Film School Blog

Assessing the Value of Film School: Year One Review

The “Film School Blog” spawned as a reaction to my existential crisis a few months ago (this might be the most millennial-sounding sentence ever).

After a blissful first semester of college, when I arrived back on campus in January for round two, I suddenly became extremely ambivalent and unsure of what I was doing. This is not something that’s normal for me, as I am someone who knows what I’ve wanted since 8th grade, plans everything out in precise detail, likes feeling in control of a situation, and thrives when I have direction.

What triggered this abrupt shift?

Maybe it was meeting a new person who altered my view of how to experience the present; maybe it was comparing myself to people whom I saw as successful; maybe I felt like I could figure out my career now, not four years and thousands of dollars later. It was more likely a culmination of all these things and something else that I can’t seem to put my finger on. Whatever the reason, it shook to its roots my familiar sense of certainty and made me reevaluate everything.

What happens when what you think you’ve wanted for so long suddenly becomes dubious? What happens when you stand face to face with something you’ve dreamed of attaining and rather than reaching out to grab it, holding onto it and loving it, you ask yourself if you even need it anymore? I was stuck asking myself the same question:

 Should I be in film school?

This question induced a tremendous amount of discomfort and uneasiness in my life. However, I think it’s important to not shy away from asking tough questions and to answer them. I think it’s more important to question why you’re doing the things you’re doing now and make sure you’re pursuing the most fulfilling option, rather than realize four years down the line that perhaps another path would have been better.

I kept bouncing between visualizations of my freelance career, traveling to shoot documentaries on whatever subject, whenever, and wherever, and then coming back to my editing bay in my treehouse home. I wanted USC, but I wanted this “travel to treehouse” life more. But was USC’s film school my path to attain it? Do I wait to finish here, or do I pursue that lifestyle right now? It felt like my desires were temporally displaced; the vision I had for my ideal self was not synonymous with my present self.

I looked around and realized that almost all of my peers wanted to work in Hollywood. I looked at myself and realized that I don’t want to live in L.A., nor do I want to work in Hollywood, nor do I even have a word for the kind of filmmaker I wanted to be. I looked at the filmmakers who I wanted to be like, and realized they didn’t go to film school. Some didn’t even go to college.

So why was I in a traditional film school if I wanted to pursue an unconventional film career? Can I be the filmmaker I want to be right now, today, without USC?

This question was addressed when I was sitting in my favorite class (not a film class, but rather one on the search for extraterrestrial life and potentially habitable planets), utterly absorbed by every word my fantastic professor, Ken Nealson, spoke. A seemingly irrelevant subject to my dilemma was the catalyst to my subsequent epiphany. He said:

“If you think you’re smarter than the system, then it won’t teach you anything.”

He was talking about NASA, I think. But to me, that was about the School of Cinematic Arts.

Here I was, with my nose stuck in the air, delusional to not acknowledge what USC was offering me that nothing else could compare.  

Hence the Film School Blog. After each film project, I wanted to document what I learned and how I grew as a filmmaker.

Now that I’ve just finished my first year in film school at USC, I want to reflect on the question I’ve been wrestling with all semester: is it worth it?

My post-freshman year verdict?

Yes – but only until something better comes along.

It’s kind of presumptuous and flippant to brush the top film school aside like that. 8th grade Soraya would come smack me over the head. But that’s exactly what lures everyone in: the idea that you’re not going to make it unless you commit your time and money to a college education. What we’re after, justifiably so, is safety.

The School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) has credibility, it has prestige, and it lets you protect your dream for four years, nestled between the George Lucas and Steven Spielberg buildings. State-of-the-art facilities. Famous professors. Proximity to Hollywood. An insane alumni network. What more could any aspiring filmmaker want from a film school and how could they ever become dissatisfied?

I am not dissatisfied. Quite the opposite -- which is what concerns me. I am so incandescently happy to be here that it makes me suspicious that SCA, to an extent, shields us from the reality of this industry. Maybe I’m just not used to having my hand held. Maybe I’ve learned from my own experiences that you cannot rely on other people or places or things as much as you’d like, or a more colloquial version, “trust no bitch”.

The only time I’ve gotten the things I’ve wanted in my life is when I relentlessly pursued them and refused to take no for an answer. The path has never been clear-cut and smooth, but opaque and tumultuous. The challenge adds to its value. 

My diagnosis of year one in film school is just that: fairly easy.

It will get harder.

I know.

I’m lucky to even be in a film school that lets me make films my first year. But you don’t need film school to give you permission to make films in the first place. I don’t need an establishment to ask me to make work; it’s something I’ll do regardless, and have.

I’m ambitious, resilient, and driven, but what I remind myself of everyday is this: that I am not the smartest person at this university, and I am not the best filmmaker in SCA. There is always something I can learn. This mantra keeps me grounded.

What am I learning here that is not offered elsewhere? Is the value of that information equal to or greater than the amount of time, money, and energy I’m investing?  

Well, here are the undeniable anti-film school truths: 

  1. Film school is not a pre-requisite to becoming a filmmaker.
  2. Going to USC’s film school is not an instant path to success.

And yet, I have learned a lot this past year that has helped me mature as a filmmaker and as a person. There's a whole blog to show for it. Some of the most poignant and important lessons which are talked about much more in depth in past posts:

By the great and prolific author, Anonymous. Does anyone know what movie this is??

  • Don’t talk, go do. Practicing something is the only way to learn and improve. 
  • Do only the things you want to be doing. Otherwise, the risk is that you’re going to perform less than your best because you don't have genuine passion for it. 
  • Having said that, sometimes there are jobs that aren’t perfect, but they are necessary. Use these as opportunities to specify what you want from what you don't want.
  • Do not compromise. If you believe in your work, then find the people who do as well. Be open-minded, but don’t feel obligated to adapt your idea or your creative license to fit someone else’s expectations.
  • Communicating an emotion is far more important than a story. People remember how you made them feel.
  • Take risks. Launch yourself into projects that take you out of your comfort zone. The learning curve will be steep but it will be rewarding and unforgettable.
  • If you don’t have a lot of time to take a huge risk and want to make good work, then film what’s familiar to you. I’m going to write a longer post on this later, but I truly believe that this is why people like Hitchcock become masters of what they do. They do the same thing over and over again, trial and error. Not only that, but filming something you’re familiar with (like a sport or a group of people) fosters an intimacy and familiarity in your work; you know what moments to expect when they happen. That preparation is crucial.
  • Criticize something only if you have a suggestion for how it can be improved.
  • Expose yourself to anything and everything. A good storyteller only happens when they’ve lived some good stories.
  • Recognize that you’re surrounded by some of the most talented 19-year-olds in the country, sit back, and say “Damn, I am so lucky.” And then go out with those people and have fun because they are the greatest friends you’ll ever have, and 50% of the reason why film school is so enjoyable.

So yes, my verdict remains the same. I love film school, I love college, I love learning, and I’m going to keep loving it until something better comes along (though it will be hard to beat). I’m choosing to trust a system that is older and wiser than me, because right now, this is my best option. Still, I believe my reservations hold validity in that I’m not going to blindly follow whatever proposed path is deemed by some higher authority “the correct one”. If the kind of job I wanted became available to me now, I’d take it, I wouldn’t wait four years and then ask for the chance again.

The “crisis” has mostly been resolved, and what’s left is a healthy dose of skepticism: it’s faint and it’s intangible but it’s undeniably there. Right now a higher authority like the School of Cinematic Arts, may just be the wisest voice and direction to follow. I’m looking forward to year two.