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Friday, October 3, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – Is Film School Really Worth It? (P.J. McNeill) - posted by P. J. McNeill

Film School – Is it Worth it?

Should I go to film school?”

It’s a question I’ve answered many, many times; asked by friends, family members, and total strangers. They ask because they (or someone they know) are eager to launch into a career in film. They ask because they worry if the expense (and looming debt) will be worth it. And finally, they ask because I went to film school, and they want to know “Hey, how’s that workin’ out for ya?”

There’s one big asterisk I should get out of the way before discussing film school: My parents paid for my college, in full. I have no debt to speak of and never had to worry about paying any bills. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity I was given, and am not ignorant to the fact that the college experience is not like this for everyone. A lot of people have to get scholarships, go into debt, and pay their tuition out of their own pocket. Because of this, some of you might think I have no right to talk about whether or not to go to film school, and you might be right. I can’t say with great certainty that, if tasked with paying for it myself, I would have done the same thing. All I can do is lay out my thoughts on the matter (as always), and you can take them as they are.

First, the hard truths: your BA in Film probably won’t mean a whole lot once you leave. In fact, a friend of mine who moved out to NY told me that “BA in Film” on your resume was shorthand for “Don’t hire me.” So, right off the bat, no one’s going to pat you on the back for your accomplishment. (You can play a game: tell people you’re majoring in Film (or majored in Film), and then see how quickly the interest fades from their eyes.)

Another hard truth: if you fail at film, and all you have left to fall back on is your BA in Film, you might have a hard time finding work. When I was trying to find work NOT in film, I know for a fact people had a hard time seeing I had majored in Film. It was right there on my resume, like a big waving flag: “HEY! This guy doesn’t want to be here! He wants to work on movies!” I remember a job interview for a police department (light office work, not officer) where I let it slip that I wanted to be a screenwriter, but tried to cover it up with “But that won’t impact my job.” I could feel a chill come over the room, and needless to say, I didn’t get the job.

Ok, enough hard truths. The positives:

1) You need connections. If you’re lucky enough to live in NY or LA, great. You can find unpaid work as an intern at any number of places. BIG places too. I remember, when I first got to LA, I was so disenchanted because people who lived out here already had a leg up on me. I was going up against people who worked on stuff like Lost (for FREE!), and the most I had worked on were some small, independent projects. They say this industry is built on connections, and film school really was a great place to make them.

2) You need time to grow and get all the garbage out of you. Film school really can act as a great purging of all the garbage inside of you. All the hitman shorts…all the writer’s block stuff…it all comes out in film school. (That’s why you see so much of the same stuff there.) It also gives you the opportunity to see what other people are doing. Learn from both your and their mistakes. Granted, you could do this with an iPhone and YouTube today (and not spend a cent), but the atmosphere and the application is much different. Workshopping in a classroom is just plain different than the comments section on YouTube.

3) You will be given the equipment and crew to make some truly great stuff. The best short films I made were in film school, and it definitely helped that I had access to amazing equipment and a readily-available crew of eager students. I always tell people: When you’re in film school, treat every-single-project like it will be screened for thousands of people. I saw so many people blow off projects, and I never understood why.

I don’t remember who, but some filmmaker (Kevin Smith or Tarantino or whoever) is famous for saying something like “Take the money you would spend on film school and spend it on a film.” And don’t get me wrong, I completely understand that sentiment.   But I can say this: I needed film school….or the film I would have spent that money on would have been about a screenwriting hitman with writer’s block being called out of retirement to do one last hit. The twist? His last hit…is himself.

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com. New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

1 Comments so far

1.

KP Mackie
October 3rd, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Great article, PJ!

School also enforces discipline, a necessary trait for a screenwriter.
If someone is naturally driven or tenacious, they’re very lucky. Otherwise, would think film school is a terrific environment to develop and hone that skill.

But there is, of course, the expense involved. Appears an argument could be made either way…

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