WHEN I CAN MAKE MISTAKES
ON MY OWN?
I didn’t go to film school.
I got my undergraduate degree at a liberal arts college with majors in Philosophy, Religion, and Interdisciplinary Film Studies. I still spent the majority of my free time on film, and I became a much better person as a result of my other studies; but I always wondered if I should have gone to film school instead.
A short time after my undergraduate career finished, I attempted to make a feature-length film on a less-than-shoestring budget. Since I didn’t have any formal training, I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I could just put an expensive camera down and get a great image. I was clueless.
The film was poorly planned, fell apart, and we ended up editing the remains into a short film that was, at best, mediocre.
But I learned a ton about filmmaking in the process.
Even learning what I did, though, I wondered what else I was clueless about. The most important lesson I have ever learned in my life is something Dr. Richard Swanson taught me: “Know what you don’t know.”
The problem for me was that I had no idea what I didn’t know. What was I missing? There was still a world of knowledge that I had only begun to scratch the surface of.
So I had to ask myself again: should I go to film school?
The choice was especially maddening because I had seen many of my friends go on to get graduate degrees in various film fields; while they were getting formal training, I was instead taking shots in the dark.
So, I looked at my heroes. Woody Allen has always been my favorite filmmaker; I also love Terry Gilliam, the Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Whit Stillman, and Darren Aronofsky, to name a few. Woody got kicked out of undergrad; Gilliam, Stillman and Ethan Coen didn’t go to film school, but Lee, Aronofsky and Joel Coen did.
So it didn’t seem clear that film school would help. The only thing I noticed was that my personal favorites did not go to off-brand film schools (Spike Lee and Joel Coen attended NYU, and Darren Aronofsky attended AFI). That’s not to say that off-brand film schools don’t have something to offer; but considering the price, the return on investment seems minimal.
This hints at the paradox of being an aspiring filmmaker. You need money to create a quality product; but you need to create a quality product before you can get the money; but you need money to create that quality product. Before that can happen, you have to learn to create a quality product; to do that, you need money to create a quality product, which no one will give you unless you have created a quality product, which you cannot do without money.
Almost equally important as money, though, is a network. You can get a solid network from somewhere like NYU, AFI, UCLA, USC, or one of the many other film schools in the world; however, you can also lose about $250,000 in the process.
Instead of spending $250,000 on film school, I spent probably around $500 over the course of a year on every filmmaking book I could get my hands on. I continued to learn independently. But am I any more able to create a great film than I was before? And would I be way better off if I had gone to film school?
I just Kickstarted my next project—for the second time. I think my experience so far with Kickstarter is worth sharing. I actually first heard about Kickstarter from the Film Courage podcast. Not long after, I saw a few different projects get posted on Facebook—but more importantly, I saw my friends ask for funding and succeed.
The first time I posted my project on Kickstarter, I asked for $3500. I had seen friends of mine succeed at raising amounts ranging from about $3000-$7500, so I figured this would be a good, low number for me to aim at.
I was wrong.
Unlike my friends whose projects had succeeded, I didn’t have a network. I was never one of the popular people in high school or college, and my friends are mostly broke Philosophy majors.
However, this doesn’t mean I couldn’t have created a network. I had thought for a while that going to film school was the only way to form this mythical network; but I used this as an excuse not to get out and meet people who are interested in film. This was my biggest failure: in order to succeed, you need other people.
I never made the effort that I should have.
Well, after about five days, I had only raised $50, and all of that had been from one donor. I realized that raising $3,500 was probably a little out of my reach. I promptly canceled the funding and went back to the drawing board.
Here’s another problem with Kickstarter. My short film, Genesis 51:33-51, is extremely difficult to sum up in one sentence. If I am going to take money and invest it in a film, I am not going to make something ordinary. Films can change people; movies can break people down and build them back up again; they can force us to reexamine our worldviews and make us better people. The point of film is the experience. My film needs to be experienced. No explanation can quite capture what I am going for. Most of the film is based around the audience’s interpretation; this isn’t exactly something easy to sell. So how do you get people to invest in a product when you can’t explain to them, fully, what the product will be?
Well, after cutting the budget significantly, reevaluating a few elements of the project, and creating a new plan of attack for going after investors, we cut the goal down to $1,300. You can see how the project is doing here:
As of this writing, I have no idea how successful we’ll be. We’re currently at $538 of our $1,300 goal—not bad for our sixth day, but not amazing like so many other projects I’ve seen.
The question for you is this: how do you learn to make films? Film school gives you all the equipment for a big-budget film. Once you’ve learned how to use that equipment, they send you out into the world, and if you don’t have the budget, you have to learn how to move downward.
As an autodidact, however, I’m creating from the ground up. We start with no money; we fail; we get a little bit more money; we fail; we move onward. As a result, I’m bound to make many more mistakes on my journey than someone who goes to film school. However, I’m also much more likely to make discoveries.
If you don’t go to film school, you have to accept that you have a long road of failure ahead of you before you can succeed—but you will probably be better for it.
Kyle Rogers is currently alive and well somewhere in the Midwest. You can follow him on Twitter at @infalliblekyle, and if you have any questions about him or his project, you can e-mail him at email@example.com.