Film School Confidential: The Archive

Don’t go to Film School, folks!  There’s a fair amount of anti-MFA stuff in the book, but there used to be a lot more before we slimmed the autobiographical element.  Here it is in all its gory glory.  Feel my rage!

Film School Confidential, Conclusion: Instead of Film School, Listen to the Crickets

Let me tell you a little fable that also happens to be a true story... The same week I started at Columbia, an old friend from college left New York to attend a different film school in another city. A month later, he came right back. He had taken one look around and realized that film school was a terrible idea.

I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I pitied him. On the one hand, here was I: Whenever anyone asked me what I was doing with my life, I got to say “I’m getting a masters from Columbia University.” Everybody was very impressed. Nobody responded, “Gee what a waste”. Nobody said, “Holy hell, man, how are you ever going to pay that off??” Getting a Columbia degree is a “very worthwhile thing to do.”

My friend, meanwhile, had to admit to people at parties that he was a film school dropout, working as a temp and performing with improv troupes around town. I went to a lot of his shows and let me tell you something about improv: it’s painful. The troupe would do a skit and you would hear crickets. Not one real laugh. I felt terrible: Here I was, being told by famous filmmakers at an Ivy League school that my work was great. And here this guy was, begging for laughs in a basement in Brooklyn.

It wasn’t until I graduated and that I finally asked, “What do I have to show for all those years and all that money?” The truth was that I had experienced the exact same realization as my friend had, two weeks into my own film school experience. That was how long it took me to realize that Columbia had a terrible film program. I should have left, right there and then, but I didn’t, because I couldn’t face the shame.

I wanted to sound impressive at parties. I wanted lots of praise from professors. I wanted these things so badly that I was willing to spend $150k to get them. (Really far more than that. It will probably balloon to $300k by the time I finally get it paid off.)

After graduation, the truth came crashing down: the professors that I thought were my good friends stopped returning my calls, now that I was no longer paying them to like me. Then I found out that no one in the business was impressed by a Columbia degree. Worst of all, my new manager started sending out my Columbia-award-winning scripts and guess what I heard?


Suddenly, I noticed something about my friend that I had never realized before: All that time, he could hear the crickets too. Unlike me, he knew that his work wasn’t connecting to paying audiences. And it hurt. And so he had slowly gotten better.

Let’s cut to the chase: A few months ago, he got a call at his temp job, and then he promptly quit. He’s now a staff writer at “The Daily Show”. Every writer on staff gets an Emmy every year. Now he has no problem telling people at parties what he does.

As for me, I started this blog, re-educated myself, wrote a bunch of new scripts and now I’ve making some money, though I’m still a long way away from paying off those loans. But most graduates of Columbia tragically never even secure representation, much less make a sale.

Now I know what I was really buying with that $150,000: I was paying the crickets to stay away. I was insulating myself from any real criticism. I was paying people to like me. In short: I was paying to be coddled. And all that money and all that coddling made me a worse writer.

Film school teaches you how to please your professors, please your fellow students, and, most of all, please yourself. It doesn’t teach you how to please a paying audience. In fact, at my school, if you even said that you wanted to please a paying audience, the professors would tell you that you were making a terrible mistake.

The only reliable way to get better is to put your work before paying audiences and learn to please them through trial and error. Everyday you do that, you will get better. Otherwise, it will be almost impossible. If you go to film school, that’s four years of not getting better, for which you get a lifetime of debt.

The moral of this little fable? DO NOT GO TO FILM SCHOOL. Find yourself a basement theater, or a small newspaper, or an open mic night. Listen to the crickets. Learn to please unfriendly audiences. Slowly, painfully, get better.

Film School Confidential, Part 4: You’re The Whale

Don’t worry, folks, there’s only five parts, and I am going somewhere with this...

There’s a great scene in Casino that reveals the secret of Las Vegas’s success: The Whale. The Whale is the rich guy who loves to gamble, and comes to town ready to spend. Once a whale arrives, the entire casino is re-engineered to become one big happiness machine, centered around him: free rooms, free hookers, free anything. And if the whale attempts to leave while he’s ahead, they disable his plane, forcing him to spend one more night on the tables.

