Thursday, July 14, 2011

In Defense of Film School

When I was a kid – like six or seven – my grandfather, Byron, a retired police officer, would take me to the movies after school. Kid movies, like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and D2: The Mighty Ducks. On our way we would play a game where I would come up with an assortment of exotic, severely misplaced, animals that would, somehow, find their way into the middle of busy Maine roads and he would swerve to avoid them.

“Look out for the hippopotamus!” I would exclaim.

And he would swerve accordingly. This was great fun. I was a weird kid.

One day he got pulled over. The cop assuming, at first, that he was drunk. But this cop soon realized that my grandfather was only under the influence of his eccentric, imaginative, grandson during one of our favorite outings. The cop let us go.

It’s these expeditions and memories that created the love that I have for movies.

Then I got older and he stopped taking me to kids' movies – looking back, I can’t believe he was capable of achieving the patience required for a sixty year old man to sit through Ace Ventura – and I started watching more films on my own. A lot of them. I watched Jurassic Park so much I wore out the VHS tape within months.

Never had to avoid this one ...
If I wasn’t watching movies I either had my nose buried in a book, or attempted to play sports. I actually used to read at sporting events, paying no attention to the action on the field, diamond, or basketball court. I was more obsessed with the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, Harry Potter, or any sort of epic fiction involving sword wielding mice and indecipherable moles. 

Clearly, since an early age, I loved movies and writing. Naturally, the combination of the two in a form that operates in a bizarre-o world of rules and efficiency known as screenwriting just rocked my socks.

It still does and I still write.

I didn’t stumble upon this epiphany until my freshman year of college, when I watched a shitty movie called The Holiday (the one with Jack Black and Cameron Diaz). For some reason the all too charming character of Arthur Abbot (Eli Wallach) made me realize that screenwriting is for me and I promptly declared myself a film major. 

Knowing my goals and intentions early on, I didn’t spend much time in Production classes, but I did them. I held lights, looked at lenses, made weird Dutch Angles, awkwardly acted, and awkwardly put my friends in front of the camera, making them argue about things as if they were saying something important when they were just yelling gibberish.

I spent four hours a day, twice a week, analyzing the videos of Hitchcock, Scorsese, the Coppolas, and the most profane films Europe has to offer. I spent hours a week writing and revising scripts like a man on a mission (still am). I had an internship, where I learned firsthand about contracts, negotiations, and the loss of innocence when you sell your first script and watch it go nowhere (here it is in a brilliant, storyboarded trailer). Among other things I learned how to write, watch, listen, and that Europeans have a ridiculously artistic obsession with sex.

And, unless I find my way into this inexplicable, chaotic, monstrosity, known as the Film Industry, none of those lessons have any apparent value in the inexplicable, chaotic, monstrosity, known as the Real World.

Or am I wrong?

My reflection of my time in film school started as early as graduation, but after this article came out from the New York Times, and then this one from IndieWire, and then this one from Gawker, I started to ramp up the reflective analysis of a major part of my life. What did I really learn? Will I ever benefit from this? Will I ever find my way into this mess of an industry?

I came to realize that there are certain things to be said about being a film major, or having graduated from film school …


When you read a script a week, every book on screenwriting there is (which, by the way, are complete and utter bullshit), and then write as much as you possibly can on a strict schedule, you tend to get a little decent at it. At least. But, it’s having this high level of written communication that’s essential in life, not just in writing movies about cowboys and aliens or talking beaver puppets and angsty teenage wizards.

Stephen King – whose book On Writing is not complete and utter bullshit – came into my high school and spoke to my creative writing class. I only remember two things he said:

1.     “I’m a car slut.”
2.     “The people who can read and write will rule the world.”

The power of written communication is infinite. Should we, God forbid, fall into another Dark Ages and lose all written language – those who either develop or still possess the skill will be the ones with the power.

All too happy ...
Although film school may not seem like the logical way for me to become competent in the written word, it still happened. And even if you don’t want to be a lowly screenwriter, the film studies classes that require you to write ten thousand word essays on the use of the color green in Vertigo will surely get your chops up when it comes to communicating complex thoughts in a clear and concise manner.


If you can sit down and thoroughly analyze every second of Inception and its overall meaning to Cobb’s character arc and then comment on all the major British Cinema influences that Christopher Nolan draws from … then you can surely analyze a spread sheet.

A professor once explained the double bottleneck effect of movies to me:

The writer creates a world that is epic, sprawling, complicated, and spans life times, then finds a way – hopefully a good one – to put it all into two hours (the bottleneck). It is then the audiences job, whether they know it or not, to take all the information behind that bottleneck and understand all of it (the other bottle).

