Lately I get a lot of Google search hits to this post about getting their master’s in film: “Should I get a MFA in film” or “graduate film school yes or no” or whatever. That post reckons more with being post-MFA, so I decided to be useful for once and write this instead. If you have arrived here looking for a perspective on this question, well, this post is for you. And those who aren’t ever going to get an MFA in filmmaking, I hope you enjoy this little window into a rollicking, rambunctious, rock ‘n roll time of my life.
This won’t be organized or highly structured, unlike your typical classical narrative film. My memories and experience of film school were like a blaze of light across the sky — it went so fast that individual pieces blur together. As a result, sometimes my feelings about it blur as well. But somewhere in this ramble, I hope you find pieces of the answer you’re looking for — and at the end, I’ll share with you the question I asked myself that made up my own mind. I think it’s a solid compass for anyone who wants to embark on any life-changing, savings-sapping adventure, so even if you’re not contemplating film school, maybe it will help you as well. Let’s start with the scary stuff first, the reasons that you don’t want to go to film school:
Why You Shouldn’t Get a MFA in Film
You Want to Be Rich and Famous
Let’s put it bluntly: the days of taking your thesis short to Sundance and landing a major motion picture deal are over. The film industry is in trouble. No one really knows what is going on in terms of where moviegoing and moviemaking will be in the next 10-20 years. Your film will more likely be streamed on the web somewhere, maybe downloaded off Amazon or iTunes, than projected at a movie theater. If you think film school is a short cut to fame and fortune, you’re wrong. You’re better off making a name for yourself and spending tuition money on a great film based on a superior script.
To be slightly more nuanced about it: you can build a viable, sustainable career in the film industry for yourself via film school. You’ll meet a lot of people and if you do good work, you can carve out a niche for yourself and build your resume. You’re building your list of contacts, and that’s something — actually, in an industry that relies a lot on who you know, it is more than something. But don’t kid yourself that you’ll easily become a mover and shaker from film school. You will make “connections” and meet people, but they’ll most likely be your peers, not your magic-makers.
You Worry About Your Financial Future
You might be lucky and land a big fellowship, or some grants and scholarships. You might be lucky enough to be born rich. Or you might be only applying to schools that can fully fund you if you’re accepted. But chances are you’re probably looking also at the big film schools, like USC, NYU, Columbia or the like. The truth is that these schools are often incredibly expensive. Tuition and fees are expensive, living expenses can rack up, and you will likely have to fund your projects to some or all degree. And making films can be incredibly expensive, especially if you want to compete at certain levels.
This is my personal perception and experience: my school often gave lip service to the fact that thesis films don’t have to be expensive, and yes, digital technology can lower the costs considerably. But honestly the most rewarded, successful short films in my program at Columbia — the ones that garner prizes and get launched into the more prestigious film festivals — were not the scrappy films that cost a few thousand to make. The prize winning films that garnered the most support from the program and faculty often cost tens (and some cost hundreds) of thousands of dollars in production, post-production, film festival, marketing and other auxiliary costs.
This is not to say that they weren’t well-made — the money was used incredibly well and resulted in gorgeous cinematography, stunning locations and real, professional caliber production in general. But that’s what you’re up against at prestigious film schools, and it costs money. If this worries you but you still want to go to a film school, pick a program that provides ample production support and post-production support.
But beyond costs, the financial truth of getting a MFA is: you’re likely going to reduce your earnings potential as an adult by a few years, contribute a lot less to your retirement accounts and sap your savings, if you have any. Those things can have long-term effects on your future. And if you go to a prestigious school, you’re going to take out a lot of student debt, and this isn’t something to take lightly. Before I decided to attend my program, I had to ask myself whether or not I’d be okay delaying buying a house by about ten years of my life — because the cost of my MFA was about the cost of buying a home in many places. I was, but that was something I had to work through, and it’s something you should look at as well. If traditional paths to financial security are important to you — if you are the type that wants to buy your first house by 30 and retire by 65 with a nice tidy nest egg, or you have a kind of “investment” mentality in which you want a direct result from something you put your money in — then think really, really hard if this is the path for you. Because it’s probably not.
The Flip Side: Why You Should Get a MFA in Film
Okay, have I scared you yet? Are you still game for the reasons to say yes? Because many of them are compelling, especially if you are truly an artist at heart.