By Greg Pak
People often ask me whether film school is worthwhile for aspiring young filmmakers. My simple answer: Yes.
I went to New York University’s much-lauded graduate film program. Like any film student, I had gripes about my school from time to time. But for several reasons, I’m greatly indebted to my film school experiences.
A place for real criticism
First, film school was the first place I got rigorous criticism of my work. Before film school, I made several films which friends and family told me they enjoyed. But no one ever told me this shot is too long; this scene is too didactic; this sequence doesn’t work.
In contrast, my professors and classmates in film school clearly and coldly told me what they thought about my work. It was seldom pleasant. But without clear analysis of my work’s strengths and weaknesses, it would have been much more difficult for me to grow and improve as a filmmaker.
A place to aquire specific skills
Second, film school gave me solid tools for directing actors. I had worked with actors for years as a director of various improv comedy groups. But directing for the screen is a unique undertaking which my professors at NYU helped me understand. Similarly, film school gave me a strong grounding in other essential crafts such as editing, cinematography, and most importantly, dramatic writing.
A place for contacts and professional advancement
Third, film school provided me with contacts and venues for professional advancement. I’m still in touch with many of my classmates — we help each other out from time to time, tossing each other info about jobs, lending each other equipment, working on each others’ films.
Professional benefits have come from the festival venues available only to students. I got several big boosts from student festivals and awards, including the Student Academy Awards and the NYU First Run Film Festival.
People often argue against film school by pointing out that a person can make a micro-budgeted feature instead of spending $60,000 on film school. True enough, particularly now that MiniDV and Final Cut Pro have made the costs of making features on video much, much cheaper.
But it’s also true that most of these micro-budgeted first features disappear, never to be seen by anyone except the cast, crew, and the filmmaker’s immediate families.
Before I went to film school, I made a sixty minute superhero spoof on Beta SP called “Random Man.” I have no regrets about making the film — I learned a huge amount from the experience. But the film didn’t really work, despite having a great first ten minutes. It played in only one film festival.
If I had skipped film school and put the money right into making more films, I suspect I would have made several more interesting but ultimately amateurish feature length films which nobody would have seen.
Instead, going to film school gave me the training and rigor to make each of my projects as good as they can be.
In short, film school helped me live up to my potential.
I know that film school is not for everyone — in particular, it’s not affordable to everyone. But even if you can’t afford film school, I’d recommend trying to create a network wherein you can get some of the benefits of film school. Specifically, I’d recommend joining or creating a community or workshop of filmmakers who can provide you the rigorous criticism and advice you need to grow.
One example of such a group is the Workshop, or the Asian American Filmmakers Collaborative.
By Greg Pak