Mythbusting: You need to be rich to go to film school.
But if you’re not, you need to be seriously tough, lucky and imprudent…. Here are some thoughts that may help you navigate this difficult but rewarding journey if you are considering film school in the States.
Graduate film school is a massive investment of time, money and emotion. But not only are there scholarships and bursaries out there to help you, there are also ways of subsidising even the most demanding courses via campus jobs woohoo! There are also loans to help you make up the shortfall. None of this is easy but it does mean that the MFA programmes are more accessible than people think – although they are not for the fainthearted.
Here are some questions I wish that I had asked myself when I jubilantly read my acceptance letter to Columbia’s MFA programme:
- Can you really afford to spend 3-5 years accruing debt and no savings? Er probably not, but, what the hell! It probably won’t kill you… even if it isn’t what your accountant would advise.
- Can you face the same wardrobe for that period of time? Seriously.
- At Columbia, certainly (unless things have changed drastically), you will be footing the bill for 90% of your student projects and this does mean that your peers with access to extra $$$ will be in a better position to make flashy work. But this is not everything, remember: some of the best filmmakers in my year (and throughout film history) were broke.
- Let’s not glorify poverty. How will you make sure you have what you need in order to thrive? It is really hard to be creative unless your basic needs are taken care of – food, privacy, health and security are really important.
- Can you face coming out of graduate school burdened with debt? How long will it take you to pay it off and how do you propose to do so?
- What will you do if your all important thesis film is not a passport to directing/producing/writing professionally? How do you plan to perservere?
- Are the European schools more able to support and nurture their students financially with grants?
- A big consideration for Europeans is the fact that the F-1 limits us to campus jobs, which will allow us to earn a fraction of what we can earn back home. So, make a relationship with a temping agency to work in vacations.
If I’d answered all these questions seriously in 2003, I probably would have stayed in London and carried on working. Yet despite the struggle, I am glad I went and braved it through the MFA programme: I came out with expertise, wonderful peers and a serious sense of filmmaking.
I only got through film school thanks to an incredible cocktail of other people’s faith in me, their kindness and my own grit. Figure out your recipe for survival and make it work. Most importantly, don’t give up.