more independently minded individuals who are thriving in the film industry but never got a traditional film school degree.

Today there are more and more lower-cost alternatives to traditional film schools and my goal in this post is to explore the pros and cons of investing in a traditional degree school versus the many other options available.

Film school students tell me the biggest benefit they believe they would get from film school is the invaluable connections and opportunities for employment. These students must have never looked at the job bulletin boards of their schools. Here is a typical example of NYU’s weekly job opportunities email:

NYU has been sending me these emails for more than 10 years and they all look just like this. The majority of the openings aren’t even for film related work. The few that are related to filmmaking are for very low paying  jobs anyone can find as easily on Craig’s List. The job bulletin boards from USC, UCLA and NYFA are no better.

The truth is that film production companies do not contact film schools to fill job openings. When I arrived in Los Angeles I put my application in at the Leslie Comer elite temp agency. This agency specializes in filling entry level jobs at NBC, Fox, Paramount and the other studios.

My film school degree was not considered important. In fact my agent recommended I put my degree in a footnote at the bottom of the resume. He assured me that all the studios wanted to see was what actual film related work I had done lately. They would be far more impressed by my having worked as a sound mixer and been a gaffer on 2 feature films.

My wonderful NYU film degree was an unimportant detail that would mean no more than if I had listed that I was in my high school’s chess club. Unlike in many other industries film studio hiring managers don’t care about degrees. They only want to know about real work experience you’ve had.

Are The New Art Institutes Any  Better?

The New York Film Academy started a trend and now there are Art Institute run film schools all over middle America. They try to copy the curriculum of the famous schools but condense it into a shorter time frame, taught by low-paid instructors, while still charging $30,000 and more per student.

The Art Institute has a huge advertising budget which it can easily afford because its business model is very profitable. The parent company, Educorp, is a massive multi-billion dollar corporation that has found the “for-profit university” business to be extremely successful for them.

The traditional degree schools like NYU also have multi-million dollar advertising budgets and make large profits from the $40,000 per year the students pay.

But almost none of the grads will make as much as $40,000 in annual salary after graduation. Don’t believe me? Check this chart from the Art Institute:

These figures tell the truth about working in the film industry as a film school grad. Film school grads have the lowest placement percentage and generally the lowest starting salaries of any of the Art Institute graduates. $31,000 is typical, which after taxes is barely more than $450 per week, and that’s for a week that is a lot more than 40 hours. How are you going to pay $600 per month payments on your $100,000 film school loan on such a tiny income?

This photo taken on a film set illustrates the sad situation for today’s film school alumni:

Almost everyone in the picture, and a couple of guys out of view, are film school grads from top schools with educational loans ranging from $30,000 to $100,000 but they are all making minimum wage, except for the guy sitting in the chair. The guy in the chair is Glynn and he is the director of the film. Glynn never went to film school and, in fact, he is a high-school drop-out.

He’s worked on major movies for the last 10 years, networking and making breaks for himself to get to where he is now directing films and bossing crews of film school grads.

I asked some of the grads if they wanted to direct films and they all said “yes” but not one of them had any idea how to get there. There’s a good reason for that. Although film schools teach basic techniques and a lot of theory none of them teach the real business and creative skills need for a successful filmmaking career.

There are many reasons for this but a major one is that the instructors at film schools are themselves mostly failed filmmakers, otherwise they would be working in the field and not be low-paid teachers. How can someone teach you to succeed if they don’t know how themselves?

As the respected film educator and Quentin Tarantino’s mentor, Dov Simens,  has pointed out: less than 1% of film school grads ever find even minimal success at filmmaking. The filmmakers that succeed tend to be the creative, ambitious, DIYers with a burning desire to make movies who are much too impatient to waste four years of their lives in a classroom listening to lectures.

Are There Cheaper Film School Alternatives?

Spending some time in a disciplined learning environment is still of value for learning basic skills and spending time with other like-minded individuals. There are a couple of low-cost options that offer a lot of value.

1) Local community colleges such as Orange Coast Community College in Los Angeles has  the same equipment as the very expensive schools like NYU or USC. Because the cost of digital equipment has gotten so cheap it is possible for these small schools to set up excellent facilities on a budget and they cost a tiny fraction of the costs of the name schools. They often offer alumni connections and internships that can lead to real opportunities.

After my graduation from NYU I was able to obtain an internship at Fox News Channel, but a buddy of mine, who went to a community college in New Jersey, got a similar internship offer years sooner. By the time I graduated and got my internship he was already well on his way up the promotion ladder. My fancy degree meant nothing to Fox News.

2) Get on the film sets of students attending those expensive film schools for free and learn right along with them. You may find it hard to believe but you can easily get on  the sets of NYU, USC or NYFA student films without spending a penny. You will get to hear the same instructions and have the same experience as students spending $30,000 or more a year.

You can also get onto professional motion picture sets, and even be paid. You will learn massive amounts every day and be building your resume and making connections towards a real career.

Film school was a fun experience for me in many ways but also a bitter learning experience. Make sure you do your research before you commit years of your life and tens of thousands of dollars.

In Hollywood it’s the quality of what you’ve done, not your name on a degree that counts for everything!

Comments

  1. martha says

    I think what u said is so true even though am just 19 and havent even study film yet, i was planning to go to some local art institution next year but right now am trying so hard to writte scripts and stories and read more on what am gonna do next. wanna be a director one day! and move to hollywood, hope my dreams come true one day.

