From Martin Scorsese to Robert Zemeckis, some of the most celebrated directors of our day have come from film schools. But Hollywood is never an easy place for film school graduates to make a name for themselves.
James Wong, who co-wrote and directed the current sci-fi film “The One” for Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios, said that when he and his producing and writing partner, Glen Morgan, graduated from Loyola Marymount University’s film school in 1983, there were still those in the industry who guffawed whenever anyone mentioned they had graduated from film school.
That’s because “people sort of worked their way up in the business without a formal education,” Wong explained. “Now, in 2001, I think that perception has changed. There have been a lot of successes.”
“Film school prepared me to be able to say ‘I can do things if given the opportunity,”’ said Wong, who made his directing debut with last year’s “Final Destination” for New Line. “When we first came out of film school, we were working for Sandy Howard Productions. Glen was a receptionist and I was a P.A. [personal assistant]. They said, ‘Hey, can you guys cut trailers?’ It didn’t pay anything but it gave us the opportunity. We said, ‘Sure.’ We had actually cut stuff in school and had a sense of confidence to say, ‘We can do that.”’
As co-chairman of Imagine Entertainment, producer Brian Grazer (“Apollo 13") has found a lot of success with graduates of the UCLA and USC film schools.
Karen Kehela, Grazer noted, was an intern from UCLA when she came to work for him 15 years ago. Now, Kehela is co-chairman of Imagine Films. Jim Whitaker came to Grazer in 1993 from USC and now serves as senior vice president of motion pictures at Imagine. Steve Crystal, vice president of motion pictures, came from USC only a year ago.
“I think film schools serve as a good training ground, but there isn’t really a replacement for actually doing it,” Grazer said. “Any kind of primary job is really valuable. You grow within the opportunity. Film school is a very critical additive.”
Although it is rare for a film school graduate to go straight into directing a feature film for a major studio, some of the art-house labels are making extraordinary efforts to cultivate young filmmakers, either while they are still in school or after they graduate.
At Fox Searchlight, for example, studio officials launched a program in January called Fox Searchlab to find and cultivate promising young filmmakers.
Searchlab director Susan O’Leary scours film schools and festivals looking for talented young directors for the program. If selected, each would-be director signs a nonexclusive, first-look deal for one year at Fox Searchlight. There are 17 enrolled in the program, and contracts have been sent out to 12 more.
After signing the contract, O’Leary said, each person does a short film for the studio. For this, the filmmakers are provided with everything they need, from casting and equipment to wardrobe and makeup. After they complete their short, the filmmakers then pitch Searchlight officials on a feature-length film project they are also developing. If the studio passes on the proposal, the filmmakers are free to take their projects to another studio.
“What this affords us is the opportunity to work with first-time filmmakers,” O’Leary said. “We might find the next Steven Spielberg, but even if we don’t, we may launch some careers.”
A degree from one of the big U.S. film schools such as USC or New York University is a coveted commodity if, for no other reason than it allows a graduate to network with alumni in the business.
Dawn Hudson, who heads the Independent Feature Project/West, a nonprofit organization that helps independent filmmakers, said that while film schools usually do a good job of teaching the basics of the craft of making movies, what they often overlook is the business of filmmaking.
“We constantly hear the refrain, ‘Wow, I never learned that in film school,”’ Hudson said.
“Overall, film schools do a good job of teaching the craft of filmmaking and the theory is terrific and important,” she added. “But what is missing is the business of filmmaking, the kind of nuts and bolts of getting a project done like budgeting and scheduling your film, which you have to do to make your film.”
But industry veterans say they don’t always look to the big schools for recruits.
“I’ve seen fantastically qualified students come from schools with minuscule film programs,” said Holly Harter, a producer at Seventh Pictures. “I’ve had better students from not the big three [programs] because they really are hungry. They really don’t have all the toys allotted to them at USC, UCLA or the American Film Institute. They may not have all those doors open to them and they may come from a shoestring background, but they are so much more anxious to learn and pay their way out here and get their feet wet.”
Tom Brennan, a former creative executive at Atlas Entertainment, which produced such films as “Three Kings” and “City of Angels,” believes “a lot of people are jumping in [to film school] thinking this is a golden ticket, when it really is a lot harder to get in than that.”
“As far as getting the skills and learning things, you can go to any school, but regardless of where you go, whether it’s L.A. or Arkansas, you need to be making your art,” Brennan said. “If you want to be a writer, you write. If you want to be a filmmaker, you make movies. The more you do it, the better you are at your craft.”