Do I need film school to make it in Hollywood?

February 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

A film student asked me the same question at a lecture I gave recently to a high school filmmaking class.  My answer wasn’t really “yes” or “no” but fell somewhere between.  I told him that I believed it was a personal choice to set aside the time in his life to study the craft of filmmaking.  By no means is it a guarantee of success in the film industry if you do or do not attend film school.  If someone reads your screenplay, what’s on the page will determine if it sells.  I believe that what I learned in film school directly contributed to my growth as a screenwriter and it was an important step for my eventual journey to becoming a working professional.

My own story was that UCLA film school was the only college where I applied, so for me it was do or die.  I remember the odds that year of being accepted as a junior were horrible: 1 out of  7.  If you add the fact it was the only college where I applied, my acceptance became a huge personal achievement.

I had made films since I was eleven years old, but I always wanted to go college to further study my passion for film and earn a degree.  I also wanted to graduate from a world-renowned film school.  My college years were exciting times and every day was a creative experience because we lived and breathed film.  Every aspect of learning focused on filmmaking, film history, and gaining experience telling stories in different mediums.  I fondly remember writing my scripts, directing my films, being up all night in marathon editing sessions, and the eventual premieres of our projects.  Those were precious times.

I didn’t have the luxury of only attending college and had to support myself by working as a waiter at night to pay my bills.  I believe my real world experiences and having to support myself brought some honesty and truthfulness to my work.  It also forced me to delegate my time wisely between my studies and making a living.  I didn’t know it then, but this was invaluable training for when I finally became a professional writer to stay on target, juggle projects, and meet deadlines.

I had an amazing time attending UCLA film school and I gained priceless experience studying the history of film and the craft of filmmaking.  It was a safe environment for us to create and a time for me to find my voice as a filmmaker and develop a point of view.  There was a real sense of community and support that you don’t find in the real world, as you and everyone else are trying to carve out a career.  It reminded me of what Paris must have been like in the 1920’s with so many creative types all working on their projects and supporting each others endeavors.  I was constantly around like-minded people in film school—many of who ended up being my networking contacts after we graduated.

After college, I was never hired for a job only because I graduated from film school.  It was almost assumed that everyone went to film school and because I didn’t yet have a body of work or credits, a degree from a prestigious film school was all I had in my arsenal.  I believe that industry professionals look at a film degree as a strong indicator of how serious you are about your craft.  It shows you must have some type of potential, because they accepted you over thousands of other applicants and your dedication, talent, and drive earned you the degree.

I wrote three feature-length screenplays in film school and it wasn’t until my fifith overall script (and second script outside of college) that I garnered my first sale.  The producer didn’t ask if I went to film school when he originally read my script.  My writing stood on its own.  Sound easy?  The journey took five years to hook this producer and another two years until they produced the movie. You’ll need infinite patience and faith if you are going to stick it out for the long haul of building a career in Hollywood.

So, back to the original question, “Do I need film school to make it in Hollywood?”  No, you don’t need to attend film school to have a career in Hollywood, but I feel you need to set aside the time in your life to study your craft and be around similar creative types.  You’ll build lifelong filmmaking relationships and everyone of your friends will land at some level of the film business.  They may end up giving you a job–or you hiring them.  You could also skip film school and get a job in the film industry in production, learn everything you can and make that your film school.  Make the necessary contacts and build your network of potential employers. Neither path will guarantee any level of success in the business, only add valuable experiences in your growth as a filmmaker.

I would not trade those years in film school for anything.  I would have rather worked my way through college and made films, than be out working as a P.A. and not growing as a writer and finding my voice.  You need the time to create, grow, and make mistakes as you learn the craft of filmmaking.  The communal aspect of film school allows you to do that.  After we all graduated, we thought we’d be signing three picture deals and reading about ourselves on the cover of Variety.  For me, my first sale and being mentioned in a Variety article wouldn’t happen for another five years, but I never lost sight of my dream and film school was my first giant achievement on the journey of learning my craft.

It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life.”—Telamon of Arcadia, mercenary, 5th Century B.C.

If they actually made movies instead of talking about making movies, and if all classes on theory were rigorously forbidden, I could imagine a film school being very valuable, indeed.”—Orson Welles, The Playboy Interviews, March 1967

“As an artist, I feel that we must try many things — but above all we must dare to fail.”—John Cassavetes

“Having spent too many years in show business, the one thing I see that succeeds is persistence. It’s the person who just ain’t gonna go home. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to go home. This is what I’ll be doing until they put me in jail or in a coffin.” —David Mamet


Did you just finish your latest screenplay? Is it time for in-depth screenplay consultation? Check out my website for my consultation services. Click on the icon below for the link to my website for more information.  You usually get one chance to make a first great impression with your screenplay.

Screenplay consultation services


It’s a new year and maybe it’s a time for a fresh start. Check out my Writers Store Webinar “How to Become A Standout Screenwriter: 10 Steps to Empower Your Career.” Now archived and for sale on the webinar. Click on the icon below for the link to the website.

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