Can You Be a Filmmaker Without Film School?

The Role of Storytelling in Videos, Movies & Films 

Written by: Tyler Schwartz


I recently sat down for lunch with my friend’s younger brother. For brevity’s sake, let’s call him Sonny. Brother Sonny is (adopts Casey Affleck accent) a wicked smart 18 year-old kid with ambitions of one day being the next great Director of Motion Pictures.  He’s a movie nerd, a theater geek, and a film buff – He reminds me a lot of myself at the same age.


Sonny’s older brother arranged our meeting so I could talk to Sonny about film school. As a high school senior Sonny was starting the great scourge of adolescent society more commonly known as the college application process. They wanted my advice on the pros and cons of a film school education.


West Philadelphia, born and raised (Lower Merion to be exact, shouts to Kobe), I departed for the West Coast in 2007 to study theater at USC. Eventually I lost my absolute devotion to theater and matriculated to The Los Angeles Film School in Hollywood where I studied Directing and Screenwriting. After graduating I worked both inside the industry (on the camera or production crews for Music Videos, Commercials, and Independent Feature Films), adjacent to the industry (as a featured background extra on shows like Glee, True Blood, and American Horror Story), and outside the industry (as a ballroom dance instructor at Arthur Murray and a third party kitchen flooring salesman at Home Depot).


Staring back at Sonny while I munched on delectable Parts and Labor french fries, I realized that the question of “why film school?” had completely evolved over the decade since I first faced down the question myself. The answer used to be simple – You went to film school if you wanted to make movies. That was it. There wasn’t really another option back then (you know, back then, in the mid-aughts… sigh). The script was incredibly straightforward. Go to film school. Make a thesis film. Work odd jobs during the day while writing your feature at night. Sell your body, blood, eggs or semen, until you raise enough money to finally make your “Feature Debut”. Get your film accepted into Sundance and… BOOM – (Clooney in The Perfect Storm voice) You’re a Goddamn Filmmaker.


As much as the world has changed since then, so has the entertainment industry. Over the past 13 years, or what is otherwise known as the “Age of YouTube”, I’ve witnessed firsthand what was once known as “The Motion Picture Industry” fracture into three distinct branches. While talking to Sonny, this unjaded young soul so very similar to my old self, I did my best to explain this triple industry fracture in more detail.


Branch 1: Video

The aforementioned YouTube truly did change the game forever. It brought video making and viewing to the masses. The sudden ubiquity of online video pushed companies like Canon and Nikon to make affordable DSLR cameras meant for online video making. It convinced Apple to commit millions of dollars into upgrading its iPhone camera to the point where it’s now more powerful than any motion picture camera I ever handled during film school. It literally created an entirely new (and consistently profitable) sub-industry of the entertainment business – I don’t how the kids are saying it now but old fogies like myself still call it “Vlogging”.


YouTube’s leveling of the digital “playing field” acted as both a blessing and a curse. Obviously a gift to us all for providing a platform for classic videos like “Charlie Bit My Finger” and “Double Rainbow Man”, plus an infinite amount of groin kicks and animal cuteness. Less obviously, it’s been a curse. To put it best, why would any titular “Industry Exec” care about who wins Sundance when there’s Bobby Teenager who live streams himself playing Fortnight and has 10 million channel followers. The industry money always follows what young people are watching. For better or worse, young people are watching videos on YouTube, not movies in theaters. Not to say that it’s not entertainment, it certainly is. But, for the most part, it’s also not real storytelling.

As I finished explaining this first branch of the industry to Sonny, I checked in to see if he was following – “Yeah, I think I get it, you’re saying Video is for amateurs”. I quickly set the record straight, “No that’s not what I’m saying. Plenty of professional videographers are very talented and absolutely deserve to get paid well for what they do”. What I explained is that if he only wanted to be a videographer that makes videos to sell products and/or document events, you don’t need to attend Film School. The internet has enough video making tutorials to fill the Library of Congress twice over. Amazon has enough affordable video making equipment to deck out an entire studio warehouse. If your professional goal is to make videos for YouTube, then there’s no better teacher in the universe than YouTube itself.


Sonny responded, “No, that’s not what I want. I want to make real movies”.


BRANCH 2: Movies

In 1988, the year before I was born, the highest grossing film of the year was Rainman. The following year, 1989, the highest grossing release was Tim Burton’s Batman. While the seismic Hollywood shift towards flooding the world with Superhero movies wouldn’t fully happen for another decade, the juxtaposition of Rainman and Batman (both classic films), perfectly illustrates the growing chasm between the definitions of MOVIES vs. FILMS.


Since the year 2000 (the year Brother Sonny was born), only two “Original Films” have gone on to become the top grosser of that given year. The first of the two is James Cameron’s Avatar from 2009. Ignoring the fact that Avatar isn’t really “original” (it’s basically a live-action Ferngully sans Robin Williams), it was also made with the intention of multiple sequels (Avatar 2-5 will be coming to a theater near you every year from 2020-2025… seriously). If we put an asterisk on Avatar, that means the only truly “original film” to be that year’s highest grosser is 2014’s Bradley Cooper starring, Clint Eastwood directed, American Sniper. If you peruse the rest of the list, familiar titles continue to pop up – Multiple Star Wars appearances, Harry Potter, The Avengers, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Pirates of the Caribbean, and (Yul Brynner’s King and I accent) “et cetera, et cetera”.


