The Reel of Fortune
Illustrated by Stephanie Mackay
I was the ripe age of fifteen when my best friend Annie, who was equally passionate about film, introduced me to my first film festival. It was a dark and cold September night, and we had taken a bus to a location that was unknown to me at the time. The Plateau looked so foreign; I felt as though I were in another part of town; but every light, sound and stranger gave me a heightened sense of liberation. Here I was, headed to the Rialto Theatre to witness some of Montreal’s most creative 60-second films. Glancing from the velvet seats to the free bruschetta platters, my eyes must have been wide like cherry pies, and I had fallen in love. There was so much excitement overflowing in my heart; we were just two young and squirming girls ready for the lights to dim. We had looked over the list of submitted films, each title catching our attention, anticipating something good.
Most of the filmmakers were young university students, and some were merely eighteen. I looked around and observed everybody’s shining faces; it was time. The screening was about to commence. A simple yet funny looking guy, who explained festival context, gave recognition to all the filmmakers who were participating and greeted the audience. At that moment I envied everyone who had submitted a film and thought, if only I had known about this earlier! Nonetheless, I was on the edge of my seat. There was no intermission, just a straight run-through of mind-blowing sixty second films that had me bewildered beyond what I could have imagined. There was applause, and all the filmmakers stood up. I wanted that so badly; I was wonderstruck. That magical night on the Plateau, filled with red velvet seats and too many bruschetta bites, ignited a spark in me. I would become a filmmaker.
With growing anxiety, I filled out my CEGEP applications and thought to myself, what am I thinking? I, who was so afraid of throwing myself into a field of creative endeavors, was going to take the “artistic risk” of learning about filmmaking? I remember my parents being a bit disappointed that their daughter opted for a chance to discover and express herself instead of promising them a certain and stable career. A little parental disappointment couldn’t stop me, though… until I approached the end of CEGEP.
I began pondering my adult-like choices and overthinking the biggest decision of all: university. As confused as I was about many things, finalizing my career choice put me into a chamber of reflection. That repetitive thought I had at the beginning of my CEGEP adventure now sounded like a loud chorus. A pivotal moment in my life had now presented itself and I was led to believe that this was the point of no return. I wanted to get a fulfilling living out of my soon-to-be degree, right? But I didn’t want to live my entire life scouting full-time for jobs in my field, jobs I may not even enjoy that much.
The question was, would I pursue film further? To decide, I wandered on an expedition–to find out the hard truth about filmmaking.
The first question I asked myself was, is film school the right path for me? One could argue that education in general is never useless, so it wouldn’t be wasted. Yet we are encouraged to reflect on our field of study and in terms of its practicality in the world or how much income it will earn us. Who would have guessed that education’s only purpose is to get you financially stable and to someday be able to say, “Look mom, I’m a lawyer thanks to law school!” Would I, as an aspiring filmmaker, be able to say something along those lines about a career in film? And if not, would film school be the wrong way to go, something unnecessary?
Ted Hope argues that filmmaking is not a job and that going to school for it is useless–classified as the trash can of education. Matt Fackrell (editor for the creepiest children’s show, ever) says that film school is spending thousands on learning how to properly use a video camera, while others will laugh at us for making “lame shorts” with our friends. As a student, I will tell you that all of this is true. Through the eyes of a “normal” person, a film student is just some weird kid who wears a Carhartt hat and dungarees, who dreams about making a film involving blue people and machine guns (I’m looking at you, James Cameron). What non-film students (or anyone for that matter) need to understand, however, is that film school is an experience.
Let’s start by pointing out that post-secondary education is a widely available opportunity in our culture, and that being able to pursue post-secondary education is something many of us want to experience, for the sake of the experience itself and for that of our careers. However, in this world, having the opporunity doesn’t mean having enough money. According to The New York Times, top American universities such as The New York Film Academy have students pay over 30K a year. Film school on the other hand usually runs as an 18-month program, estimated at a rough 29K, according to the Toronto Film School. Luckily for me, studying for a BFA in film production at Concordia, for example, would allow me to attend for no more than 2K a semester. If we consider the monstrous tuition fees of American universities and film school—one of the many challenges financially-independent students face—no education degree should be embarked upon lightly.
So why does studying film sound less promising than studying, for example, engineering? I was curious, maybe a little too curious. I wanted to know what people really thought about film school. I was told countless times by my parents that I should have picked a more promising career choice, or else I would be a struggling artist living in a shitty apartment with 5 other roommates for the rest of my life. So I looked to see how much tuition would be for major film schools: UCLA, New York Academy, and the Toronto Film School, and saw numbers that were beyond what I expected. I felt discouraged. Why pay so much money for a degree that doesn’t have as much worth as a doctor’s degree, for example? So here’s something else I learned the hard way: in 2009, the Guardian listed a variety of projects to which one can contribute with a BFA in film production. It was enticing, as many opportunities were laid out in front of me. However, I dug deeper and found that only 2.1% of film graduates become directors within the industry; numbers were even smaller for those who found jobs as video and film recorders. There I was, re-entering the vicious doubt cycle.
