Film School or On-the-Job Training?



06/21/2012

If you want to be a filmmaker, it might surprise you to know that not everyone in the film industry went to film school. There are, in fact, quite a few successful directors who never received formal training—including James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher and numerous others. These people found other ways to break into the business.

This raises a few questions: are these film school “rebels” the rule, or the exception to the rule? Is it better to go to film school, or not to go? Will attending a film program give you a better shot at a film career?

Not necessarily. It depends on the school, and more importantly, it depends on the school’s ability to give you access to the film industry.

You see, the reason why so many people succeed without the benefit of film school is that it requires more than just an education to make it in film. The film industry prefers people with prior experience and connections, and actually places little value on degrees or diplomas. While most film schools can teach the technical/practical skills involved, most of them fail to provide students with the chance to gain work experience or make direct connections within the industry itself. (Those who bypass film school have simply found other ways to get educated, and they managed to gain the connections they needed in order to get in the door.) Thus, many film school graduates end up with no job prospects, and many never actually get their break.

This has led many aspiring filmmakers to look at alternatives to formal film school education. One alternative is to find a way to get on-the-job training—to get into a real film production company and learn as an apprentice (extern). This is different from internships, because interns essentially run errands and don’t necessarily learn the ropes. On-the-job apprenticeship (externship)s, however, enable the student to learn one-on-one from a seasoned film professional—and there’s really no better way to learn filmmaking than to study under a real filmmaker.

The question, of course, is: how do you get an apprenticeship (externship) in a film company? (After all, film companies aren’t necessarily advertising openings for apprentices.) One viable way to get your foot in the door is to enroll in a film school that uses the mentor-apprentice (extern) education method, like the Film Connection. This kind of school actually places its students as apprentices in real film production companies, also providing a structured curriculum to guide the process.

Some people prefer film school; others lean toward on-the-job training methods. However, in a way, the mentor-apprentice (extern) approach provides the best of both.