Film School Detox

Film schools embody the most mythologized sector of academia. They retail dreams. They sell success. They market creativity. Sometimes dubbed “the artist’s MBA,” film schools have undergone massive transformations since the 1970’s. They have mutated from outposts for creative dissidents into pre-professional programs.
Film schools represent some of the most competitive academic programs. Ithaca College, where I teach, accepts approximately a third of its applicants. Despite what most high school students might envision, high test scores, class standing, and excellent writing skills trump DV Star Wars tributes for admission. The application process may be where the myths about film school begin, but it’s certainly not where they end.

Myth #1: Film School equals a Hollywood job.
Film school remains higher education. And that means intellectual exploration, engagement, and inquiry that unsettles rather than satiates. Instead of a job, think of a life in cinema. With runaway and international co-production, Hollywood is no longer a production mecca. Cinema exceeds Hollywood.

Myth #2: Film school will turn you into the next Steven Spielberg.
The film industry is a pyramid: broad at the bottom and limited at the top. Your chances of directing a feature film are about as good as your odds of becoming an Olympic athlete—it’s a long haul requiring discipline, risk-taking, and abandoning luxuries like health insurance. Besides, Spielberg dropped out.

Myth #3: Film School is for visual people.
As a film student, you need to read more than images: you need to embrace ideas. That means reading and writing. Just remember the legendary MGM producer, Irving Thalberg, who in the 1920s instructed studio employees to read several books a week, watch films from all over the globe, and read more than one newspaper.

Myth #4: Film schools promote industry internships more than coursework.
If you privilege Xeroxing actors contracts for a film company for free, then you’re certainly not earning money for your own film projects. You’ve also thrown away any other postgraduate opportunities that could actually launch you into the film business, such as gaining undervalued legal and business skills.

Myth #5: Film school is just a place to make your movie.
If you treat your degree like a studio, you’ve robbed yourself of the one thing college can deliver that the industry can’t: time to ruminate, see films, and argue. You’ll also flunk out.

Myth #6: Film Courses equal Job Training.
A good cinema course should squeegee your brain, disposing of preconceptions and old ways of seeing. If you want a technical job, skip college and apprentice yourself to a craft union.

Myth #7: Film schools are only as good as their gear.
You want a degree, not an equipment rental house. Digital video and laptop editing have rendered the gear issue moot. The most important gear: inspiring faculty.

Dr. Thomas W. Bohn—longtime Dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College—explains the purpose of film school this way: “To push the envelope of contemporary filmmaking through the creative application of intellectual enthusiasm.” Dean Bohn’s comments suggest, perhaps, that incoming students have it backwards: it’s not how successfully schools reproduce film industry employees, but how successfully they push students to imagine realities, dreams, and fantasies that can change film as we know it.

About :

Patricia R. Zimmermann is professor of cinema and photography at Ithaca College. Her most recent books are Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (Indiana, 1995) and States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies (Minnesota, 2000).