Monday, February 1, 2010

Film School and reality

I'm still waiting for our Canadian partner to come up with the valued LOI's (letters of interest) and since I don't rush anyone, at least up to a point, we are eagerly looking forward to a conversation with them this week.

In the meantime, I've been asked recently about film schools and their value and since I'm still waiting for our Canadian partners to come up with letters of interest (LOI's) I thought I'd voice my opinions on film schools.

Several years ago I was invited to teach an extension class for UCLA film studies and it resulted in a gig that lasted about 2 1/2 yrs. I continued to work as a writer and even worked on a film but it didn't really interfere with either job.

UCLA is one of the top 4 film study programs in the U.S graduating Francis Coppola., the others are University of Southern California (USC), of famous for George Lucas, American Film Institute AFI), a highly regarded private school that turns out some great people and New York University (NYU) famous for Martin Scorceses. So I was pretty excited about actually teaching screenwriting at one of the big 4. 

Especially since I dropped out of Henry Ford College in Detroit after two years, preferring a job in a TV station mailroom. But UCLA hires working screenwriters for their extension classes and degrees don't matter. 

Remember those 3 words; degrees don't matter. 

I would teach every semester spring, summer, fall, winter. And the best part was that it was online. Not a classroom situation which meant I could (and did) teach at home or even on t he road, so it didn't interfere with regular work. I had a class, 15 students, mostly adults taking an extension course or two. And there were grad students who were taking the course for credit.

I got the hang of the software easily and began the class. I installed forums for discussion, a Chat Room where once a week they could all ask questions, and a program for whatever the course was that semester. There were courses in writing a full screenplay, writing the first act, writing good characters, and many more.

I had always wanted to help writing students if I ever got to a point of reasonable success, which I did at that time. Ironically this was because nobody ever really helped me that much, I really  had to work for whatever opportunities I got.

After several semesters I began to notice that for the most part, people were taking classes for entertainment, housewives in Ohio or factory workers and just ordinary people. There were maybe 40% of them who wanted careers, but for the rest, they were being entertained by a real, live screenwriter in Hollywood. Many would take a course of two then never come back. And for one reason.

The hardest part of writing... is writing.

And it became clear that the University wanted me to encourage them to take more courses and it finally reached a point where I became disillusioned, realizing that 95% of them would never be writers. I got tired of lying to them. Out of the 250 students, I think there were 4 who might... with a lot of luck and hard work and moving to Los Angeles might... just might get a career going. I finally left teaching and returned to the rejection of the real screenwriting world.

I also failed in the minor film school encounters I had myself. An instructor told me and my friend Phil Borsos, that we shouldn't even attempt a career in this industry. Needless to say, Phil and I were the only two of the two schools we attended... who ever went on to a career in this business.

Film schools are incredibly expensive, it can cost well over $100,000 to get a degree in film. As far as I'm concerned someone could take that money and actually make a movie and learn how to do it. Interestingly enough, a degree still doesn't really count in this business, talent, craft and discipline are more valuable than a piece of paper.

At least on the creative side.

If you want to be on the business side, lawyers, accountants, CEO's, etc, then a degree is important. There still are many students who get a degree and go on to a good career, but these also are the good ones and my feeling is that they would have made it with or without film school.

Since Movie Brats Lucas and Coppola and the others, who were the first film students to succeed in the real world, the number of film schools have multiplied by the hundreds. Before that it was people who had no film schools to attend. They worked at any jobs, fought the Great War, and were accomplished authors and writers.

What disturbs me is that all these film schools, and there are hundreds, are graduating students into a work situation that has few opportunities. You've probably read about the amount of WGA writers unemployed and directors and actors. And crews. Lots of grips and gaffers and make-up people and more are unemployed.

Yet universities and private schools churn out thousands of students each year.

How can you succeed in the light of these odds? 

You have to want it.

You have to want it badly enough that you will sell your soul to the God of Film. The one who teases you with success and just as quickly snaps it away just as you reach it. Of course it doesn't happen to all of us, just most.

So to go or not to go to film school is a difficult choice, what it does is allow you to learn and make films, but on the other hand you could spend that tuition on just making a film by yourself and making mistakes and learning right there.

One of the best schools in some ways is by a guy called Dov Simens, who teaches 2-day classes for a few hundred bucks. He has compressed his course to give you basically a 4-yr college education in 3 days. If you don't believe me, check his website. I don't even know the guy but everyone in Hollywood knows about Dov, and he has a real good list of successful students.

And you or your kids can save $100,000.