BACK TO THE CHALKBOARD: Should I Go To Film School?

Brad Riddell has written feature films on assignment for Paramount, MTV, Universal and independent producers. Brad’s first film, American Pie: Band Camp, sold over a million copies in its first week of release on DVD. Brad serves as an Assistant Professor at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts in Chicago. Follow Brad on Twitter @bradriddell.

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Here’s a question professional screenwriters and filmmakers get asked a lot:

Do I Really Need To Go To Film School?

film schoolI taught screenwriting at USC for five years. In all but my first, I was assigned to what you might call the “boot camp” class. My job was to teach a group of arguably the best new screenwriting students in the world how to master format, develop a unique visual writing style, and understand the fundamentals of cinematic narrative. The first thing I would tell them, which as a working USC screenwriting alumnus I had learned first hand, is that no one really cares where or if you went to film school. They care about how you are in the room and what you have on the page.

I’m now an assistant professor at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts in Chicago, where I teach MFA in Screenwriting Thesis Classes each year. My message to writers who are a year from graduating is exactly the same as it was to the newbies at USC: unless you want to teach, it’s not about the degree. It’s all about the product.

So Then…Why Should I Go To Film School?

When I decided to pack up and leave Kentucky for Los Angeles, I went to film school because I knew enough about myself to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to plant a “Screenwriter” flag in Hollywood and hustle my way into the business. A lot of people do that, and there are a great many who have been successful, but that’s not who I was back then. In fact, I applied to several MFA producing programs before I applied for screenwriting, and USC’s Peter Stark Program rejected me because, as they said on the phone, “you lack savvy.” They were right. I was totally raw. I knew nothing. I needed training, experience, time to mature and improve, and I needed to get a clue how to operate. I also needed friends, connections, and a safety net.

This is what I got from film school:

  • Expert training from people who had been where I wanted to be.
  • The time to intensely focus, develop, and improve.
  • A safe place to experiment and fail.
  • Access to equipment and facilities beyond what I could afford.
  • A network of lifelong colleagues with whom I built a career.
  • Insight and access into the industry.
  • A Portfolio of well-developed material.
  • A terminal teaching degree.

But Film School is Crazy Expensive, Right?

It cost me $83,000 to get my MFA degree from USC in what was then a three-year program (now two). A two-year MFA in Screenwriting degree at DePaul, also a top-twenty school, will generally run you around $51,000. There’s certainly a broad range of costs, but no matter where you go – I agree, that’s a big chunk of change.

But here’s the thing: I knew what I wanted. At 28 years-old, having held a real job and paid my own rent for while, I knew I was not a 9-to-5 guy. I wanted to work in movies so bad it hurt. I figured making a movie myself would teach me a lot, but also cost me a lot, and as a first-time filmmaker and inexperienced screenwriter, that movie would offer extremely long odds of paying off in a significant way. I wasn’t convinced that staying in Kentucky, teaching myself to write, and then submitting to script contests was going to lead me anywhere, either. So I came to realize that if I was going to make my dream come true, I had to go into business for myself. If you want to build a T-Shirt company or open a gourmet food truck there will be startup costs, right? I decided film school would be the seed money for my personal screenwriting business. In my case, fortunately, the return on that investment has been huge. For an A-List writer like Shonda Rhimes, the ROI is astronomical.

Making the Call on Film School:

In the end, it comes down to knowing what you want, knowing how badly you want it, and knowing yourself well enough to determine how best to get there. Yes, it’s a tough business, and true, not everyone makes it. But, in my ten years of teaching I’ve seen a great many graduates succeed because of what they’ve learned, what they’ve written or made, and whom they’ve met in school. There are also the intangibles: film school graduates generally aren’t the kind of people who are looking for lifeboats back home after a few tough years. Those people have gone all-in, and right now, there are more of them than ever before.

Next month: How to apply to film school.

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2 thoughts on “BACK TO THE CHALKBOARD: Should I Go To Film School?

  1. Brad RiddellBrad Riddell Post author

    I believe my post is pretty clear on the notion that film school is not for everyone, and that it is only worth what you make of it. To that point, dozens of former film school students with whom I’ve worked are now staffed on shows, writing features, or directing and producing. It is highly beneficial for the right kind of motivated and talented people, who want to cut years off the hustle. And you can be sensible about the education costs and keep them knocked down.

    I’d love to meet your talented writer friends, and if I weren’t too dizzy from be encircled by their looping, hard-earned genius, discuss with them the different ways in which they broke into the studio system. Seriously. My goal is to discuss the options and the opportunities available, and to do so, preferably, without slamming the work of people I know nothing about and have never met.

    I never mention the figure $150 K, and don’t know anyone who has ever paid that much.

  2. Chronicle

    Anyone willing to drop nearly $150k for degrees in Screenwriting is either hoping to teach, a complete idiot, or rich&spoiled (and an idiot!).

    School is an investment toward your craft, but if it leaves you financially deprived after graduating, then it’s not worth it. I know writers who can write circles around this guy (not surprising when your notable credit is “American Pie: Band Camp”) and they never went to film school. They simply have the drive, talent, and dedication to work as a screenwriter.

    Most Film schools market themselves by stating they can provide students with networking opportunities and equipment, both of which are readily available in solid filmmaking communities. If you were to re-purpose the tuition you would pay to a FOR-PROFIT “Film School”, you could buy the gear you need to function within the capacity of your choosing, pay for housing in the area of the country you’re looking to work in, access FREE lessons online about filmmaking (i.e Youtube Magic), and make REAL connections in the industry by working with REAL Industry professionals. (and all without the debt!)

    Avoid Film School = Save Money. If you really want to succeed in film and absolutely must go to college, invest in something that gives you certifiable skills to keep your pockets from going dry. Then save your money and dedicate every waking moment outside of work to your craft (it goes without saying I shouldn’t even have to mention this). Engineering, Business, CS. Hell, get your degree as a RN, work, save and pursue your dreams. If it doesn’t work out, then “Rinse, Repeat, Save, and Try Again”