In today’s Hollywood, the name of the game is IP (intellectual property). Most of our great young directors have had to abandon original ideas all together or at the very least are forced to sneakily hide them under a thick layer of product placements. These commercial restraints make it all the more miraculous when a regular “popcorn movie” transcends it’s industry trappings to become a legitimate film. To me that’s what differentiates movies from films – movies are visual stories intended to entertain, films are visual stories that can entertain, but are intended to make you feel and think both about the characters, yourself, and the world around you. Recent examples of this can be seen in Logan (on its surface an X-Men sequel, at its core, a post-modern meditation on Westerns, American Masculinity, and fatherhood, that also doubles as the best Clint Eastwood film Eastwood never made), and most recently in 2018’s highest grossing film, Black Panther.  


“I loved both Logan and Black Panther” Sonny tells me, “Those are definitely the type of movies I want to learn to make”. It’s at this point where I had to explain an ugly truth about the profession of filmmaking. Even though these blockbusters are getting bigger and bigger budgets, the industry is actually making less and less movies every year. This means there are less and less opportunities for all the up and coming Brother Sonny’s of the world. Put simply, the chances of Sonny becoming the next JJ Abrams are roughly the same as his High School’s Varsity quarterback of becoming Tom Brady. Sure, it could happen, but it’s extremely unlikely, and what’s worse is that actual talent means even less in Hollywood than it does in the NFL. I told Sonny that if he really wanted to work on projects like this, he should abandon his desire to be a Director and pick a specific vocational skill (Editing, Lighting, Production Design,). These skills will lead to way more industry opportunities than being the billionth white director dude who works at the local coffee shop.


I could tell Sonny didn’t really like this answer. 18 year old me doesn’t like this answer either. 18 year old me wants to do everything and truly believes he can. 18 year old me is very stubborn. Very ambitious. And also very stupid.


“Tell me about the third branch then… Tell me about Film.”


BRANCH 3 : Film

My generation of film school students are the last of a kind. We’re the last students to actually attend “FILM SCHOOL” and not be lying. Why you ask?


We actually learned how to shoot on film.


Those days are now long gone. It’s simply just too expensive to shoot on film. Sure, maybe a few schools will demonstrate how to properly load film into a camera but that’s like a 1st year Law Student reading the Bill of Rights. Helpful to know, but not very practical knowledge inside an everyday work environment. So since the actual technology of filmmaking no longer even involves actual, you know, film, we’ve been forced to redefine what actually makes something a film.


From my standpoint, the prerequisites of what makes something a film are story telling, artistry and intentionality. A film tells a story, it doesn’t “sell” a story. A film uses cinematic artistry to convey emotion, theme, and subtext. A film uses precise and intentional visual language to showcase Point-of-View, whether it be of different characters or from the filmmaker themself. I’d also add one final crucial rule, that films aren’t made to make money. That doesn’t mean the filmmakers don’t want to make money, but that’s not their first intention. Story and characters forever remain King when it comes to making FILMS.


I listed off a few recent examples for Sonny. Short Term 12, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Florida Project, Moonlight, all capital ‘F’ FILMS that showcased a slice of human existence heretofore unseen on the silver screen. They also share another commonality, none of their entire lifetime grosses add up to even half of what Avengers: Infinity War made on opening day alone. I attempted to explain this harsh reality to Sonny as honestly as I could;


“It’s a tough pill to swallow but you’re going to learn it one way or the other. The simple fact is it’s hard to make a living as a filmmaker in 2018.”


“So what would you call yourself then? Are you a filmmaker? Or are you a videographer?”


I knew this question was coming. It’s only natural. I’d just spent the last hour stomping on this kid’s dream of becoming the next Spielberg, it’s only right for him to start questioning my own career path and credentials. Had I really become the old guard already? Thinking back on our conversation it did start to feel more and more like I was the old guy reminiscing about “the glory days”.


So I explained to Sonny what I do, what Big Dog Little Bed does, and why we do it the way we do. Part of BDLB’s business is wedding videography. However, we don’t deliver “wedding videos” to our couples, we deliver “wedding films”. We don’t just document their day, we tell the story of their life and love through the prism of that day. We use our artistic eye to capture real moments of raw emotion that most videographers wouldn’t even think to look for. We employ intentionality in how we utilize music and create the rhythm and look of a film. No two couples are the same which is why no two wedding films can be the same. The whole team strives for that distinct originality in every film, every frame, and every cut.


I explained that not every company was like this. I know because I used to work at one. A production company that was practically a McDonalds in the way it could churn out cookie cutter content. At BDLB we strive for something more profound. Something that goes deeper than the surface level “that’s pretty”. We may not be making Moonlight, but filmmakers indeed we are.


As I closed my bar tab, I looked back over my shoulder at a bewildered Sonny. Poor kid didn’t know what had hit him. All he wanted to know was whether film school was a sound educational investment. Instead I had delivered a dissertation on the modern entertainment industry.


“Look, at the end of the day, your path will find you. There’s no right way to do it. And no experience is universal. Maybe film school is perfect for you. Maybe not. Either way, the best way to become anything in life is just to do it. As much as you can, whenever you can. That’s the best piece of advice I can give you Sonny.”


“Thanks I appreciate it. I think I understood everything you said.”


“Ohhhh really,” I probed, “then break it down for me in one sentence Sonny boy.”


Sonny paused and took a deep breath, searching for the right words to pass my pop quiz.


“Regardless of what kind of screen size it’s playing on or who made it, Videos entertain for 2 minutes, Movies entertain for 2 hours, and films you remember forever. That about sums it up, right?”


… With answers like that, maybe filmmaking isn’t a dying art after all.