Is film school worth the tuition?

A design of a man's back with his arms spread out and a piece of movie film in the background.
(Iris Leung | Daily Trojan)

In preparation for the impending Thanksgiving feast, a question broils for film students far and wide. Every year, film students all over the world converge on their hometowns with a discernible air of trepidation, knowing that, at any moment, it — a sentence tinged with judgement, whose arrival can be sensed like a crumb sinking to the bottom of a shaky wine glass — will come: “What’s a degree like that good for anyway?”

Here is a truthful rebuttal, good for not only this question but also most questions: It depends.

The cons are extremely visible, and they are all Uncle Joe wants to talk about: the high cost, the degree’s inflexibility and the impracticality of the degree’s ultimate career goal.

There is merit to this skepticism. Almost two years ago, the coronavirus washed up on our shores and instantly halted film and TV production. The industry suffered greatly during the shutdown and has yet to fully recover. Thousands lost their jobs, many of whom may never find them again.

It is also familiar lore that the lates and greats who built this city into the West’s entertainment empire never attended film school. Christopher Nolan studied English literature; Steven Spielberg was rejected from USC and Tarantino never even graduated from high school. It is arguable, then, that if one possesses even a shred of natural-born talent and unrelenting discipline, they can find success outside the confines of an educational establishment.

That is true — sometimes. It depends.

An estimated 35% of all job openings require at least a bachelor’s degree. Going to college, at this point, becomes much less an option than a societal expectation. If one fulfills that expectation to make career-building and job-searching less miserable experiences, it may as well be in the pursuit of something they feel passionate about, right?

Furthermore, film programs require balancing two equally weighted spinning plates: One holds an immense amount of collaboration, time management, budgeting and critical analysis, while the other holds grand creative or artistic merit, morale and social messaging. Keeping these plates spinning for always and eternity is unique to the field, forcing its torch-carriers to adapt with immediacy. Upon graduation, these abilities are still incredibly valuable. 

Another pro: In most film programs, the production of short films, pilots and web-series is the curriculum’s essential center. Students are expected to know how to work with cutting-edge equipment and software, often provided by the school. By the time caps and gowns are ready for pickup, soon-to-be-alumni have well-produced, medium-to-high budget original works bulking up their portfolios. For that reason alone, film school is worth the expense.

Then again… it depends. One could make an argument that tuition money could be spent directly on a passion project, forgoing all of the class schedules and homework assignments in favor of just making the damn thing.

That is what Grace Gao, a graduate student at the School of Cinematic Arts in the John Wells Writing for Screen & Television program, said many of her undergraduate peers did.

“Many of the students had to graduate early just to have the money to make their production come to life… So not everybody could really afford to go through the entire four years and also take money out of [their] pocket to make films at the same time,” Gao said. 

Grace hits on another well-known secret of the entertainment industry: Nepotism is blood, and, without a connection to someone who has already “made it,” we are as good as a bag of unemployed bones. 

“After I graduated from undergrad – which was also a film school, NYU – I landed a job as a writer/director’s assistant. It was a very haphazardly found opportunity and the only reason why I found it is because of a very remote family connection… Given how competitive the industry is, [not] everyone can really find an entryway into it. I felt very fortunate.”

However, one of graduate programs’ strongest pulls is the promise of a highly-motivated, like-minded cohort. The School of Cinematic Arts echoed this sentiment during the first event of Welcome Week, ensuring new Masters of Fine Arts candidates that the people they have just met will accompany them through the majority of their career. This is vital, considering the industry’s heavy reliance on word-of-mouth referrals.

All in all, the question of whether or not film school is worth it plays out like a tennis match between Venus and Serena Williams: Either team is a great bet, but it ultimately comes down to a very extensive pros and cons list, gut instinct, wind speed and direction.