And then, I stumbled upon Seth Hymes, film consultant and writer for Film School Secrets (read the first article, and laugh). This gentleman wrote a variety of articles that have been mostly published on No Film School, and they all imply one thing: you don’t need film school to be a filmmaker. My blood came to a slight boil, so I stopped for a minute. How can he, a self-acclaimed filmmaker who’s gone to university and graduated with a degree in film production, say that film school is useless? And then I discovered a very, very dark side of the film industry. Filmmakers and professionals alike have a very pessimistic view on film being taught in university, or film school in general. He argues that it is too expensive and that most production companies will not hire a student with a BFA in film production. The professional argued that he was too good for film school; just his “showing up” on a film set would guarantee him a job.
Hymes argues that production companies do not turn to film school graduates for their needs. I never thought the filmmaking industry was so anti-film student. What’s to be said about some of the world’s most renowned film brats such as Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg who may very well credit much of their success to their experiences in educational institutions? Of course there are others who have never attended university or film school, such as Tarantino and Gilliam (who insists film school is for fools, oh the horror). Upon reading Hymes’ commentary on film school, I realized that being involved in film should not only be about making it in the industry, but rather, doing it as a form of art or creative expression. My film teacher Terryll said to me: “ultimately, from both sides, a film degree doesn’t mean shit if you just sit on your ass. That’s all it comes down to.” And ultimately, that’s all it does.
All I thought about were the horrifying tuition fees and nagging filmmakers; what more challenges would I face in this male-dominant industry? Quantitative studies done by Sundance Film Festival across 11 years have shown that only 29.8% of content creators were female. This brought me to question my likely level of success–above all, my ability to prove myself worthy of good work. What scared me the most were the barriers I would be left to face in the future. Something as essential as funding a movie could be difficult since allocated funds do not come without sexist baggage. According to Sundance, female producers and directors are perceived to lack confidence and are assumed to be less trustworthy with financial resources. Even so, despite the barriers formed by the surprising gender inequality within the film industry, there are still a growing number of female creators, which may bring a young film student consolation and encouragement.
All my deliberation has brought me to this point now. Decision time. Up until now, the doubt-cycle I’ve entered looks like a spinning washing machine; concerns about my level of success have taken their toll. What am I to do? It is best to be resilient, to think in an avant-garde kind of way, to defy standards; be Xena, the Warrior Princess of the film industry (how I wish). However, being creative isn’t about the ability to stand out; it’s about being able to be submerged in one’s own thoughts and be stimulated by other people’s ideas. It’s all about collaborating–and granted, school helps us do that. One thing I’ve learned so far in CEGEP is that we must always value those who want to help us. No one should have to walk through the fire alone, especially in such a competitive industry.
As I embark on my post-collegial journey, I need to remind myself of the opportunities, the experiences and the hard work that I will feel gratitude towards in the future. However, there is a feeling of discouragement amidst all of this; it’s almost pushing me forget the idea of becoming something, becoming a filmmaker. There is no pleasure in being told that the industry is a mad, male-driven world—and what an expensive one it is at that. I don’t think film school is useless; in fact, I think everyone who has a passion for it should seek out an education. Nobody should stop you from learning what you love, except for yourself. In essence, the film industry will forever be a rapidly evolving community and no one, regardless of a film degree or not, is guaranteed a job. Even I know this, as does everyone else studying for a profession.
The beauty of going to school for something you are passionate about is how immersed one can become. To be presented with opportunities no one else can get without education is valuable in its own way. After digging deeper and finding out what the film industry is really about, I am confident to say that I am not afraid of the future. Learning about other peoples’ experiences should only be enriching and must never be used to lament over your fear of hitting a dead-end. The final most important thing I learned—and this goes for anyone—even you, reading this, is to “commit to taking risks and maybe failing. Part of making great work is to keep failing until it succeeds.” I know that it might not make me rich, but I am certain that it will make me happy and fulfilled, and that’s the beauty of it all.
Cieply, Michael. “For Film Graduates, an Altered Job Picture.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 July 2011. Web.
Fackrell, Matt. “Do You Really Need A Bachelors Film Degree?” Filmmaker.com. 29 Aug. 2003. Web.
“Famous Directors Who Went To Film School: Where Are They Now?” International Academy of Design & Technology. 9 Oct. 2013. Web.
“Filmmaking Tuition and Dates.” New York Film Academy Admissions. Web.
Foster, Angela. “What to Do with a Degree in Film Studies.” The Guardian. 8 July 2011. Web.
Hope, Ted. “The Hard Truth: Filmmaking Is Not A Job.” Truly Free Film. 1 Sept. 2010. Web.
Hymes, Steve. “Is Film School Worth It in 2011?” No Film School. 29 Mar. 2011. Web.
Nastasi, Alison. “Famous Directors Who Never Went to Film School.”Flavorwire. 1 Sept. 2013. Web.
Robinson, Esther B. “Cash Poor, Creativity Rich: The No-Money Manifesto.” Filmmaker Magazine. 28 Apr. 2014. Web.
Smith, Stacey L., Katherine Pieper, and Marc Choueiti. “Independent WomenFilmmakers: Setting the Agenda for Change.”Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers (2013). Women In Film. Web.
“Tuition for Toronto Film School.” Toronto Film School: RCC Institute of Technology. Web.
“UCLA Undergraduate Admission.” UCLA Admissions. Web.
“Yo Gabba Gabba!” T.V Show. Season 1, episode 5: “Sleep.” YouTube.