5 Reasons You Should NOT Go To Film School
A bunch of people reading this right now are on or approaching summer vacation from high school. For some of you, it might be the last summer before you go to college, a summer of liberation, a summer of trying to find your identity, a summer of doing DMT at your friend's older brother Jeff's apartment while he makes you listen to his mixtape of a genre he claims he invented called Jeffcore which sounds suspiciously a lot like a dial-up modem being thrown in blender.
I think Gen Z seem like nice, empathetic kids, despite your absolute garbage taste in clothes. People my age already did those clothes in the 90s and collectively realized baggy jeans look like shit. I'm sympathetic to Gen Z since, if trends continue, you'll be growing up within even less than we millennials had. So I want to give some advice to the young people reading this: some of you are considering going to film school. Uh, don't.
And why do I say that? Many years ago, I was in the exact same position …
I Know, Everyone Says You Need College
I'm not really an expert on anything, except possibly reciting all of The Venture Bros. from memory and telling you fun facts about the Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition films. Please don't think I'm calling myself an authority or claiming that my experiences are in any way a definitive statement of everyone's experiences. My goal here is to share my perspective as honestly as possible to help you make an informed choice about your future.
As I remember from being in high school, there's an almost pathological reinforcement of the idea that college is an absolute necessity in life, like health insurance or stable housing or wearing dark underwear on days you get dinner from Mojave Marvin's Mystery Taqueria and Same-Day Auto Tags. I want to balance that view out somewhat. Also this article gives me an excuse to write about my two favorite things: movies and myself.
So here's my experience. I didn't go to "film school" per se: rather, I went to state school in the Midwest and double majored in Telecommunications (Television Production Emphasis) and Communications and Culture (Film Analysis Emphasis). I graduated high school early because my grades were good enough and I absolutely hated high school. Wow, the weird unpopular kid decided to pursue a career in the arts? Real original, ME.
While I was in college I worked my ass off. My thought process was this: I'll work hard in college, get good grades, have several examples of my work and relevant experience under my belt, then when I move to Los Angeles I'll be showrunning a network sitcom before I'm old enough to rent a car! Since I'm writing this article and not slicing into a medium-rare dodo steak on my private island after a hard day's hydrofoil racing, you can guess how that went.
But Even Experience Means Nothing
While in college I shot a pilot that wasn't very good as part of an independent study program, wrote a few scripts that weren't very good, wrote a few theses that kind of were, and made a few short films that won awards. I also made a show called
I spun Music? Yes! into an internship with the local PBS affiliate station, where I ran a program called INtune that was basically the same thing but with an actual budget. I also worked on the occasional non-music-related thing for PBS, such as being locked in a haunted house. After I graduated college I stuck around the town for a year because my wife was a year behind me. In that time I worked for PBS, so I had actual, professional experience running a show.
The program my segments aired on even won a Regional Emmy for Best Magazine Program. I edited these segments. I led a team of videographers. I wrote and conducted the interviews. I scheduled all of it. I even occasionally shot some of it myself. I was a producer/editor/videographer/director. So surely I'm qualified to work in the film industry, right? With a resume like that, no one can ignore me!
Haha, no. You dumb, hopeful idiot with weird posture. My wife and I moved to Los Angeles together and were pretty much immediately plunged into desperate poverty.
Hollywood Wants A Very Specific Sort Of Person
You've probably heard the axiom that in Hollywood it's not
There's a pervasive, unspoken belief in Hollywood that if your experience wasn't in L.A., New York, or maybe Atlanta, it doesn't actually count. Oh, you made local human interest documentaries for PBS in Indiana? Which one did you put forward for Emmy consideration, Incest: Not as Harmless as You Think! or Don't Shoot at the Postman? I took a job walking dogs, so my first job in LA, with a college degree and an overinflated sense of self-importance, was literally picking up turds. Which at the time I found kind of humiliating, but also, I got to pet a lot of dogs, so it's kind of a wash.
Not even the local PBS affiliates would hire me. In my first year in L.A., counting both traditional resume-and-cover-letter applications and websites that let you apply for jobs and gigs with a pre-saved resume, I stopped counting after my 3,000th application. That's not a Comedy Number. Of those three thousand, I got three interviews -- a 1:1000 hit rate. I would have been better off betting on Competitive Getting Struck By Lightning or possibly roulette.
