James Petulla, Renaissance Man
By Jennifer M. Wood
Call him a revolutionary, but James Petulla's method of learning by doing is really just a "a throwback to the Renaissance period," where you learned your art by paying your dues and taking advice from a true master. Through his Film Connection program, aspiring moviemakers all over the country are becoming working moviemakers—and learning from the best in the business. Here, Petulla talks about bringing the 12th century into the 21st.
Jennifer Wood (MM): Film Connection is not your traditional film education experience, and it's a program that I think is best described by you, its founder. Briefly, what is it that Film Connection attempts to do?
James Petulla (JP): Film Connection is a division of Entertainment Connection. We "connect" film production companies and television stations and recording studios and radio stations that have a need to hire beginners with an aspiring apprentice (extern). Our apprentice (extern) method of training is a throwback to the Renaissance period. In the 12th century, if you wanted to be an artist you didn't go to school, you went to work for an artist and you were not paid for your labor. On the contrary—you paid for the privilege of working free. And people stood in line to do it with the right master! If your father or uncle weren't already doing it, it was the only way to enter a profession. Following this same Renaissance apprenticeship (externship) method during the last 18 years, we have secured jobs for over 5,000 beginners in film companies, radio and TV stations and recording studios worldwide. Our purpose is to help abolish that old catch-22 that "you can't get a job without experience, and you can't get experience without a job!"
MM: One of the things that really struck me when we first spoke about your program is that you stated "Most successful people in film were never educated." Can you talk about how this statement relates to the approach you take to teaching at Film Connection? What is the learning philosophy on which you and the program operate?
JP: Most people in any form of the arts got into the business on their own with no schooling and no training anywhere. The reality is that most people that go to traditional film school never work one day in the business. Frankly, I believe you are either an artist (which is what this all is supposed to be about) or not. In other words, the technical stuff, the mechanical things, you will always learn, but you have to have been born with the "seed." It's no different than actors or musicians or painters. I believe that the best teachers are not teachers, but eminent working professionals—people that make a living doing it every day. A real director, producer, editor, DP, etc.
Remember the old saying, "Those who can, do; those who can't do, teach." I believe that's often true—especially in the film and television industry. I would rather learn from someone who pays their rent doing it every day than someone who teaches it every day. I don't think many people have a goal of "teaching" film students. The goal is making, if possible, an award-winning film—or simply to have a rewarding job in the motion picture industry. Our students really do gain real world experience, because they do not train in a school—they train on-the-job; on real money, on-the-line film productions.
The other big key in an apprenticeship (externship) situation is that training is always done one-on-one. One student apprentices with one instructor or mentor. A mentor is a professional, in this case a film producer, director, editor, DP and so on. It's the same person who from time to time has to hire beginners and dreads the day when they'll have to sort through resumes of college or film school graduates who haven't a clue what the business is really all about. How much better to hire your own private student apprentice (extern) that you have personally groomed and taught, on-the-job, in the real world.
MM: In order to make a program like Film Connection successful, it's obviously necessary to have a large network of participating companies with whom your students can learn. How did you go about building these relationships in the first place? What are some of the companies that you work with on a regular basis?
JP: We build new relationships every day with Film Connection. We get phone calls from people all over the country wanting to break into the film industry. So let's say you call me from Dallas, Texas. I need to find you a company to apprentice (extern) at in Dallas, Texas—like AMS Productions, who've trained and hired several of my apprentices. Frankly, as often as we can, we try to put only one potential apprentice (extern) into one company at a time. The simple reason is that if you're the only student in that company at the time, your odds of employment are far greater than if they already have five or six other interns. Also, keep in mind that we are charging the students tuition of US $5,950.00 and we are actually paying the film companies a portion of these fees to train our apprentices. So, again, the film company gets paid. Trust me, they are not just doing it for that reason because—let's face it—they don't need the money. But what I've discovered over the years is that successful people really do love to help and mentor people.
Also, we really do have a screening process unlike traditional schools. First, we screen our applicants by phone for motivation and desire and we are very honest with each and every one of them about the "pay your dues, bad hours at first, bad wages at first and absolutely no guarantees" [philosophy]. Also each candidate must easily have the money to do this because we accept no government grants or loans. Keep in mind before anyone pays anything to us, they are interviewed by the film company in their local area. If the company does not accept them, they cannot do our program and there's no fee charged at all. And these film companies do not need the money or headache of the new student they don't feel good about.
As I mentioned, we try to work with one student in one company as much as possible. But in areas like Los Angeles and New York City, for example, I do have some special companies I like to work ongoing with. In New York City, I work with Tapestry Films quite often—especially with people who want to learn editing. I'll send that person, for example, to Sherwood Jones, who has been editing for them since the company's [inception].
MM: Which aspects of the industry does Film Connection help teach?
JP: We help with production and post-production positions—directors, editors, cinematographers, camera operators and all aspects of producing. We do not place writers or actors.
MM: Now, let's get down to the specifics: What are the educational or professional requirements? How many students do you accept at any one time? How do interested parties go about applying?
JP: Our requirements are simply a passion to really want to do this. You have to have the "wanna"—the want! Simply go to www.filmconnection.com, Or call a toll-free, five-minute recording line that is the first of our screening calls that will probably talk you out of this, at 800/858-4241. If accepted, your training could take place during your off-hours, evenings and even weekends.
MM: For many, an education is only as good as the opportunities it opens for full-time employment. One of Film Connection's biggest claims to fame is your amazing placement rate for students. What kind of help do you give students who have completed their work with you and are seeking full-time work in the industry? What are some of your favorite success stories?
JP: We get you a start—an entry-level beginning into the profession. We have not made anyone Spielberg or Kazan—yet. You simply get a start. After that, it's up to you.
If you can handle starting at the bottom of the ladder, if you are willing to keep your day job to pay the rent, then contact us for an interview. If a local film company accepts you, you will then receive the same text material of any college or university program. The difference—and it's a big difference—is that your instructor in our apprentice (extern) program will not be some burned out college professor, but a working veteran—a professional who is currently in the field.