  2. Frank Ogbu says

    Thanks so much for the information. All my life, I have dreamt of being a top filmmaker but its not being easy. I am currently a playwright and a local film producer based in Ghana.

    But I have never been to any school and I really want to be a director because I want to direct my own works. I would like to know how to apply to your online school. please advise

  3. says

    I have to say that I don’t think it is really worth it for people interested in breaking into the film industry to go to expensive film schools. Like you said you can use the same equipment and gain connections at a Community College. The film industry is different than other industries in that experience can count for a lot more when you are trying to get a job. Instead of wasting your time in classes and paying a lot of money, you can be working part time jobs and gaining experience by starring in student films or independents. By having the time to do more films, it allows you to be able to meet a lot more people and gain more contacts.

  4. says

    These is indeed a really good article. I just love the information that you’ve shared about films and does a film school really worth the cost for studying film, gaining experience and finding contacts. Film students should be really in this film passion.

  5. Philipp says

    Actually I wanted to write a personal message but maybe my post is going to help others how to begin learning about film education. I’ve read many posts in the internet today. Like martha, the first commenter, I wanted to study film and film making. Now I am not sure anymore. What I am quite sure about is that this is the business I want to get into, and that I have a certain creativity. So, is every university education the same? Is it not recommendable to study film making for about 35.000 dollars? I am going to try to find as much practise as possible, like those “for-free” lessons to help students at university you mentionend in your article above. What more can I do apart from reading your website and other’s articles? These are very important questions for me and my future – and probably for many more going-to-be-students, too. Please reply quickly.
    Greetings,
    Philipp

  6. The Prof says

    This morning I saw an article in the NY Times about a class action lawsuit against a number of top Law Schools. They are accused of greatly exaggerating the employment opportunities for graduates in order to deceive and get more students.

    Higher education is a huge and very profitable industry, even for traditional “not-for-profit” schools. They won’t survive unless they keep getting new students.

    Whether you go to film school or not you will ultimately have to dive in and start trying to find or create your own job through networking and starting at the bottom.

    Also realize that the film industry is a huge business that includes many different jobs requiring very different skills. No “film school” can properly prepare you to work in all of them. What you need is a strategy for meeting people who are working in filmmaking, decide what you want to do, get the skills you need for that job and start finding opportunities to work.

    It’s a sometimes long and frustrating process and there are no shortcuts, at least that I’ve found.

  7. Sarah says

    I agree, it seems to be worth it. Have you checked out the program at Santa Fe University?

  8. says

    I am basically Associate Director and I am from India, I have done few Films in Tamil and few in Telugu, I am planning to do MA Film Making in United Kingdom. Can you please guide me what should I do.

  9. says

    A great article indeed. Film industries are far different from others and in my opinion it is worth it to engage in a film school as long as you have a talent and perseverance on creating films.

  10. says

    I’ve noticed that you are casting various roles through different lists and online..

    I wanted to take a moment and introduce you to Casting Frontier.

    Casting Frontier uses cutting edge technology that simplifies, yet enhances, the casting process with no cost to the casting professional.

    Would you like to try out a free Casting Frontier account?

    There is no charge and no obligation, just respond back to this email and I will create an account for you that you can use right away.

    It’s that easy and with over 400,000 actors listed, why not try out some new faces?

    Thanks again for your time,

    The following is a brief summary of some of the features.

    For industry you can also go to http://www.castingfrontier.com/industry
    For talent for a free profile you can go to http://www.castingfrontier.com/talent

    With The Best Search Tools in the Industry, your workflow will be optimized as your overhead decreases.

    ● A- Z digital casting.
    ● Post breakdowns.
    ● Schedule and track auditions.
    ● Upload sessions.
    ● Chat with Agents and request replacements in real time!
    ● Request avails and book talent in real time.
    ● Blaze through paperwork: branded Booking sheets, Taft Hartley & Station 12 forms.
    ● Full client support team.

    We are pleased to announce exclusive features such as Director Mobile Pack, our innovative suite of director applications that includes:

    *iSession Mobile
    iSession Mobile is a custom application that enables the uploading of casting sessions to the Internet directly from your mobile device. With iSession Mobile, uploading casting sessions to the web is push button easy. iSession supports all major video formats including: QuickTime, Flash and Windows Media.

    Casting Frontier delivers true real time video streaming directly to your iPhone as well as integrated Digital Size Cards.

    Need to reach an Agent in a hurry? Use the “Auto Call” feature to get them on the telephone.

    * Director on the Go
    With Director on the Go, you can create and post breakdowns, prep, schedule castings, and track your workflow with ease right from your mobile device — casting anywhere, anytime.

    * CF Cloud
    Our integrated audition recall system. When you schedule through CF, all past auditions conducted on your behalf with talent are available as part of their submission.

    We are excited to have the opportunity to introduce the Casting Frontier system to you and your company and would like to create an account for you so you can see the benefits of using a state of the art digital casting solution.

  11. says

    Great article. i studied for three years film and to be honest i love writing scripts and directing. Its my dream to become director one day. However, i dont feel as if the material ive studied in those 3 years are enough. i always dreamed to come to NY and study film there. Your article brought back great memories and I will do my best to fulfill my dreams.