For aspiring, young filmmakers, there are generally two modern-day archetypes of Hollywood heroes. The first is the George Lucas model: majored in film at USC, became a global pioneer in the use of digital filmmaking and went on to create cinematic history’s most iconic sci-fi franchise of all time in “Star Wars.” The second is the Quentin Tarantino model: dropped out of high school, worked in a video store and, in 1992, wrote and directed the cult classic indie crime drama “Reservoir Dogs.”
Two celebrated filmmakers, two very different roads to success.
But the landscape of filmmaking has changed so dramatically over the past several decades — a short posted on YouTube can launch a bigscreen career, while “Tangerine,” a breakout hit at this year’s Sundance fest, was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S — and fledgling screenwriters, producers and directors are faced with a dizzying number of choices as to how to pursue their careers.
And so the debate rages on, perhaps more fervently than ever: Do you need a degree from film school, or is it a waste of time and money?
“There are plenty of people who never went to film school,” says Tom Abrams, associate professor of screenwriting and production, USC School of Cinematic Arts, citing a list that extends beyond Tarantino to Hal Hartley, Robert Rodriguez, Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Fairbanks, the swashbuckling silent film star and filmmaker who yelled “Cut!” in an era long before the existence of film school programs; Bennett Miller and Paul Thomas Anderson both dropped out of the film program at NYU.
“So can you become a success without going to film school?” asks Abrams. “Sure, and you always could have. Except not everybody is a self-starter and lots of people need structure, and film school provides that. There’s also the community. Most of (USC’s) film classes are workshops, so it’s also a forum in which you help each other, you teach each other, and you learn by doing, and that’s much harder to achieve on your own in the private sector.”
There’s also the networking element, notes Abrams, which, in an industry so heavily saturated with neophytes angling for their first break in the biz — “most people don’t get jobs,” Abrams points out — cannot be understated.
“People want to work with people they know, people they trust,” says Abrams. “With USC, people in the industry have a respect for the school and its alumni. The great examples of course are people like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis and John Milius and Brian Grazer — all these guys went to school together. Spielberg (who was never officially enrolled at USC) crashed all the classes and finally we gave him an honorary degree. They created a family, a repertory and they worked together, and that can be difficult to replicate on the outside.”
Theoretically, of course, you could rent a camera and buy a how-to book and be well on your way to shooting your first film. For about the cost of a day at the zoo. There’s no shortage of cheaper, less time-consuming alternatives to a formal film school education, from six-week summer programs to online tutorials (Seth Green’s Stoopid Buddy Stoodios and partner Vimeo offer an online stop-motion animation course that lasts all of two hours). But film school’s core purpose, says Abrams, isn’t about easy access to equipment and editing software.
“Not everybody that owns a camera and learns how to use Final Cut is going to be a great filmmaker,” he says. “Film school is about ideas, it’s about story. Universities have always been about having a safe place where you are inspired and challenged by your peers. And having that structured way of expressing yourself and critiquing yourself is one of the most important reasons that you go to film school.”
But Joan Scheckel, an executive producer on Mike Mills’ “Beginners” and a consulting producer on Netflix’s Golden Globe winner “Transparent,” isn’t so sure that film school is necessary.
“There are pros and cons to everything,” says Scheckel, who did not go to film school and teaches filmmaking labs out of a Hollywood space she calls “creative Switzerland.”
“What matters is how you think and how you engage in a rigorous process in your life. It’s about saying what you want to say and finding the tools to help you say it. It’s all about think, feel, do.”
Robert L. Bassett, dean of Chapman U.’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, has a more practical approach. Film school, he says, provides critical training for young artists to deal with the inevitable financial aspects of the industry.
“Today, film school is so much about the business,” says Bassett. “It’s about, OK, you have a project, now how do you monetize it, how do you size that project? There is much clamor in (film) markets it’s just phenomenal. The hardest thing these days is to get somebody to see your film.”
To wit, film majors at Chapman have the opportunity to collaborate on projects that mirror “standard industry practices,” from optioning scripts to packaging the script with actors and directors to making the film with an allotted budget.
“(The students) are looking at classmates’ scripts and calling agents and managers,” says Bassett. “Everybody is looking for a script — and they see what a rat race it is.”
Ultimately, says Bassett, film school offers something the film business can’t — the chance to experiment and mine your artistic vision.
“This is a place where they can fail,” he says. “When they get in the business they have to be successful, they have to know what they are doing. Here they can try things and get them out of their system.”