C lassic film school curricula teach everything from three-act construction to non-linear editing, and yet, as the following alums attest, often the most important lessons for a successful career in the industry are far more personal in nature.

Greg Mottola
Columbia U., class of ’91
“The emphasis was always on acting, writing and storytelling, with a very healthy dose of European cinema influence. Milos Forman was head when I was there, and film school was like a place you could pretend was this utopian society that actually cared about art. And even though I went on to make mainstream studio films, the school was very strong on auteur theory, which Andy Sarris really championed.

“I had three amazing teachers — George Roy Hill, Davis Mamet and Sidney Lumet — who were so different. Hill conducted the class like a workshop and made us write scenes, bring in actors and shoot stuff with a video camera. Mamet’s class was basically him lecturing. He’s very opinionated and brilliant, and even though it was a directing class, I don’t think I’ve ever learned more about writing than with him. And Lumet was a mix of feedback on our films and discussing every stage of making a film, with lots of personal anecdotes. As a fellow New Yorker, it was amazing to sit there and ask him about making ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ or ‘Network.’

“To have these great artists treat us like we were credible potential filmmakers was so exciting and inspiring. I used to joke that film school’s a bit like going to West Point and everyone’s expected to be a five star general, but the truth is, it’s a very competitive, narrow field of people who actually end up getting to direct movies.”

(Mottola will receive Columbia’s Andrew Sarris Award on May 2.)

Dane Davis
CalArts, class of ’81
“I’ve always been naturally extreme in the way I approach things. My nickname was ‘Take it to the limit,’ and other students would even sing that to me on the set. The big lesson I learned was, always push things till they break, because artists and filmmakers and the audiences enjoy their expectations being broken. CalArts was like the anti-Hollywood film school. Their whole approach was non-conventional, and back then it was very conducive to going crazy. That lesson and attitude stood me in really good stead when I got out in the world and started working as a sound designer on films like ‘The Matrix.’?”

John August
USC’s Stark Producing Program, class of ’94
“I showed up in L.A. literally knowing nothing about the film or TV industry, and the most important thing I learned was interacting with my classmates. You’re spending 20 hours a day with them, reading each other’s scripts, shooting shorts, collaborating and fighting, having dinner together every night. And the Stark program only has 25 people each year, so it’s like an episode of ‘The Real World.’ We all came out into the industry at the same time and helped each other tremendously. That level of horizontal networking was crucial, and we’re still all in touch.”

Crescenzo Notarile
NYU, NYIT, class of ’80
“I had a photography scholarship to NYU, and I transferred to NYIT to follow a professor who was very inspirational to me and my career. I’m a very tactile person, and the most important thing for me was to simply get my hands on the equipment. I immediately started making a short film instead of sitting there with my nose in a textbook. That was a key lesson and invaluable training. And here I am, 30 years later, shooting ‘CSI: Las Vegas’ on film, one of the last TV shows to still shoot film.”

Gregg Barbanell
CalArts, class of ’77
“You did it all. You shot, edited, sound-edited, and mixed film — and back then it was all film, no digital stuff. And all that carried through into my career as a Foley artist, learning as you go, thinking on your feet. It was the first time I’d been exposed to creative people, and they’re very different. I learned that filmmaking, for all the egos involved, is a group effort.”

Miguel Arteta
Wesleyan U., class of ’89
“I had a great teacher, Jeanine Basinger, who said, ‘Every great film director defines the medium in their own terms.’ And it’s so true. That lesson’s stuck with me ever since.”

Peter Kang
USC’s Stark Producing Program, class of ’96
“Back then, they were trying to have the different departments work together for the first time. The Stark program had previously been isolated, but I was able to audit graduate cinemato-graphy and directing classes. I thought I’d be surrounded by like-minded people — half-business, half-artist types. But it turned out to be much more illuminating when we got to work with people from different departments. I ultimately went the executive route, but everything I learned was so valuable later on.”

More from the Education Impact Report 2011:
Brave new ways to teach media | Yesterday’s grads share key lessons | Film school directory | Fox topper shows real class | Media’s emerging markets | Media mentor of the year | Master class | Brands sponsor student shorts