Film schools tend to teach narrative storytelling applied to film because historically, the film department emerged from the literature department and thus, an entire tradition of storytelling followed.
The focus is primarily on the U.S. here.
U.S. Traditional: NYU, UCLA, USC & Colombia
The insistence that filmmaking is all about storytelling is out of hand. Yes, film can be used for storytelling and this works very well in a number of cases, but it's become a quasi religion the resilience to doing anything else is intense. Traditional film schools in the United States such as the Tisch at NYU, UCLA or USC teach basic technique and solid storytelling. There's nothing wrong with that but there are other alternatives.
Colombia University is known for having a strong screenwriting department.
U.S. Art Schools: SFAI (Cal Arts)
Art schools with a film department tip over to the other extreme. Formal, structural, experimental films and an extreme anti-narrative bias has developed over the years. Narrative filmmaking is taboo in many case ranging from the Art Institute of Chicago Art to San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) where I attended. SFAI appealed to me for its history of filmmaking and that it had something of a list of alumni that straddled this art/ traditional filmmaking abyss but in reality, there was still a ferocious antipathy toward narrative when I arrived.
Having also studied at UCLA, I can attest that it's solid and traditional but SFAI is far more critical in its approach to, well, everything. It's a technique/ reputation/ critical thinking trade-off and obviously depends on where you want to end up.
Cal Arts does strike me as an exception in that it is a strong film school but also endorses an experimental approach. My dilemma was between it and SFAI but ultimately, the ideas floating around at SFAI seduced me. I can brag that I walked away with the Ella King Torrey Award for best graduating student which is ironic, because relatively speaking, Dear Lina has a fairly strong narrative component. Strange indeed.
Is it worth it?
For me it was, but unless you're extremely determined, stubborn and dead-set on somehow battling against the endless challenges that face a filmmaker, there really is no sense at all in getting into debt or spending your dad's money on what is actually a very expensive education.
Competition among filmmakers is fierce, even at film school, and there's more to making it than just being creative. I find most people I've studied with have given up. Sooner or later they throw in the towel and do something else. I was very close to doing the same but found out in the process that I actually need to do it so that's pretty much that.
Personally, I think that you need to find your own way, style and approach to what kind of filmmaker you want to be and how to go about it. For me, it was about picking up the camera and going for it. None of the film schools I went to taught me that but they did teach technical expertise that are useful.
One thing however, I do find that people that have actually studied film tend to have a deeper insight into film history and also a greater appreciation for film as an art form than those who didn't. That said, this isn't necessarily going to make you successful in monetary terms.
It's tempting to go out and create a screenplay or come up with an idea that you think will sell. The world teaches that and it seems like the right and wise advice. I disagree entirely. The only way to make a film that could possibly advance your career is to make it from your heart and be dead honest. It needs to be well crafted of course, but the audience, whoever they are, will always feel the difference.
A cheaper film shot on video with limited resources will beat the more expensive production hands down with the audience. Keep it real and you might actually make something good. Make something pretentious aspiring to be art and you're in trouble. Same with trying to make something that looks sexy and hip the way a “real film” does – this takes millions of dollars so you'd better find a different approach – they do exist. Think of the Danish film by Lars von Trier, "Festen". Shot on the old HVX1000 DV cam. The story, yes I said story, was what made the film. The look served the purpose but not much more. Still, that was more than enough.
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