So you're an aspiring filmmaker in your early 20s. You want to make films. Not just some half-cooked short film you may have created while in an undergrad production class, but a real film, really made - with real people who can truly define and brand themselves as filmmakers.
Not only that, you want to be a filmmaker in the industry. You want that glorified Oscar nomination... but you'd settle for Sundance. You want to travel to Cannes for your work.
You want Hollywood.
Best way way to get there? That's the tricky part. I've had aspirations to write a traditional 120-page Hollywood screenplay, submit it to a competition (and win), sell away my rights to it for a few cool million & get noticed in the biz. Just a few easy steps! I mean if JJ Abrams can do it, why couldn't I?
The cold hard truth is that is isn't as easy as that. Not everyone is as talented and successful as someone like JJ Abrams. Everyone who has that kind of talent doesn't necessarily also already have a connection in the biz - your parents. JJ's parents produced a few television shows in addition to him.
It's not formula. It's a crapshoot. How does one improve his odds in a crapshoot? In order to make it in the film industry, one needs to have not only the drive, talent, & determination and a boatload of luck, but also the connections. The best way to attain these valuable connections if one isn't already born into them is film school.
Hollywood Reporter recently unveiled its annual list of top film school undergraduate & graduate programs, tallying votes from a bevy of industry professionals from the America Cinema Editors, Writers Guild of America West, and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. But are they worth the money?
Top programs like University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, Hollywood's own American Film Institute Conservatory Program, and NYU's Tisch School of the Arts are steep in price. The gamble you make, of course, is whether or not you'll be in student loan debt the rest of your life, which runs you close to about $100,000 on average for a two year MFA program. Have no fear! You pay that money back after you network with the big boys after graduation! Easier said than done.
But it's way more than networking. A smaller and relatively less expensive film program such as FSU's College of Motion Picture Arts, provides its students with an arsenal of industry cameras & lights. For free. Top programs like USC & AFI might not be even to provide that - you have to rent elsewhere. Granted, they give you grant money to rent & use them for your thesis films, but that's besides the point. The point I am making is this - you do get what you pay for when you pay for film school. Industry standard equipment is catastrophically expensive.
You'd never get a chance to play with with equipment like that, and learn all their intricacies, anywhere else. And if you plan to concentrate in cinematography rather than directing or screenwriting, you get to use that equipment to shoot plenty of films. MFA programs in directing and screenwriting can guarantee maybe only one thesis project that you can personally brand while in school. Cinematographers have the advantage of shooting multiple theses, which provide excellent sources for a reel to showcase your talent to industry professionals. More projects equals more diversity in your reel, which is more impressive than just one magnum opus, in my humble opinion. You have the opportunity to shoot multiple magni opi.
Which brings me to my next point: what to specialize in film school, if that's an option. I would suggest venturing down a path in cinematography for several reasons. For one, less people tend to concentrate in cinematography because the ones applying to grad school flock to the directing programs. Cinematography helps you out in admissions. I never personally understood this because I believe cinematography should be the most popular. You are actually behind the camera, and using it! Or you actually light the space yourself! The cinematographer is literally responsible for the visual, not the director. But, I digress.
The second reason is that a proficiency in cinematography means you know about both camera and lights; you are more responsible on-set because you are most likely more technically knowledgeable than everyone else. A director, yes, is the unspoken boss on-set, but really he is in charge of getting the best performance from the actors. A screenwriter loses his power once he sells his perfectly manicured script. After that, his input is rarely heard. They're not even allowed on set during production because their mere presence and potential complaints are an annoyance to the director. The director has final say in story elements & visual choices after that.
If the screenwriter is responsible for why the story is important, the director is responsible for what is important to show in that story, and the cinematographer is important for how everything comes into place - the real bare bones & all the guts and glory. You are more engaged with your work at hand, and isn't that the most important thing? Doing work you love because you're engaged with it?
The third reason is anyone can read a book about screenwriting, and then write a screenplay. You don't have to pay tuition to learn that. Yes, you get connections in film school, but a screenwriter can write as much as he or she wants and enter hundreds competitions and win prizes without a degree. This is true. Cinematography, however, requires a certain skill set that can advance in levels in terms of proficiency; specific equipment is required that is not readily available to the layman, but is available to experiment with at top film programs.
Sure you can get an MFA in Screenwriting and apply for teaching jobs at the collegiate level and make a good living, but schools also tend to hire based on experience. Winning prizes in well renowned nationwide competitions shows you know how to write screenplays and is a substitute for that Masters degree. Pay hundreds of dollars to enter competitions or pay thousands of dollars in student loans to meet your end goal? That's the decision.
Last reason, you can still get noticed by making your own film without the help of one of these institutions. You can just max out all your credit cards to become ~$100,000 in debt to pay for equipment, locations, and permits like Kevin Smith did with Clerks, but that's a real silly gamble.
My real last reason to go to film school: you make not only industry connections at these graduate programs, but you meet friends. Film is a collaborative medium. You need to meet other people who are as invested in making movies as you are; it's not a hobby, it's a calling. And you filter out those who believe filmmaking is a hobby at film school. These are the ones you make truly great work with after you leave school. And that's when the fun begins.
At least that's my best educated guess, because that's where I hope to be later down the road...in film school.