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A History of Film Schools

Which film school will bring you closer to your goals?

Filmmaking is considered a new art and craft of the twentieth century and is in a state of constant development and change.

When I went to film school at a university in the late 80s, the film department was in a dark, cold basement where the editing rooms were next to the furnace. There was very little money invested in the program, and most, if not all of the film/video equipment never worked properly. I had to rent my own equipment for my final major film project because the cameras they had didn’t sync up properly, so sound issues were a constant concern.

It is true that for most of the twentieth century, film schools were campus jokes! The faculty and administration did not really understand or support the idea and saw the whole film school concept as pretentious. They treated us in general as film director wannabes that had no hope in creating commercially successful films. I believe that this attitude that the professors had, was for the most part due to the fact that they had no success with their own work, so why or how could their new, inexperienced students ever become successful? This was a position taken by most film schools at the time.

There was also the issue of faculty – the saying - ‘those that can’t do, teach’. So, you had an influx of those that could not make it in the industry, simply bitter about their experiences affecting the way new students thought about the possibility of their future success.

The film faculty would negatively critique good narrative work without true justification or actual hands-on knowledge of how a film was to be properly structured. Back then, most film schools could get away with having faculty that had never actually made a film, but yet they could criticize your work like crazy. Strange isn’t it?

Now, most respected film schools have finally figured out that you need to hire successful filmmakers to either teach or run the film program. This is necessary in order to produce successful student films and in turn, successful young filmmakers.

Despite the negative environment of some of the earlier schools, the students proved the faculty wrong by succeeding as great producers and directors. There were a few directors working in Hollywood in the early 70s that attended film school in the 60s such as Martin Scorsese (studied at NYU) and Francis Ford Coppola (studied at UCLA). They were making small, independent films and their careers began to blossom.

This was also a time when many young filmmakers were also getting a chance to work with producers of low-budget exploitation films such as Roger Corman or William Castle and were not necessarily taking the film school route.

But then came a pack of graduates from Southern California film schools that got the chance to make some movies such as Steven Spielberg (Cal State, Long Beach) and George Lucas (USC) that would change Hollywood and the perception of film schools.

Film schools began to challenge their students by having them produce excellent grad films which helped them in turn create and build strong portfolios. A strong film portfolio is what most film and fine arts students need in order to help prove that they are worthy of joining the actual film industry. And so, some film schools will make it their mission to bring you closer to your career goals by helping you build that portfolio! More on portfolio building in another upcoming Trebas blog article! 

By Kalman Szegvary, MFA, Head of Film & TV Production
Trebas Institute – Toronto


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