Everyone going to film school should watch this scene, and not just to learn about filmmaking. When you go to an expensive film school, you are the whale. Everything they do is designed to keep money shooting out of your spout. Even if that means sabotaging your education.

It doesn’t have to be this way: After I got out of college, I delivered pizzas, made movies on mini-DV and took occasional film classes at a place called Minneapolis Community and Technical College. MCTC charged $400 a semester, which I paid out of pocket using my pizza tips. To my surprise, the quality of the program was excellent. The facilities and equipment were top notch. The faculty was smart, intense and dedicated. The main professor, Bruce Mamer, actually wrote one of the directing textbooks that was used at NYU. He was also brutally honest with his dirt-poor students about the economic realities of filmmaking, which we appreciated.
As part of that program, I made a short film that got me some attention. I decided to use that film to apply to a “real” film school. But when I got to Columbia, I was in for a shock. I was now paying twenty times as much, but the equipment was shoddy and rarely available, the classrooms were rotting, and the professors (with a few notable exceptions) were surly, distracted and ill-prepared. On that last point, we soon found out why: our professors were really “adjuncts” who got paid $4000 a semester. If they spent any time preparing, then they’d be making less than minimum wage.

So where was our $100k in tuition going? Columbia, it turned out, had gotten addicted to buying up property in Manhattan, even though the real estate bubble had inflated prices into the stratosphere, so educational budgets had all been slashed to the bone. MCTC was a government-subsidized institution, but Columbia’s only source of money was us. And they intended to milk us for all we were worth.
But what could I do? I tried not to get upset with the people running the film program: they couldn’t help it that the university was taking our tuition and literally putting it down a hole. They had to make the best of a bad situation and try to get by on the cheap, right?
But even so, that left one thing I still couldn’t forgive them for: the program had no standards. And standards are free.

There was no curriculum. There were no grades. There were no tests. There were no criteria that we were supposed to meet. Simply put, they expected nothing of us. They cheered our output, they handed out prizes, and they told us we would soon be on easy street. Why did they have no standards? Simple: that would have interrupted the happiness machine, and that might have upset the Whales. The longer they kept us happy, the more money we spent.

Of course, if they were loaning us the money themselves, then it would all be different. They would have done everything in their power to harden us into a great filmmakers who could go out there and earn enough to pay them back. But they get paid upfront, so they could care less if their students ever get a career, or even any career skills.

Okay, things look bleak for the struggling filmmakers of the world. Is there any hope? Yes there is. Tomorrow, let’s talk about what to do instead...

Film School Confidential, Part 3: It Feeds Your Worst Instincts

If I had to summarize the message of film school in two words, it would be these: “Never Compromise.” Occasionally, they would bring in indie filmmakers to show their latest films. This was during a period when the audience for indie films was plummeting, and these filmmakers should have been adapting, but instead they were determined to go down with the Titanic.

Time after time, students would stand and say, “Your movie is so uncompromising! How do you resist the pressure to give in to notes?” And the filmmaker would tell them to be strong and always remember: “Never compromise!” As I pointed out before, this is terrible advice.

Here’s a typically painful example. I was a big fan of Slums of Beverly Hills and its director, Tamara Jenkins, so I was excited when she brought her long-awaited follow-up, The Savages. This was a movie about a brother and sister who have to take care of their indigent, unloving dad in his final days. They get more and more annoyed with him, and they they realize more and more that he’s really messed them up, and then finally… they get a call from the nursing home that dad’s dead. End of movie.

As the lights went up, I thought. “Gee, that was almost great, but it had no ending. The kids never confront their dad!” Sure enough, in the Q and A, Jenkins said that most studios and even most indie producers begged her to add a scene where the kids have it out with their dad. Even the production house that actually made the movie told her that they would give her twice the budget if she added such a scene. But no! She stuck to her guns! And let that be a lesson to us! Never compromise! (aka “Never fix your movie”)

Now obviously, the school can’t be blamed for the words of one visiting director, but this was a very typical example of what classes were like as well.

As with any art school, most of the professors were somewhat disappointed about their own artistic careers, but rather than say, “Oh well, maybe I should have been more of a team player,” they took the opposite message. They concluded that: “I was denied by a system that demanded that I compromise. Now that I’m teaching film school, I can create a utopian new generation that will end the era of compromise once and for all!”