If I were to have a fancy diagram, it would look like an hour glass.

Film is a two way street of presentation and analysis that is constantly happening as the movie goes on. The average moviegoer does this on the level of topical character and exposition developments. The basics. As a film major, you are able to dissect the relationships between camera movements, lighting, thematic lines of dialogue, musical score, mise-en-scene, costume and wardrobe, and acting. That’s an overwhelming number of variables to take into very serious consideration all at once. Hence why in order to completely understand a film it takes multiple viewings. But at the same time, are their any other mediums that require the complete analysis of that many variables, all of which have a life of their own?

Not that I know of.

Well maybe architecture. But that’s a whole other post.

The point is, that if you apply that level of cognitive energy to anything else, you will be able to slice through it in no time. There are very little creations out there that are as complex and multifaceted as movies are and, as a film major, you need to have the ability to analyze their relationship with each other. That makes sitting an office and analyzing spreadsheets and market trends seem kind of easy. Almost a little too easy.


“Film is a collaborative medium. Now, bend over,” said the Producer to the Writer. Or the Director to the Writer. Or the Actor to the Writer. Or just about anybody to the Writer. But we’re not going there.

Film is a collaborative effort. A very collaborative one. The director does not do everything – for those who don’t know. They don’t really operate the cameras, they don’t set up all the lights, they don’t do all the budgeting, nor make sure the catering gets there on time, or that the film gets developed on time. Sure, some might do the cinematography or editing or the score and then cross over into producing with budgets and what not. Those are either the multi-talented auteurists who want complete control over the entire project or they may just have a tiny budget and have to do it themselves -- which makes them that much better at filmmaking. 

But, for the most part, the amount of manpower that goes into creating a feature film is incredible. Next time – you non-film majors – are at a movie theater, take the time to sit and watch all the credits roll by. Pay respect to all who worked on this film you just spent ten dollars on. You’ll get an overwhelming understanding of how much is required to make these films that you so easily discard as being “shit” or “dumb” or “not worth ten bucks”.

The best example of this I’ve seen is from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Probably one of the best movies I’ve seen in the past few years, this highly underrated animated film has an interesting take on its opening credits.

Most opening credits feature a title card that goes “A Film by This Egocentric Artist” italicized so you pay attention to him and all the bullshit he thinks is important. But, Cloudy simply has “A Film by A Lot of People”. And that’s just brilliant.

  1. Its informality fits the tone of the film.
  2. Its casual intellectuality fits the tone of the film.
It simply abuts the idea that this was a film created by one man and instead gives credit to the fact that a film is a product made by hundreds of people.

You mean the director doesn't take "film by" credit? What?
There’s a book by Joe Eszterhas called the Devil’s Guide to Hollywood where he talks about how amazing it is to know that this one little bull shit, fairy tale, story I wrote in my underwear in my living room has created two months worth of jobs for over a hundred people. All of which are working their asses of to make my tiny, little vision, as the writer, come to fruition.

Film is as collaborative as any team sport out there. Trust me, I struggled through all of them.


You are creative, you film major.  Nobody can deny that from you. And, more importantly, no one can take that away from you. Ever. It’s something you were born with that not everyone has. You, for some God given reason, have an incredible imagination.

You’re training as a film student has helped you take this imagination – this weird thought or vision in your head – and turn it into something tangible. Be it a camera angle, a score, a script, a lighting scheme. As a film major, you know how to reach into your mind and turn something as milky, half-baked, and ridiculous as your imagination into something clear, formulated, and understandable. This can be applied to anything.

In fact, this is what the business world calls innovation.

Look at every start up, or IPO, or CEO that champions innovation. All they’re saying is that some guy had an idea (like you! You get those all the time!), turned it into action, and then found a way to monetize it.

Kind of like my friend Max, who started his own production company where he does freelance digital video work. Or Matt Sweeting, who gave me my first writing job for his fledgling production company. Or Kevin Smith, who made a silly little movie about a general store clerk and became a rich and famous director of amazing films. Or any of these Kickstarter projects …

Being creative – due to our sad and pathetic educational system – is a rarity these days. And, those of us who actually are get looked at rather curiously by everyone else.

“Like, oh my God, it’s so cool how you, like, think about yourself and stuff,” says the blonde sorority girl from New Jersey.

“Dude, you’re so weird. How do you come up with this shit?” asks the Jewish frat boy from Long Island.

They’re kind of jealous. Even if they don’t know it.

Which brings us to another Pro of being a film major …

Being An Expert

Movies are a major part of American culture. Huge. Enormous. Studies show that more people go to movies during “hard times” than any other form of entertainment. This has deep, very complicated, psychological rooting (escapism, fantasies, cultural identity, etc …) but, the point is that films – since their birth – have been a point of cultural fascination and always will be.

