How To Be A Film Student On Only $10 A Day

This article was originally part of the Insider Cinema guide to Hollywood, a website from the mid-2000s. We are reposting it here as both a writing sample and a guide for those seeking to get their foot in the door in Hollywood.

For many young filmmakers, the question of film school is always a major worry: where should I go?; what should I study?; what name on my diploma will get me a job?; does it even matter? 

The truth is, film school serves a few core functions, such as knowledge, and contacts, but the name of a film school would only help you if you were interviewing with someone who went to that same school, and half of the people in the entertainment industry nowadays have never even been to film school.

The type of school you go to should depend on the type of person you are.  You need to honestly ask yourself, are you a disciplined and motivated self-starter who is determined to break into the film industry, or are you a person who succeeds in your personality, and always follows the leader when it comes to working.  If you are the latter, then film school is probably the right choice, because while it may or may not give you the discipline you need, it will force you to move forward in your education.  Contrarily, if you are the first type of person, you probably do not need film school.  Film schools (like most colleges) are meant as a babysitting service for 20-year-olds, and you may discover, as Matt Damon said in Good Will Hunting, “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.”

There are three things you go to film school for:

1. Education in film theory.
2. Experience and education in filmmaking.
3. Contacts.

1. Education in film theory:

Film theory is actually easier to learn than most people think. To do this, you need to get a hold of two lists: AFI’s top 100 films of all time; and the top 100 box office grossing films of all time. Both of these lists can be found online, in addition to the book Hollywood 101 by Frederick Levy, an excellent book that I highly recommend for anyone who wants to get into the industry (that is if they agree to do a plug with us).

I should mention that the top 100 box office films can be very deceiving because it’s ranked in dollars, and not adjusted for inflation. The most accurate calculation would be the number of tickets sold, in comparison with the population of the time (because population changes too, naturally). However, the current highlighted list is still viable because it covers recent successes.

These lists are important because they allow you to study trends in filmmaking –both in art and commerce of films- without spending thousands of dollars on classes.  You would need a Netflix account or a similar movie subscription service.  Watch every film on these lists (200 in total) 2 to five times each. Why two to five times each? Because there is an old saying, “You get more out of watching one film five times than you do from five films one time.” (Paul Gulino) Of course, don’t rent them all at once, maybe two a weekend, and you can compare, analyze, and take notes. Most of these films can be rented for free from your local library also, and if you’re interested in film, odds are you have friends whom you can borrow these from.

Film theory is also more important than most people think. Many producers in Hollywood want well-rounded directors. Many have complained that too many directors think the film started with Martin Scorsese, so be well-versed in the classics.

Some of you may say, “But I need text and references to understand the depth and the context of these movies.”  Of course, if you want references, many of the top film schools publish their course syllabuses online, so you can stay up to date with the top schools.  If you really believe you need to follow along with a class to understand these works, there’s always one other option…

Sneaking Into Class:

If one were so inclined, one could sneak into any class, at any film school, in any part of the world. The trick to this is not to go sneaking around, sitting in the back row, because you’ll give yourself away. Contrary to popular belief, professors do generally know who is and isn’t in their class. 

Just go up to the professor before class starts (arrive early), say you’re a student at the university studying something as far away from the film as possible (accounting, dental surgery, etc.), and ask if you can sit in on the class.  Say that you heard good things about their class from other students.  If they push you for a reason, then just say you have the maximum amount of credits, and can’t register for any other classes this semester. For those of you keeping track, yes, this is lying.

Some professors are kind enough to let you sit in on their classes, even if you aren’t a student at the school, but caution. These are few and far between.

2. Experience and education in filmmaking
What we’re talking about here is actual on-set experience. Now, no one expects you to have professional experience, but they do expect you to know basic on-set etiquette and equipment. For example, do you know what is a:

Bounce Board?

And on top of that, do you know how to use them?
However, you might ask, “How do I work on film sets when I am completely inexperienced?” There are two ways: the first is to sneak onto the studio lots. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS! I only mention this because half the baby boomers in the film world say they got their start by simply sneaking onto the studio lots. The story goes that a young idealistic kid, fed up with conventional film paths, decided to sneak onto the backlot. Once there, he worked on a production or two as hard as he possibly could. After a week, someone on the crew finally asked him if he worked there, and hired him on the spot. While many got their start this way (including the illustrious Steven Spielberg), attempting this method can, and most likely will get you thrown in jail. The studios have been boosting their security and sticking to their guns post 9-11.

The other alternative is film school productions. Just because you’re not in film school, doesn’t mean you can’t work on film school productions. In fact, most film majors love outside help because it makes them think their film set is more professional than it really is.

