Grads debate route to breaking into biz

Twenty years ago, the decision to attend film school was a simple financial equation, explains Tom Edgar, co-author of “Film School Confidential.”

“If you wanted to make a short film, you needed about $100,000 worth of equipment, and the only way you could get your hands on it was to pay $10,000 a year tuition,” he says. “Now, you can buy everything you need to make films — a digital video camera and a Mac with Final Cut Pro — for less than $10,000.”

These days, DVD commentary tracks offer even the casual viewer a virtual master class in film production, while self-distribution Web sites such as YouTube make it possible for self-taught filmmakers to reach their audience directly. Such advances add a new twist on the age-old question: Is film school really the best way to break into the business?

Producer Peter Guber believes young filmmakers who shoot movies and then put them online are doing themselves a disservice if they believe that they can do without the broad experience a university education offers.

“You can learn via YouTube, but you’re not honing your skills to the best level,” says Guber, a full professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television who also co-hosts the AMC talkshow “Sunday Morning Shootout” with Variety Editor-in-Chief Peter Bart. “The idea that you’ve had professional exposure and opportunity to learn in a film school environment has to be an advantage. It doesn’t mean it’s the only route. There are many routes. But it puts … in context … the professional processes and disciplines.”

Advocates of film school will say in addition to the education one receives, it’s often the networking that pays off when it comes to job hunting. Many filmmakers — such as Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker — forge career-long partnerships in film school.

Says USC professor Michael Taylor, who serves as chair for the Division of Film and Television Production: “The networking system works in a much bigger way than I thought before I came to USC. It’s what they call ‘the Trojan mafia.’ I’m amazed at how instrumental it is. Ten minutes out of film school, and you can call an alumni and have a positive conversation and possibly even get a meeting.”

“Networking is huge,” agrees “Stomp the Yard” director Sylvain White, who was a production assistant, editor and post-production supervisor before transitioning behind the camera. “As a director, trying to get your movie made is 90% of the job.”

But not everyone is onboard with the idea that film school is a necessary way to kickstart a career. Certainly McG and Quentin Tarantino are examples of two directors who went their own ways and found incredible success.

“No studio has ever asked me about whether my client has gone to film school,” says a manager who handles several high-profile helmers.

And for aspiring screenwriters, school may help promising scribes improve their skill set, but it can’t turn hacks into Oscar winners.

“Writing is a very difficult thing to teach,” says screenwriter John August, a USC alum who wrote the screenplays for “Go” and “Big Fish.” “You have to come to school being a good writer. They can’t teach you that.”

The fact that enterprising individuals can shoot, edit and disseminate their own amateur productions adds a new twist to the traditional debate over whether to dedicate four years (and as much as six figures) to film school or skip higher education and head straight to Hollywood instead. For inexperienced beginners, several entry points have proven useful over the years.

Traditionally, moving up from a production assistant has been a beneficial and common way to get a career started. Internships, washing an executive’s car, running an errand for a producer or enrolling in a training program are just a few examples that are viable. One small gesture or seemingly insignificant job can lead to a karmic rise up the ranks.

Factor in the ability to circulate a short film or demo, and new avenues for getting the industry’s attention avail themselves.

“The landscape has changed,” says Bob Bassett, dean of Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman U. “Kids who make films in high school for school papers and reports don’t want to wait anymore.” That’s one of the reasons Dodge puts cameras in the students’ hands the first week of school, trusting that they will turn to their professors for guidance. “You can’t make a film alone. The whole nature of collaboration is enhanced in film school.”

The campus experience provides a broad-based education in the film business that somebody working in a much more isolated environment might not be able to attain.

For example, a budding young director may certainly have superior talent when it comes to filming a scene, but as any feature-film helmer will tell you, there’s so much more to being an on-set director than just getting the right shot.

Understanding how all those jobs intertwine can be learned both in the classroom and on set.

“It’s one of the most complex jobs on the planet,” says “Premonition” director Mennan Yapo, who skipped film school and worked in publicity, marketing and as a sound mixer before earning his helmer stripes. “You’re dealing with writers, actors, d.p.s, tons of technical stuff and budgeting — and that’s before you get into the editing room.”

Producing is another profession that can benefit from extensive university study, with an emphasis on real-world experience. At UCLA, the producers program — where David Linde and J.J. Abrams teach — has only two academics on staff as all the others are working professionals. And producers-to-be don’t necessarily come through the film school but from the university’s Anderson School of Management, where they can get a business-oriented background.

“As producers, they have to understand the economic realities, the food chain, exhibition mechanisms and interdisciplinary business,” explains Guber. But, he says, “Film schools are not employment agencies.”

There’s no rule that says film school grads are more likely to find employment than someone who posts a creative amateur production on YouTube. But it’s hard to argue that getting a more well-rounded education on the art of making movies is a bad thing.

“If you have a film school that has a great reputation, you should definitely think about it,” White says. “You need to do what’s right for you.”

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