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The Complicated Decision
Film school is a difficult and often conflicted choice for many hopeful filmmakers. There are rapid voices on both sides of the independent film world arguing the merits of the degree, mainly because digital equipment is now financially practical for average consumers and film school tuition is more expensive then most fields of study. Never the less, there are more and more programs popping up in the United States and internationally, each offering a “unique and special" experience. When muddling through these possible programs there are key things to identify and avoid when trying to pick one out.
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Many people will tell you that an undergraduate degree in film and television production is questionable at best. They will often tell you to get a more sustainable undergraduate degree in a field that is somewhat related, such as video focused journalism or art. Then you can go ahead and go to a prestigious film graduate program to get a Master’s of Fine Arts. This is still the best and more insured answer to this question, though very expensive and time consuming. Undergraduate degrees in film are usually half of what a graduate program will be, even from the most prestigious of institutions. On top of this is the fact that you could be in college for nearly ten years. If you absolutely refuse to go the graduate road make sure that the program you are looking at is a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts program. What this means is that you go through the regular Bachelor’s of Arts program with an additional year for professional art training and thesis work. Never go with a Film Studies undergraduate major or a simple B.A. or B.S. in film production.
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Type of Focus
The best thing you can decide on before you begin applying to film school, no matter what type it is, is exactly what type of film you want to focus on. This does not mean that you have to define your career before you enter school, but it is important to note that each program is slightly geared toward something different. For example, if you want to focus entirely on narrative story driven films then you are going to want to avoid programs that focus in on documentary or video art programs. This means entirely avoiding many art institutes, such as the San Francisco Institute of the Arts and the California Institute of the Arts. Cal Arts is considered one of the top five film schools in the country, but its programs are either geared toward video art or very traditional film direction. Independent filmmakers who want to tell narrative stories but have full control over their film will not get the correct training from any of their programs. If you are entirely geared toward documentary film you will have a better chance of producing feature work if you are in a documentary specific program, and therefore avoiding a general film production program is central. Instead somewhere like Stanford’s documentary program or the School of Visual Art’s Master’s of Fine Arts program in Social Documentary Film will leave you in the correct company and training syllabus. Avoid programs that are considered good but do not meet your needs.
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It is also important to consider finances when making your choices. One of the best things about going to a collegic setting rather than a certificate program is that there are often funding and scholarship options. These rise exponentially when you are applying to graduate programs. Avoid any schools that do not offer any kind of internal funding, especially if they are graduate programs. Many schools, such as the American Film Institute, offer none of these and are still great programs. The problem is that no filmmaker should have to make post-school career choices strictly based on the fact that they have over a hundred thousand dollars in student loans.
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What They Have
Make sure that the program you are choosing has a large amount of internal equipment and facilities and help with finding internships and job placements. Always stay away from any school that leaves this entirely up to you. The main reasons you go to film school is access to equipment and for needed connections, and if your institution does not help with these then you should move on.
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Get From A to B
A great film school is one that is going to get you where you want to go, and if they help you with money for tuition and your projects then you are in even better shape. Apply to as many as you can and then begin comparing what they offer.