Why Go to Film School? (Part 2)

In my last post, I talked about why production-centered classes might be helpful for a wannabe director/producer/screenwriter. This week, I’ll list a few attributes of the more purely scholastic side of film school (e.g. film history/media studies, Gen. Ed. requirements, “networking”).

First of all, let’s talk about film and media studies classes. I’ll be honest, for many years I thought of these classes as being an exercise in pretentiousness for those incapable of actually participating in the making of movies. In some cases I was correct, but not in all. Let me explain further. . .

Media studies classes are more useful than just the contents of their textbooks

Okay, I’m the first to admit that most curriculae for film majors are way too heavy on media studies classes. But taking a couple of these actually can be more helpful than just reading a film history textbook. The main point behind any media studies course is thinking about the context (historical, cultural, aesthetic, technological etc.) of a film, TV show, or whatever. You’re probably thinking that those things are totally unimportant from a production standpoint, but they actually aren’t. Context shapes the story, the acting styles of the performers, the visual aesthetic of the movie, and everything else. Understanding how social mores and trends influenced films in the past can help a filmmaker to make conscious decisions about those aspects in his/her own film – and to know what meanings those decisions might have to the viewer. Some media and film studies classes also focus on aspects of production like editing, lighting, etc. This is useful because, although a production class can allow you to find out HOW to do some special kind of shot or lighting effect, a film studies class can assist you in deciding WHY and WHEN to do something like that based upon how you think it worked out when others did it in their movies. I’ve heard strange complaints to the effect that media studies classes make all students into cookie-cutter filmmakers, but that could really only happen if the students ignored instructions to analyze works and give their own opinions. However, if one truly feels that one is getting somewhat brainwashed, one can always obtain an outlet for their “deviant” point of view (like a blog). Additionally, debating with the other students in the class should provide a means for the outlet of creative and analytical thought.

Then, there’s the vocabulary thing. If you’ve read almost any of my other posts, you’ve probably stumbled across terms like mise en scene, intercutting, or rack focus. You’d learn these eventually just by being around the right people or reading silly enough stuff, but I found that I got comfortable learning and using film jargon much faster by taking classes that use this as their main vocabulary.

GE courses provide fodder for screenwriters and can get you into a better BA program

All of those “boring” courses like history, political science, linguistics, and physical anthropology may turn out to have been pointless exercises to future pastry chefs, graphic artists, or software programmers, but for filmmakers they’re a source of research materials and inspiration for screenplays. Every movie and TV show has to be about something. That something is determined by the screenwriter’s base of knowledge. The more diverse your body of knowledge, the more different kinds of stories you can write. How can you write a great political thriller without some in-depth knowledge of political science? You can’t. Even the writers of the show Bones had to learn a little bit about physical anthropology before sitting down in front of a keyboard.

Furthermore, where you take your GE reqs can significantly influence your choice of undergrad film programs later on. How, you ask? Firstly, consider that some film schools have a pre-major system. If you don’t take the pre-major classes either at that same school or at one with a good articulation agreement for similar classes you might be looking at as much as an extra year of study if you transfer there – or an inferior program if you don’t. Secondly, consider that many of the GE reqs at one school or another might be fulfilled by classes in your field of study. Some colleges/universities allow students to satisfy art, humanities, literature, and even critical thinking areas in their GE curriculum with film classes. The more film classes you take, the better your transcripts will look to a prospective film school.

As a quick side note on this topic: Most people will claim that it doesn’t matter where you go for your first two years of college because all general education patterns are the same. Having taken my GE courses from 6 different California community colleges, and one in Hawaii (for reasons too lengthy and ridiculous to go into at present), I can tell you that this is not the case. Your choices for fulfilling a GE curriculum can easily be extremely narrow and stale at one place or a cornucopia of fun and interesting courses at another. If you have a choice, read through college catalogs and term schedules (don’t trust the catalog alone) for different places and choose based upon your interests. The first place I went had a grand total of three film classes and a very slim selection of GE applicable classes. It took me way too long to learn that I could take online classes from several different places at once if I wanted to, and I never did try cross-enrollment with four-year schools. Don’t make my mistakes if you can help it.

The “N” word: networking

Yes, I have to mention this. Often thought of as the primary, or only, reason for attending film school, networking is simply a way of referring to the process of meeting people who may help your career out later on. You network with teachers because they can give you a letter of recommendation or introduce you to people in the industry, you network with fellow students because they can either become co-workers or draw you into a project they’re working on after graduation, you network with employers because you usually get a job as a student intern, and you network with visiting lecturers because they might remember you or keep in contact with you after they leave – providing you with a possible “in.”

Because of the power of networking, the most common way that most film school grads get a job in the industry nowadays is by applying somewhere they had an internship at as a student. It logically follows that the best way to get a job in the media industry is through an internship. And, finally, that the easiest way (and frequently the only way) to get an internship is. . . you guessed it! To be a film student.

Conclusion

If you want to be a filmmaker, film school may be the best thing for you. Then again, it may not. With all the arguments out there against the idea, I thought I should put in my two cents in favor of it. In the end, however, the decision is entirely up to you. Good luck!

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