One of those interviews was for a company that edits movie trailers. The first question the interviewer asked me was "What is your dream in life?" I very maturely resisted the urge to say "To crush my enemies, to see them driven before me, and to hear the lamentations of their women" and instead said "Someday, I want to write and direct." She said "This isn't going to work. We're only looking for people whose goal in life is to do stringouts for upcoming film trailers," and that was that. Interview over.
Is that anyone's dream? In the playground, while everyone else was pretending to be an astronaut or a Lego Cowboy or a racecar, was one kid sitting in the sandbox in total silence for hours at a stretch, trying to find a cover of "When the Levee Breaks" that's just right for the gritty, sexy, Riverdale-esque live-action reboot of Scooby-Doo called The Scooby Files? If so, how did they survive the nonstop butthole trauma from decades of wedgies?
College Just Slows You Down
To try and "break in," I started working as a Production Assistant, which I've
I don't want this article to just be me bemoaning all the stupid mistakes I've made: believe me, people get enough of that from me in public parks during Openly Weeping Wednesdays, a tradition that so far hasn't caught on despite my continuing efforts. I want this article to maybe actually help someone.
So if I knew then what I know now, here is what I'd do: Immediately after graduating high school I would try to move to Los Angeles and start trying to do odd jobs in the film industry, or possibly try to get involved in well-paying-but-training-intensive on-set jobs such as make-up artist, costumer, or the guy who rubs peanut butter on the roof of extras' mouths to make it look like they're talking a la Mr. Ed. I'd try to make short films, music videos, and possibly the occasional porno in my spare time. Because there's nothing that film school can teach you that you can't also learn from the internet, for free.
If I were to go to film school again, I'd make sure to go somewhere in LA or New York simply for the networking, internships at actual film studios, and for largely no other reason. Like I said, it's who you know, and it turns out southern Indiana doesn't have too many ties to the film industry. They didn't even actually film Parks & Recreation there; that was yet another Movie Lie. Next you're gonna tell me if my computer gets struck by lightning it won't make a simulacrum of a sexy model for me to bone!
If you want to be a passenger plane engineer or a brain surgeon, then yes, college is probably a good idea. Nobody wants their heart transplant performed by a guy who claims he "doesn't need medical experience because [he's] got, like, a healing vibe." If you want to do something like film or journalism, though? Well, probably not.
Sure Is A Fun Waste Of Time, Though
But here's the thing: I don't want to shit on college! College is a really wonderful experience! It's a time of freedom, of finding out who you want to be, and of having lots of sex, or so I was told! Going to college was probably pragmatically speaking the single worst mistake I've ever made in my life. But it also pushed me to learn and grow as an artist. It introduced me to interesting ideas, and people, and points of view I might not have encountered otherwise.
I had the time to make a stop-motion film for class, which averaged twenty-five hours of work per minute of finished product. Then I teamed up with a composer from the music school, who wrote an original score. When the short was shown in a theater an orchestra played the score live, and that was one of the absolute coolest things that's ever happened to me.
I wish that everyone who wanted to could go to college without incurring insurmountable debt. I wish that everyone could spend time pursuing something that interests them for no other reason than because it seems cool. I wish that everyone could spend time hanging out and learning and not have to worry about an omnipresent clock counting down to when their physical body is no longer capable of producing capital and whether or not they've been able to weasel their way into a job that uses the brain to produce capital by then. But this is America, by God, and learning is for Europeans! What's next, paid vacations guaranteed by the government? Nobody going bankrupt because they got sick? Why don't you go eat a corn-syrup free dinner of foie gras and cigarettes at 8:00PM, you godless commie?
So take your ol' Uncle William's advice. Learn from his mistakes: Film school probably isn't the best choice unless you can get into one that offers direct networking opportunities, wearing all black doesn't make you as mysterious as you think it does, nobody owes you anything but you should still assume the best of people, you can add an egg to your ramen for additional flavor and to keep you alive for longer, cynicism is great for stopping you from being hurt but Romanticism is better your soul, and it's better to embrace your male-pattern baldness and shave your head than it is to have a bald spot.
Oh, and I hereby absolve myself of all responsibility if my advice ruins your life. See you in court, jerks!
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter and Nicholl Top 50 Finalist looking to get staffed -- or to write on your videogame! He is also 50% of the podcast Bad Movies for Bad People, the world's FIRST and ONLY comedy podcast about movies (available on all major podcast platforms!). He is on Twitter.