Obviously, this is crazy. But why didn’t the school feel any responsibility to teach us the skills we would need to make careers for ourselves? Because of the incentive structure behind these programs, which we’ll get to tomorrow…

Film School Confidential, Part 2: It’s Worse than Nothing

Doctors frame their degrees and put them on their office walls. They want you to know where they went to school, because then you’ll assume that they know what they’re doing. Same thing with academics. They know that every time they publish their research, the reader is going to flip to the end and check out their credentials first.
But with fiction writers, it’s just the opposite. The last thing you want to do is brag about where you went to school. Writers are selling their authenticity, and a writing degree is the opposite of authenticity. Producers would much rather hear about your time in prison, or on a shrimp boat, or in the army. Anything but graduate school.
When was the last time you saw a movie poster like the one above? If you did, would that make you more likely to go? This brings us to the real truth: Not only does an MFA degree not help your career, it actually hurts your career. Producers don’t trust film schools. And with good reason.

When a producer sees that you’ve gone to film school, here’s what they think: “Uh oh. This guy’s just paid a hundred thousand dollars to be coddled for four years. He’s been told that his shit doesn’t stink because that’s what he wanted to hear, and he foolishly believed it all.” 

Even worse: They know that you’ve spent four years in a hermetically-sealed environment. You haven’t been listening to how real people actually talk. Just the opposite: you’ve been listening to other students’ fumbling attempts to write dialogue all that time. Film school is a bad dialogue echo-chamber, and nobody comes out unscathed.
So who would they rather hire? The top job in the screenwriting world is that of TV showrunner, and most showrunners started out in one of three professions: they were journalists, playwrights, or stand-up comedians. If you want to become a screenwriter, then you should be pursuing one of those three professions first, not going to film school.
What do these professions have in common? Three things:
  1. You submit your material to a paying audience on a daily basis.
  2. There’s low overhead, so you can pay your dues for years without going into debt.
  3. You have to LISTEN to a lot of people.
Playwrights and stand-up comics have to listen to live audiences, and constantly revise to entertain them more. Journalists have to listen to the people they’re reporting on, transcribe every word they say, and then boil that down to a few quotable lines that convey what’s unique and interesting about this person. Film school, on the other hand, specifically encourages you not to listen to others, which we’ll get to tomorrow…

Film School Confidential, Part 1: A Confession

This blog is basically one big fraud. The day I put up my first post, I had that freak-out that all bloggers have: “Why should anyone listen to me? What authority do I have to talk about anything?” And so I gave in to my moment of weakness and put a bio in the sidebar that assured my readers that I have an MFA in Screenwriting from a hoity-toity university. And I never took it down. It’s still there today.

And so, on more than one occasion, fans of the blog have said to me, “I feel like reading your blog gives me all the benefits of a Columbia education!”

[record scratch sound] Um, no.

Of the 102 rules I’ve covered on this blog, I can think of maybe two that I was taught at Columbia. Almost every other rule is the exact opposite of what they teach there. In fact, anyone trying to teach these rules there would be fired.

It’s time to admit the real reason I started this blog: because I suddenly realized that almost everything I learned at film school was dead wrong, which is why far too many of my fellow graduates have careers that are dead dead. This blog is my attempt to unlearn almost everything they taught us, and forcibly re-educate myself from scratch by re-examining the movies that made me want to make movies.

My school was run like a summer camp, rather than a professional program. We were encouraged to dabble in everything and specialize in nothing, to follow our muse wherever it led us, content in the knowledge that we were in a “safe space”, free from serious criticism. The following concepts were verboten in most of my classes:

  • Compelling Characters
  • Universal Structure
  • Emotion
  • Sympathy
  • Selling a Screenplay
  • And the most verboten concept of all: Pleasing an Audience

Instead, we were supposed to talk about:

  • Executing Our Own Perfect Vision
  • Big Ideas
  • Self-Awareness
  • Post-Modernism
  • Awkwardness
  • Ennui

Yeah, sure, okay, you say. Art school is arty. That’s no surprise. But at least it helps your career, right? We’ll pick up there tomorrow…