The advantage of film school productions is that they are friendlier, more casual, and allow you to take a higher position than you’d normally be allowed on a professional shoot.  You want to be a D.P.?  Good!  On a student film, you’re the camera operator or A.C.  On a professional show, you’re a P.A. who gets the coffee for the camera department. 

Of course, there are also some productions of features and short films that will ask you to work for free that post ads on Craigslist, and, but be careful.  Some of these more ‘professional’ productions can be more exploitative, and less educational, and could even be porn-related (especially on Craigslist).  

Some of these professional commercials and music video productions even say if you work for them this time for free, they’ll hire you on the next shoot and pay you the full rate.  This is B.S.  

Employers love to cut costs by hiring gullible PAs (Production Assistants) for free on a one-time shot.  Any decent production will pay you a standard P.A. rate of $125 a day, or at least half-price if you have no experience.  For more information see the article, When Not To Work For Free.

Go to your local film schools. If you’re in New York: NYU; Columbia; SUNY-Purchase; etc. If you’re in L.A.: USC; UCLA; Chapman University; etc. Post flyers that you are willing to work hard on student productions. Some schools even have bulletin boards dedicated to such items. Get to know the students there, socialize. Once you work on one student production, get to know everyone on set, and be sociable. Plus, work hard, and I guarantee you, everyone will remember you favorably. Get the contact information for everyone, because all the other film students on set will one day be working on their own projects, and will need to call on you.

A perfect example I encountered was a man who was in love with production design, but he lived in Minnesota.  So, when he saw the ad I posted for a film I was producing, he flew all the way out to Los Angeles, worked his but off, and made sure to get the contact info of everyone on set. 

While on-set, ask questions. People love to talk about themselves, and their jobs, so take advantage of the opportunity. You will learn about everything from gripping, all the way up to producing.

Another benefit is that most student films shoot on the weekends when students have class off. Depending on your lifestyle, you could have a prosperous week at your day job, and put in a full day or two on set to boost your production resume.

Another facet of on-set experience is the importance of making contacts.

3. Contacts
It’s not important to know Steven Spielberg when you’re first starting out. If you have a script that you love and you’re passionate about, and Steven Spielberg reads it, and he loves it and gives you fifty million dollars to make it, then throw away your books, you don’t need my advice. But if he does read it, and says it’s the worse script he’s ever read, you’re screwed. That’s when you need your contacts. 

All those people whose films you slaved away on, yeah remember them? You are now in a position where you need favors owed from close friends. 

Your generation of close friends who have moved up in the film world, I might add. That student art director is now working in Universal’s main prop house, and can “borrow” a lot of great props for you. That student DP, well, he’s been a camera operator for a few years now and wants to get back to being a DP on some interesting material. That student UPM has moved up to Imagine Entertainment’s development department (which is Ron Howard’s company at Universal), and can show your work to Mr. Howard, or any other development executives he knows and trusts at Universal Pictures.

It’s important to build massive networks of contacts, because it gets you through doors, as your generation of filmmakers moves up in the world. Eventually, people will know you in Hollywood, and your years of hard work have paid off.

Peer consultation:

Another attribute to contacts is that they can help you with your own work creatively in addition to technology. Join a local writing circle of people you trust. Critique each other’s works.

One group took this concept another step further, and together, the fourteen of them helped to crew on a short film project for each one of them. They are called the “Filmmaker’s Alliance” and can be found online.

The final sum:

Estimating that you spend one-hundred-thousand dollars in college for all four years, (and that’s not counting fees for your film, which many schools make you pay for yourself), this boils down to an average of $20.55 a day, not counting living expenses. Plus, once you graduate, you’ll have to start in the industry from scratch anyway.  So you have to ask yourself, do you want to spend that money on 4 years of pursuing a degree with additional classes that don’t affect film at all, or 4 years of working in the film industry, and admittedly, struggling up the ladder, making your small films on the side.

There is an old saying, “There are eight million ways to get into the director’s chair.” I’d like to leave you now, with just some of the ways some people have gotten there:

Signed up as a PA, and worked their way up the ladder.

Directed a Broadway play that got critical acclaim.

Wrote a spec script.

Got the property rights to a book or someone’s life story.

Directed a music video that got critical acclaim.

Asked their dentist to finance the film.

Produced the first fifteen minutes of a film, and then pitched it to the studios to complete it.

Used insurance money from their house burning down to finance the movie.

Underwent experimental drug testing to raise money for his first film. Kept trying, and trying, and trying for years, until they finally got the chance.

Do you have your own thoughts?

Let us know in the comments!

Subscribe, Like, Follow!


You may also like...

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.