There has been a surge of interest in undergraduate film school programs, in part because technology has made it possible for almost anyone with a smartphone to become a filmmaker. But is film school a necessary first step to getting into the industry? Even for families who can afford the hefty price tag, is it the best route to professional and creative success?
As in college admissions generally, the answer is, “It depends.” The first thing to understand is the variety of programs available in order to understand which is the best fit for your child.
Bachelor of Arts Degree: Film Studies Majors
At the most accessible end of the spectrum are the “Film Studies” majors at hundreds of colleges that require no portfolio for entry and typically culminate in a Bachelor of Arts degree. These programs focus on film history, theory, and criticism and can provide students with a strong foundation in the art form prior to further study at the graduate level or entering the film and television industry. Some of the better known BA stand-alone programs are at Wesleyan University, Loyola Marymount University, and San Francisco State University.
Bachelor of Science Degree
The film programs that culminate in a Bachelor of Science degree are a somewhat deeper immersion into the art and craft of filmmaking. Often, there is a film production component to these, allowing students some hands-on production classes as part of the basic syllabus. Examples of these are at Boston University, Northwestern University, and University of Texas in Austin.
Bachelor of Fine Arts Programs
The deepest immersion into the art and craft of filmmaking occurs within the Bachelor of Fine Arts programs. These are highly structured, often highly selective, portfolio-based degree programs. They are 4-year progressions of courses that typically involve significant hands-on production work and the greatest amount of exposure to such crafts as directing, producing, editing, cinematography, and sound recording. Some of the standout BFA programs are at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.
Jeff Levy answers parents questions about film school. (May 25, 2019.)
The biggest advantage of attending film school is the foundation it provides the future artist. For those who go on to careers in film and television, it is often their undergraduate or graduate years when they were exposed to hundreds of films and first experimented with the stories they want to tell.
But this advantage can also be a disadvantage. Successful filmmakers need to know a lot about a lot of things—literature, theatre, acting, painting, photography, architecture, history, politics, psychology, science, and so much more. They must be good communicators and collaborators. A traditional liberal arts undergraduate experience can expose a budding artist to the breadth of interests and experiences necessary for his or her artistic development.
But for those who do choose to pursue a fully immersive BFA program in film and television production, they will need to build their application portfolios. Requirements differ program to program, but the portfolio usually includes a short visual submission (a film, video, or montage of photos), a writing sample (a short dialogue scene written in screenplay format, a non-dialogue visual description of a scene, or a written outline of an original feature film). An artist’s statement is often required as well.
The portfolio is not expected to display perfection of craft—that’s what the student will begin to learn in college. But a strong portfolio must demonstrate voice, a point of view, and some storytelling ability. Who is this applicant and what will they bring to the program? Do they have an observant eye and attentive ear? Are they visually and intellectually curious? What makes them original? What experiences distinguish them, and what stories do they want to tell?
Many students interested in film have no opportunity to study it in high school, but summer programs are available at many college campuses and private film schools around the country. But these may be cost prohibitive for some. Young filmmakers should be on the lookout for other opportunities to practice their craft. Local bands, companies, and non-profit organizations all benefit from short films and promotional videos, allowing a young filmmaker to jump start their career with very little financial investment.
When a developing artist isn’t shooting, editing, or showing their work, they should be immersing themselves in the rich history of film, learning the body of work of directors and writers they admire, learning one frame at a time the power of the language of film until it becomes their own.
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Jeff Levy, CEP, is an educational consultant based in Santa Monica, California. He works with students locally, regionally, and internationally on their college search and application process, and with parents on college affordability and financial aid. He can be reached through his website at www.personalcollegeadmissions.com.