Do You Need to Go to Film School?

If you want to get into the movie industry, do you need to go to film school?
That’s what I was wondering after two stressed dads, within the space a few days, emailed me about how they are going to pay for their teenagers’ dreams to attend a film school.
Film schools tend to be located in extremely expensive universities such as Chapman University, Loyola Marymount University, USC, NYU and UCLA (for non residents).
The dads who I heard from were worried that underwriting a film degree would break the bank. They felt, however, that if they didn’t underwrite their kids’ dream to pursue this sexy major, their children would never have a chance to be the next Spielberg.
I think that’s hogwash. You don’t have to major in filmmaking to break into the movie industry. Sure, it might be easier to get connections at a film school, but there are no guarantees. It’s also better in graduate, regardless of your major, without being burdened with six-figure student debt.
Oscar Director Winners and College Dropouts
After the Academy Awards last year, I wrote a post – Oscar Night Nominees Included Many College Dropouts – that explored where the Oscar winners attended college. Only two of the five director nominees actually graduated from college – Katheryn Bigelow, who earned a master’s degree in a graduate film program at Columbia University and Jason Reitman, who majored in English/creative writing at USC.
The other 2010 Oscar director nominees:

  • James Cameron dropped out of California State U. Fullerton.
  • Lee Louis Daniel dropped out of Lindenwood College in St. Charles, MO.
  • Quentin Tarantino never graduated from high school.

Other directors who never went to film school include Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra and Bernardo Bertolucci.
For students who believe attending a film school is essential, I’d urge you to read this post from Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo, who has a blog called NoFilmSchool, which is devoted to DIY filmmaking. Koo wrote this post at a previous website:

10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Go to Film School

Here’s something else you should read – an article from The New York Times that explains why you don’t need a film degree to work in the movie industry:

Where’d You Go to Film School? In My Bedroom

Coincidentally after I had finished writing this post, my daughter, who is a senior at Juniata College, got an assignment yesterday from her boss at the school’s marketing department asking her to write a story about the cinematographer of Weeds, the wildly popular cable show on Showtime. He’s a Juniata grad and will be visiting the campus. A kid from rural Pennsylvania breaking into Hollywood. Actually, it doesn’t sound strange at all.
Here’s my advice for families which would assume serious debt to underwrite a film degree:  Don’t do it!
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller and a workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. I really wish to be a director It has been my dream am am living outside the USA and suck risk wont be welcome in my country can anyone advise on what i can do

  2. Another great option is to take some non-credit film related classes to get the ball rolling without the debt. I know Emerson offers non-credit screen writing certificate courses that are also a cheaper alternative to teaching you the basics.

  3. Hi Lynn,
    If film school is not needed at all, then why are USC SCA and NYU Tisch FTV so coveted by students? Is it because of the internships or opportunities students have access to if they attend these schools? Or do you think there are equal internships for students at a school like Juniata that can translate into a job in the film industry after graduation?
    I do understand that some colleges are only as good as their alumni, but it seems these two universities in particular have the market cornered for talent both past and future .
    If cost is not a factor, are any of these two programs worth pursuing at all?

    1. Hey Suzette,
      I recently graduated from USC with a BA in film production. I have to say the reason USC is coveted is because of the alumni, facilities and opportunities. The USC SCA job board has an extensive list of mostly exclusive opportunities/jobs/internships/crew positions. Because there are so many fabulous opportunities available both in and outside of classes, you are much more likely to find something great for yourself or know someone else who did…who then gets you a job too.
      If cost is not a factor, definitely pursue film at one of the top schools. It gives you a leg up because you’re constantly surrounded by like-minded people fighting their way to the top. If one of your film friends succeeds you are more likely too as well.
      If cost is a factor, either pursue an alternate degree and find opportunities for yourself or start working. The secret is to consistently volunteer on student film sets and make the connections without paying the price.
      Should you decide to apply to film schools check out my new website
      I got into UCLA, NYU and USC film schools and have put together comprehensive guides and information and even made available two of my accepted applications.
      Good luck!

  4. Sometimes you run into a webpage on the internet and you wonder how everyone in your life is not talking about it: this is one of those pages. Thank you very much for the insight and additional resources which help amplify the weight of your opinion expressed throughout this article. You very well might have just saved me six figures of debt. I’m so grateful…

  5. My husband was a Geology major, Biology minor, from Whitman (which he attended on a full academic scholarship) and he’s a member of the Director’s Guild of America. He directs commercials, not tv shows or movies. I own and run an advertising agency with a BA in English from UCLA and an MBA in marketing from USC. We hire people all the time who are smart with great thinking skills, a can do attitude and the technical know-how to do the job. We have very little interest in their degree subject. That said, you can be a graphic designer with a degree in art history, but we’re going to expect you’ve learned all the software inside out, but that can be done on your own or through a community college (in CA, the UC Extensions are excellent) over the summers.
    We’ve got two high school sons (I read your blog all the time, have read the book, just downloaded the ebook) and we tell them all the time we think our success personally and professionally has been due to hard work, being open to unusual opportunities (willing to take a risk), and NOT being in massive debt as a result of our educations (or anything else).

    1. Hi Susan,
      Thanks so much for you comment and for your support. I greatly appreciate your observations about the degrees students pick. My daughter could end up illustrating what you are saying. She is a Spanish/entrepreneur major, but she’s gotten very interested in marketing and design. She has taught herself a lot of heavy duty design software thanks to an job she has at her school’s marketing department. I really do think people get way too hung up on the particular degrees – with most people thinking you need a practical one. I also heartily agree with your observation about not going into massive debt! No school is worth that!
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy