"I see you're a director! Jimmy, our busboy, is a director." -- The Big Picture, 1989
"The people you go to school with will be the same people that will be hiring and firing you for the rest of your life." This truism comes from Anthony J. Gonzales, who I used to call Tony back in school, back when he used to prod me daily with the enthusiastic refrain "let's go make a movie." But now that he's a TV Director of reality programs, such as Undercover Boss and Dance Moms, he has a more formal moniker.
Their names may slightly change for their onscreen credits, but they're very much the same people who attended film school at USC around the same time I did. Even the school, which has changed its name from USC School of Cinema-Television to the somewhat fancier USC School of Cinematic Arts, a name that incorporates the broader scope of the entertainment industry which now includes gaming and social media. It's also recently undergone quite the requisite Hollywood cosmetic facelift largely due to gifts from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Frequently, I'm asked about the worth of film school, especially now that a college education has become an expensive commodity and film school is a competitive, time-consuming, rarely subsidized major. Do I need to go to film school to succeed in the film business? If all I want to do is direct, couldn't I use those tuition dollars instead to make a really good short? Isn't it really about who you know, not what you know? No, yes, and probably.
In an era when you have Peter Thiel asking if college is worth the money or if giving some inventive 18-year olds $100,000 to create a tech start-up is a better investment, you wonder if the same philosophy applies to future filmmakers. Plenty of A-listers never set foot in a college classroom nor majored in film.
I reached out to some of my former classmates and colleagues who went to USC to discuss the film school experience and the impact it had on them. Most of us are in our "tween" years in the business, not newly minted graduates nor the major players. And, yes, I do realize that USC is not the only film school out there, but since Hollywood is about who you know, well, you're seeing it in action.
One thing most people don't realize is the commitment they're making once the thrill of getting in to a top program wears off. "If you do decide to go to film school, you have no life outside of it," said Barbara Stepansky who has gone on from USC undergrad and AFI grad school to direct indie thrillers Fugue and Hurt. "Programs being 24/7, as demanding as they are, you sometimes feel like Cinderella watching everyone else go to the ball. You just don't have much time for a social or cultural life."
"We didn't sleep much my junior and senior year," agreed Adam Gallagher. Gallagher is currently working as a 'preditor.' "Not the child kind, a one-man-band producer and editor," he was quick to point out. "The real editing technology hadn't quite reached the post department by the time I graduated... the cinema school only had one AVID for the entire school! People were booking slots to edit from 3 to 4 a.m., and even then it was crashing left and right.
Even though it was an elite film school with the best resources, we cut on old-fashioned, flat-bed FILM systems. Chopping single frames out and splicing them together. In a way, it made me learn the power of an edit. Crawling around on the floor at 4 a.m. to find a missing frame can make you remember things. Remember that you kids and your little 'undo' buttons -- you got it easy!"
One of the major assets of film school is training you for the career you will have while awaiting that big break, which these days can be a long wait. "At USC they used to focus on the practical application of job skills," said Gallagher. "While I'm sure everyone stumbled in there with the same dream: to direct, USC realized that we'd have to eat while we waited for that big directing break."
"Going to film school allowed me to write for a couple of years without the pressure of producing for Hollywood," said Kam Miller, a television writer on Law & Order: SVU who also just finished her first book, Myth of Crime. "For writers, I think that's very important. You need to find your voice. For me... I didn't know a soul in the business. I didn't want to move to L.A. without a job or a plan. Film school provided my safety net."
Then there are the connections, which I must say are a major leg when you graduate into this kind of business. Just in writing this piece, I reached out to the few people you see quoted here and within hours every single one had said yes to an interview. It's that Mickey Rooney "hey-let's-put-on-a-show" spirit that makes filmmaking possible and it's a tremendous advantage to know people with a similar ethos.
"I mostly hire from USC, or promote people who have gone to USC," said Gonzales. "But I work with a lot of people who didn't go to film school... Film school isn't a must I just think it makes your life easier."
"The biggest upside for me was meeting the people I now work with, said Stepansky. "Producers, DPs, writers, editors. They have become my best friends. People I trust to tell me the truth. People that basically enhance whatever I bring to the table creatively and therefore literally make me a better person."
"The contacts I made are all still good friends," noted Ashley Jordan, CEO at Bigfoot Entertainment. "Film school can be one of the best experiences of your life and worth every penny... the rest is up to the individual. The contacts that you nurture, looking back, is one of the most important lessons I've learned because I've pissed off a lot of people along the way."
Another upside Miller pointed out was that film school allows you to find a voice so that you "don't chase the market. It becomes very tempting when producers or your reps say, 'We need another Lost!' to try to deliver another Lost, or 60s drama, or fairy tale show, or other flavor du jour. But you can't chase the market. The market will change. It has to change. If you follow your passion, your next project might be the next big thing that changes it... Of course, TV is still looking for the next Lost, so if you've got it..."
Of course the "follow your passion" philosophy is also what many find to be the downside of film school. "Film school is not the real world," said Jordan. "You're able to be creative and make your passion films, but the real world is not like that."
One alum, who spoke anonymously, said, "I wish film school had better prepared me for the business of filmmaking. In school and in college, you can grow up totally unaware of the fact that the world is mostly run by money. It's not that people don't have high ideals or creative goals, but most choices made in Hollywood are based on how much it will cost. Your options are narrowed by how many dollars you have and that was not hit home for me in film school."
And speaking of dollars and common sense, you can't discount the cost of attending USC, or any university now, against what it will return for you in your career. Most of the people I spoke with, including myself, are still paying on the loans for this education. So we get to consider this question monthly when we pay our bills.
"The reality is," said Gallagher, "I don't really know if it is worth it to throw down the 60,000 dollars it took to get my diploma. Sure it's helped in the ol' boy's club when I can chat with a client about last week's football game with alumni spirit, but you can be a USC fan for a whole lot cheaper than being a student."
"The biggest downside is the cost," Miller agreed. "Film school is really expensive. And in these economic times, you could be saddled with the financial burden for years to come. It is a major consideration."
So would I take a Peter Thiel-esque deal to forgo a film school education to use the money to make short? If it was my 18-year-old self, absolutely not. At 18, you have an art film's chance in development hell of using that money wisely enough to launch a Hollywood career. But even though we work in the business built on imagination, it's hard to visualize that portrait of yourself having made different decisions. But I think all of us were in agreement that it was a pretty amazing experience that none of us would give back. So, to us, it was worth it.
"Nobody can prepare you for how difficult it is once you leave film school," said Stepansky. "Film school is a cocoon, where you are supposed to feel safe and cultivate your dreams so that they're strong enough not to break in the storm. But that storm always comes when you get out there and of course people get disillusioned. It's almost inevitable. I would like to have film schools prepare us more for the storm, but I realize what an impossible task that may be. It's the experiences that you make and the good or bad luck you may have coming out of film school that sometimes determine your path. Your film career is a tricky thing to control and navigate -- not unfeasible by any means, just tricky."