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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Q. College is tearfully expensive, and the school you emphasize is the best funnel into the entertainment industry (USC) is one of the most expensive of them all; to me, it is prohibitively so. Realistically, the only schools within my family's means are smaller state schools, the best of which is still isolated from any hub of film or television. 
Is it more valuable to spend four years getting an affordable education in a little-going-on city and graduating with relatively low debt, or taking the risk of striking it out West and trying to break in with a high school diploma and a winning smile? 
Both routes have taken people to success, and both have led others to failure.

I would hate to tell anyone to skip college and just try to break into the film biz. College gives you a lot of skills you need for life, not just showbiz. Whether you're a writer or a producer or a director, you'll need to express yourself clearly, and organize your thoughts, and plan ahead, and research, and these are the basic skills you get in college.  After you have a college degree is not too late to move to LA, and you'll need one to get a job as a producer's or agent's assistant.

At any state school, you'll be able to make films. Hell, anyone with an iPhone and a computer can make films now. If you make a couple of shorts every semester, and put them on YouTube, and see which get the hits (ignore the idiot comments, just check the hit counter), you'll learn a huge amount about filmmaking. Just find the other guys who also want to make movies, and make movies.

The only person I would tell to move to LA without a college degree is an actor. No actor can afford to burn the last of their teen years in Peoria. By the time you get to LA with your college degree, other actors your age have built up solid resumes. You've got college theater credits. They've got TV credits.

One compromise would be to move to LA, establish residency (I think it's 6 months?), and then go to UCLA at the in-state tuition rate, which is hella cheaper than USC, even though it is not exactly free either.

Or, do the same for City College of New York. Or the University of Texas at Austin.

It is unquestionably better to put down roots in a filmmaking hub. However, if that's not an option, try to wind up in a major city with a strong arts community, and hopefully a theater community to pull actors from. San Francisco, New Orleans, Portland, Seattle, Boston, Nashville, Chicago, Philly, Miami: surely one of these has a college you can afford?

(Almost all of these are port cities. Make of that what you will.)

By the way, USC has a top MFA program, but I would not particularly recommend anyone go there undergrad for the sake of filmmaking. For that matter, I don't think anyone needs a college degree in filmmaking, or indeed, any degree in filmmaking. The city you're in is the thing, and the arts community, and then just making films. Film programs give you access to free equipment, and fellow students to work with you, and feedback from professors, and they get your parents off your back about the huge amount of time you're spending making movies. But they are not necessary. Just go and make stuff.


Completely, completely agree. Personally, I think a non-industry base coat is crucial -- my undergrad work (at a nearby state university) was in English lit and philosophy. (Years later, I'm working with guys who drop the random Plato and Sisyphus references, so not as useless as one might think.) It's hard at 18 to think of yourself as someone who has a LOT to learn, but that is actually the case. The more real world experience you gain, the better off you'll be. (I'm thinking now of an assistant I worked with recently who walked away from a very desirable job because he didn't have the maturity to handle the demands of his position -- he was 24, but he'd been in school since he was 18 and it was his first-ever full time job. He just didn't know how to handle the stress or responsibility.)

I think for an aspiring DP or editor, a BFA in production could be worth it, just to learn at the knee of professionals. (And at NYU, they start the film students out with black and white still photography, so they master frame composition before anything else.)

But for everyone else, I don't see the point of spending the time or money on that degree. Internships, PA work, assistant gigs -- there's a dozen ways to gain that experience, and having finished an MFA and then worked in the industry, I can tell you the latter is WAY more educational than the former.

By Blogger Weaponized Awesome, at 5:50 PM  

I think Alex's advice is good as well.

I'll point out that full-time tuition at the University of New Orleans is $2500. The University of Texas' is about 50% more. UNO isn't prestigious. However, I took classes there and found them engaging. And I was able to take my training there and get into one of the top MFA writing programs.

The good thing about being in New Orleans is that it's simply one of the most creative places in the country. Film aside (though that's there, too), there are so many opportunities to express yourself. The truth is such expression is part of the culture.

By Blogger David, at 8:28 PM  

UNO is a terrific place to make films and meet creative people. But I think the questioner means s/he can only afford nearby state schools. I'd say s/he should start college wherever possible, then consider transferring for the last two years, or taking a semester in L.A. later as a visiting student. Few freshmen are really ready to take advantage of professional opportunities. A couple years of seasoning (where no one is looking if you make an ass of yourself) can be an asset.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 10:16 PM  

One other thing, if you're interested in writing for TV, might be to take an "interesting" job while you go to school locally. Having worked for a police department, for instance, or as an EMT, could help you stand out from the suburban-B.A.-in-liberal-arts competition when it comes time to staff a procedural.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 8:09 PM  

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