Euro film students look to U.S. for work

Young filmmakers take a shot at Hollywood

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“America,” one European producer recently declared, “is the only country with a real film industry. That’s why so many people want to work there.”

Whether one agrees with this assessment or not, it’s hard to deny the lure of the U.S. production sector for aspiring young filmmakers. For one thing, its resources and material rewards dwarf anything available in their own countries. And while helmers are only as good as their calling-card feature, European graduates in a number of below-the-line disciplines (cinematography and editing, in particular) can seem almost fast-tracked to success.

Ben Gibson, director of the London Film School, is mindful of the broader possibilities available to British students, especially given the advantage of English as a first language, and cites Poland’s National Film School in Lodz, and FAMU in Prague, as other successful examples of cross-national training: “They both have international departments, and they’re both doing more than simply just seeking to fill their local industries. Whereas, for example, somewhere like La Femis (in Paris), as good as it is, doesn’t do that. Its students mostly assume that they’ll go on to have careers within the French industry, which they mostly do.”

According to Gibson, this emphasis on academic training is indicative of a broader shift within the industry. “We’re only now on the second generation of people who went through film school. Yet most people today who get their training on-set, under the old apprentice system, tend not to become actual directors anymore,” he says. “For better or worse, the culture of film schools has rather discredited the notion of starting out as an A.D., for example, and working your way up through the ranks.”

With this kind of expertise on tap, students often find themselves in the fast lane to their own successes. London Film School grad Duncan Jones, who won a BAFTA for his debut feature “Moon,” says, “The film school definitely had a hugely positive impact on me. For one thing, it gave me the confidence to plan and build film sets that would really increase the apparent production value of the film.”

Robert Glinski, head of the Lodz Film School — and a noted filmmaker in his own right — modestly acknowledges the institution’s achievement (his school’s honor roll includes Polanski, Kieslowski and Wadja, as well as dozens of acclaimed d.p.’s, designers and editors), but he denies that Hollywood factors much into its curriculum.

“The European tradition — and certainly our own preference here at Lodz — inclines more toward personal, arthouse filmmaking. So this approach already puts us somewhat at odds with the American industry, where not so much value is placed on the individual, auteurist ‘voice’ of a director,” he says. “Therefore, we instruct our students with a view to working locally, not simply in Poland, but across Europe.”

“Film schools here don’t specifically tailor programs to train students to work in the U.S.,” says another Europe-based professor. “Nor should they. It’s simply too unpredictable, trying to anticipate what the studios might be looking for, or even how welcoming they’ll be to foreign talent, given that there are simply too many institutions, both in Europe and in the U.S. Too many graduates competing for too few jobs. In my opinion, giving them the impression that they might work in America is only setting them up for disappointment.”

As with almost everything in the film industry, the rule is a simple one: Many will try; most will fail. One of the more notable exceptions, however, is Florian Hoffmeister. Now 40, the German lenser trained at Berlin’s prestigious German Film and Television Academy, but it was his meeting with Brit helmer Antonia Bird, and their subsequent collaborations on films such as “The Hamburg Cell” and “Cracker,” that bought him to attention stateside.

“I was very fortunate, meeting Antonia,” he concedes. “That definitely got me noticed. And also an American guy called Buddy Giovinazzo who moved here to Germany to teach and make moves. I shot for him, which was my first experience of working mostly in English with an American director.”

Since then, Hoffmeister has shot “House of Saddam,” the 2008 HBO-BBC co-pro, and was recently nominated for an Emmy for his work on AMC’s miniseries “The Prisoner.”

“I think that many of the Europeans who’ve gone to work in the States would say the same thing: It has much more to do with personal relationships — who you meet, who hears about your work — than where you studied,” he says, adding, “There’s an assumption in America that most people coming out of main European film academies have excellent technical skills.”

Nevertheless, he’s quick to praise his alma mater: “I can’t overestimate the virtues of a European film education. When I went through dffb, it had the old-fashioned, multi-disciplined approach: so while I majored in direction and cinematography, I also studied almost every other aspect of production and post-production, not to mention the amount of theoretical and aesthetic training. I find that breadth of knowledge invaluable now.”