How to go to film school without going to film school.

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Industries are professionalizing. Basketball players went from drinking beer and smoking cigarettes during halftime to training and managing their brand over the summer. Entrepreneurs went from managing by the seat of their pants to building a leadership skillset and professional network. Podcasting has gone from two people talking, recording, and sharing to companies trying to be the next big thing.

This trend happened in Hollywood too. In Film School: A Memoir, Steve Boman writes about his time at USC’s famous film school.

Making movies is like investing money or leading people, the only way to learn it is to do it. Robert Rodriguez said, “You learn some things from watching movies but you’ll learn more by picking up a camera and making movies and making mistakes.”

Sometimes school – like USC – is the best place to do that. It was for Boman. “I know a considerable number of people in the industry say wannabe filmmakers would be better served by spending their tuition money on just making a movie without going to school…but it’s not going to work for me. I’m not connected enough with like-minded people, and I don’t know how to do the mechanical filmmaking steps without some guidance.” Boman needed what Scott Kelly needed, structure and resources and motivating forces like the carrot of applause and stick of criticism.

Boman also needed time. Attending film school at forty meant his wife operated as a single mom, with bits of help. During his six semesters in California Boman’s schedule looked like this: on weekdays wake up early to beat the L.A. traffic and drive to campus. Boman’s lucky that he has friends that live eleven miles away, giving him a safe, quiet, friendly place to live 1,500 miles from family.

On-campus, Boman attends classes, studies classics, or writes scripts. Around lunch, he’ll eat and exercise and then attent more classes and work on more projects. During the week Boman gets up at six and stops working at ten. On weekends; well, weekends are made for filming.

“Classes are clustered on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, with a few courses offered on Monday evenings and Friday mornings. It’s a schedule that allows film students to have the maximum amount of time for shooting and editing on weekends.”

That’s it!

But let’s be curious.

Is there a way to get 80% of the results for 20% of the time and money? Maybe not the time but definitely the money. Here’s what a DIY MFA might include:

Constraints. In one class, Boman’s instructor limits the number of words they can use and Boman writes, “that the smaller the box we work within, the easier it is to focus on the art of filmmaking.” He also shoots on film which limited the takes and “we can no longer use the camera like we’re spraying water from a hose.”

Constraints help a lot even when we think they might not. For example, cigarette companies have hugely successful branding and advertising campaigns despite not advertising on television. One theory is that when they were forced off TV they got good at the other advertising forms.

Reps, reps, reps. “I start to make a list of things I would do differently before enrolling in film school. Top of the list is spending time on a non-linear editing system.”

Everything in film school takes time. A lot of time. There are some moments of luck when lightning strikes, and magic happens. Between those moments is where efficiency reigns. If someone can get good at the minuscule they’ll have more time for the major.

Deep understanding. “The class loved my (sport biker) documentary. All my other films were on subjects I know little about. I realize I’ve been ignoring the most basic tenet of Writing 101: write about what you know.”

Steve Osborne wrote that he almost got killed his first day as a cop. He’d chased a perp into a subway tunnel, but “I never planned on the likely event the train would come. Now, I only had a few seconds to think of something before I became a hood ornament.” As his career progressed, Osborne understood more about when to chase someone.

Connections. “A great many classes are taught by these adjuncts, nearly all of whom have extensive experience working in the trenches of Hollywood.”

Here’s the challenge of the DIY method. Boman’s classes are staffed by Hollywood writers. Boman actually sells a piece of work while in grad school. In the long list of USC students, he’s the first in this area. It happened because of the instructors.

Hustling. One of Boman’s friends is Peter Breitmayer who gives this advice over a meal:

“I get asked that question so much from actors back home. They want to know how I do it. I tell them I treat auditioning as a full-time job. If I’m not putting in forty hours a week doing auditions, preparing for auditions, meeting my agent, doing readings, then I’m not working…So many people think to act in this town you’re gonna just suddenly ‘make it’. Then they don’t, and they quit. My attitude is just constantly to be auditioning.”

Jenna Fischer gives similar advice. Want to be famous? Be a reality star Fischer writes. What to be an actor? Study acting. Then go out and audition, and keep training. Fischer writes, “Professional athletes train in the off-season. So should you.”

Stakeholders. The biggest advantage a DIY-er has over Boman is the fewer stakeholders. Boman has a family living in Minnesota while he’s in California. He has a serious medical situation (no spoilers here!) while at USC. Oh, his wife does too. He also has kids and a compressed earnings future. The only missing drama is an earthquake.

A three-year, film school MFA, can cost up to two-hundred thousand dollars all in. That’s a lot for anyone, much less someone using his kid’s college fund to pay for it. Part of the reason shows like Seinfeld and Friends worked is because those starring actors didn’t have huge commitments. One person on Seinfeld said that “time had little meaning there.”

Big projects, like work or school, require time and support from other people and places. The fewer or more supportive commitments, the better the base of stakeholders someone can begin a project from, like a DIY MFA.


Thanks for reading.

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