And, being a film major, you are an expert on the most popular commodity in our country.

The amount of influence that films have, the amount of money that people are willing to spend, and the amount of emotion we invest in our favorite actors, actresses, directors, and characters is ridiculous. Being film majors, we understand this phenomenon on a much higher scale; a much clearer plane of cognition.

Forgive me for perpetuating the hoity-toity, I'm-smarter-than-you, film kid stereotype … but it’s true. We understand movies better than they do.


Such an ugly word for the masses that encourage producers to spend millions on movies like Fool’s Gold or pretty much anything Matthew McConaughey’s been in by actually buying tickets. We know better than they.

We know what to and not to encourage. What films will make you a better person and what ones just simply stimulate brain activity. And this, like creativity, will last us our entire lives. One can hardly even imagine the shear wonder, excitement, and curiosity that Einstein must have felt when he looked at -- what once was -- a pristine New Jersey night sky. Every time we film majors see a trailer, major block buster, or next brilliantly fashioned film, those synaptic connections we've so deeply entrained will spark up and we won't be able to help but marvel at the brilliant way J.J. Abrams uses diegetic sound to create tension in the Super 8 gas station scene -- something they probably missed. 

But, like everything, there are both pros and cons.


That’s mostly a stigma perpetuated by everyone else then reperpetuated by the disheartened graduates who hear it so often they actually believe it.

This narrow minded belief that if you studied film in college that’s all you can do should be dead. The same applies to those who studied business or art history. For some reason our culture is obsessed with categorizing everyone based on their curriculum veritae, and don’t seem to understand that almost all institutions of higher learning are moving towards a liberal arts foundation. That means there is no more specialization in the sphere of higher ed – or at least that’s the plan.

In this Day and Age, nearly all Millenials graduating college now should be entering the real world with the belief that they are, at least a little, creative, technologically savvy, hard working, quick learners, with great social skills. But that’s just a should, not an is.

Truth be told, most kids graduating now are lazy, dispassionate, and uninspired. Spending more time on Facebook and Twitter than trying to develop contacts to get a foot in the door, or creating a personal brand to make a name for themselves. That’s kind of sad and also off topic.

Point is, as stated before, film majors are capable of much more than just “film stuff”. We are a deeply creative, intellectual, hard working, analytical, and communicative group of people who are rather ambitious. Film stuff is only the beginning of our potential. 


Yes, there are way too many kids in film school that take themselves too seriously. That is a fact.

But that happens everywhere.

Just look at the kids in business school who show up to class with brief cases and sit in front. Or any Fine/Visual Arts majors. Or the Art History kids who use fake British accents and act like they have Avian Bone Syndrome. Or the History majors who will argue about everything to prove their belief that they are authorities on the state of the world because they read five books on Woodrow Wilson’s shitting habits during World War I.

Egocentrism is not centralized in film school. It’s universal. But, one thing you learn in film school is that all they need – those James Camerons – are people who can quietly, and confidently, step their game up and show those fools how it's really done.


Although there is an epidemic in Film School this is, again, a universal problem. But, if you donate five cents a day to 1-800-NO-HIPSTERS you can help alleviate this socially awkward disaster and teach an ever expanding group of kids how to …

  1. Put their money where there mouth is.
  2. Dress properly.
  3. Contribute to Society.
  4. Effectively argue about artistic issues without sounding like a dick.  

When it comes down to it, the vast majority of people who graduate from college never go into the field they studied. If every history major went into history there would be too many high school history teachers awkwardly hitting on cheerleaders. If every film major went into film, unemployment would surely sky rocket to an embarrassing level (if that hasn't already been reached ... ). Just like an overpopulation of a single species can seriously damage an ecosystem, if everyone did what they majored in life would be way too overloaded and boring. Cross pollination is a great thing for flowers, bees, and human ideas. 

What you really need to do is focus on making the best of the opportunities that you have here and now. Life is going to take you on weird paths, and if you make the most of them by using the skills you’ve acquired through time spent studying what you love, then you'll start to see things fall into place. Maybe they won’t be in Hollywood – that elusive, mythical, land of wine and Dionysian orgies – but you’ll start to see something is happening, that so long as you keep giving it everything you got you’re going to get somewhere and you will be happy. That takes faith, commitment, and determination. Things that will never ever be taught in any classroom. 

So, in final remarks, being a film major is by no means a guaranteed job in the Film Industry. But it is a guaranteed way to spend the four most important years of your life studying something you deeply love and a great way to obtain universal skills that can be applied to anywhere to be good at anything.

And that’s priceless.

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