Thoughts from a film executive on if filmmaking requires a formal education.
I have been fortunate enough to enjoy a successful career in film and television for the past eight years, beginning shortly after I left college. How did I do it? It’s not completely straightforward but the one line answer I tend to give is that it took a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck. Breaking into the film and television industry can be really tough and the number one question I get from young students thinking about college courses or individuals who are looking to change their career path is if it’s necessary to have a degree or certificate in film studies.
When deciding if film school is the right choice for you think about what your career goals are, if you have any. If you are interested in a very artistic field such as production or costume design then art or fashion school or an apprenticeship is the place for you. If it’s film development or writing that captivates you perhaps an English or creative writing course could be more suitable. I swear every development executive I know in the UK appears to have studied English at university. If it’s directing, producing, editing, cinematography or like my past self, you have no idea but you know you love film, then yes it could be a good idea to consider a film course.
The Film School Experience
I studied Film and French in college for four years in Dublin, Ireland. The course was approximately 40% theoretical study, 40% practical and 20% language. I really enjoyed the film theory classes; they were interesting and opened my eyes to brilliant films I would have not otherwise watched. Did my knowledge of Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave stand to me in future jobs? In some ways yes, I think it is important to be aware of renowned film auteurs and how they influenced cinema. Realistically though it’s not something that is going to be raised during a job interview.
With the practical work I learned how to use cameras, sound equipment and edit both video and sound. Being divided into teams gave us an insight into what it might be like to work on a film crew. If you don’t like teamwork then film is not for you. Everyone’s role on a film set is necessary to get the job done and everyone should be treated with the same level of respect. The most important thing I learned in the practical classes was what I did not like and had no interest in pursuing. I was unsure if I wanted to learn more about directing or producing but I certainly knew I’d be leaving cinematography, editing and sound mixing in college. Some of my classmates did realise their passions for these departments during those classes and have gone on to work successfully in the industry.
For the record, there are always going to be students who know more than you do about certain areas of film. If you love cinematography and want to learn more about cameras don’t let any know-it-all put you off because they’ve read every cinematography book in existence. Focus on yourself and take advantage of the lecturers and learning more about your craft.
Unfortunately you also have to keep an eye out for blatant sexism especially when selecting crew roles with your peers. As much as I hope things have changed since my days in college, we are all aware that sexism exists in society. Stand your ground; no one should put you off doing what you love.
When I left college I knew for certain what departments I did not want to work in. I thought when I got into the real world I’d try out a few different roles on films and figure out what I liked that way. The only issue was that I had no idea how to get into the industry. Despite everything I had learned about film, I was not taught what to do the moment my final class finished. I was not given a little black book full of contacts for everyone in the industry. If you are fortunate enough to have a choice of film schools to apply to then please look at what courses invite guest lecturers from the industry to speak to students. This is one area where my course really lacked and it is absolutely vital. Students need up to date information from crew members working in the industry on how best to get their foot in the door for each department.
So how did I find my way in? Shortly after finishing classes I received an email from a past student who was producing a film that summer and was looking for interns. I immediately put myself forward and got the job. This was followed by another feature film that same summer and a television series in the autumn. None of these jobs were advertised online; I made contacts through the first film I interned on and also emailed production companies and line producers or production managers whose contact details I could find. Standing out from the crowd is easier than you think. Research the companies and individuals you are emailing and find out what they have worked on. Mention which of their projects you enjoyed and what you are looking forward to. On numerous occasions I have interviewed people who cannot name one project the company I work for have produced. Put in the effort and you are more likely to be rewarded.
College? Not A Chance.
I often receive emails from people looking to get into the industry who have no desire to return to higher-level education, or do not have the means to, and that is not an issue. There are many qualities required for a successful career in film and television that can’t always be taught including patience, organisation and good time-management. I often look at individual’s past experience and see how they could transfer their skills to film. It’s even better when someone points this out to me in a cover letter.
If you are changing career paths it can be difficult to immediately start in a higher paid role but if you are dedicated and hard working you will be noticed and can climb the ladder quickly. Don’t let your first job offer disappoint you, it’s all about gaining trust and working your way up.
The Path to Success
So, is film school necessary if you do want to go to college? My answer is to do what you want to do and not what you think you should. I’m certain studying business and law would have benefitted me more in my current role however the fact that I studied film stood out on my CV when I was being hired. Some employers like to see you’ve had an interest in film long-term, while others can be impressed by a simple cover letter stating your aspirations. If you want to study film then do it. If you’re not sure and think law or marketing would be better choices to keep your options open then go for it. Having a law or marketing degree certainly won’t stop you working in film if you are willing to keep pushing to achieve your goals. There is no one path to success.