6 Ways to Put Your Film Degree to Use in Hollywood

Photo Source: Westin Ray

Many aspiring filmmakers enroll in film school with dreams of becoming a director, and it’s clear why. Today’s best-known helmers—Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and, more recently, Alejandro González Iñárritu—come to mind, while other celebrated filmmakers such as three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who collaborated with Iñárritu on “The Revenant” and “Birdman”) continue to fly under the radar. The director role comes with heightened prestige, name recognition, and control. But getting a film degree can lead to more than a directorial career.

According to Bob Bassett, founding dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, prospective film students are wrong in thinking a film degree mandates they’ll one day sit in the director’s chair.

“Film schools are kind of the inheritors of the auteur theory from the ’60s and ’70s, when there was a lot of discussion and writing about the vision of the director and how the director was the most important person on the film,” Bassett says. “Actually, that is not the way films are made in Hollywood.”

There are countless niche positions in the industry whose absence would crash a production, but it’s not until a film school’s first-year foundation courses that students firmly grasp other ways to contribute to the filmmaking process.

“So many young people will come thinking, ‘Oh, I want to be a director,’ and they don’t really know what that means,” Bassett continues. “They have no idea how difficult actually penetrating the business as a director is.”

“It’s difficult for a student who’s 17, applying for college, to understand the variety of career options that they have once they leave,” Emerson College’s Visual and Media Arts Chair Brooke Knight echoes.

But through an undergraduate’s four years, young filmmakers explore sound design (the creation or manipulation of audio samples required for a film), cinematography (the framing and execution of a film’s photographic elements), editing (the splicing of shots to narratively piece the film together), and more. Students may even discover along the way that the mechanical aspects of filmmaking just aren’t for them. They may find their passion is on the business (producing) or even architectural (art and production design) side. There are plenty of surprising, non-“filmmaking” job and education options that come to light in film school. An interest in producing, for one, has seen a major surge among students.

“It’s actually the producer that is managing the projects,” Bassett explains. “The producer finds the script, raises the money, develops the script, and then decides who would be the best person to direct it. They continue to direct it and cast it. And then once the production starts, of course, the director is paramount.”

Knight recently oversaw Emerson’s removal of specific concentrations to reflect today’s integrated media environment (“The distinction between one medium and another isn’t as clear as it once was,” he says), and cites producing and art direction as “really strong and growing” programs among his students.

Even with all the options on the table, many students do continue to chase the directing dream. It’s not easy, but Bassett says the surest way for novices to get their foot in the door postgrad is to “write something that people want to make, and then attach yourself as a director.

“I think that’s one of the things that film schools help you understand,” he continues. “You’ve got to figure out your own path, and it’s not going to be the same as the kid sitting next to you.”

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