So You Want to Get Into the Film Industry? Great Ways to Get Started

Every year, it never fails that I have one, two or three students dying to major in film and television studies. Right away, I tell them that it is one of the most competitive college majors to get into in the U.S.
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Perhaps it's because I live in La Jolla, California, a far-off suburb down the road from the movie-television capital of Los Angeles. Or maybe it's because some people know that a couple of my family members are in the entertainment business. The thing is, every year it never fails that I have one, two or three students dying to major in film and television studies. Right away, I tell them that it is one of the most competitive college majors to get into in the U.S.

Everyone Wants to Get Into Movies: So What's New?

A number of students come to me with no experience beyond being obsessed movie fans. They want to act, produce, direct, write or do "something" without any knowledge of what that really means. Others have literally been writing scripts since they were three years old. A few began making homemade videos in middle school. Still others have spent summers in different college and/or freestanding programs learning about animation, film, editing, and anything else they can get their hands on.

When push comes to shove, though, it's not easy to gain access to experiences that realistically help young people know what the film and television world is all about, let alone gain requisite skills. And in order to get accepted into one of the undergraduate cinematic arts programs, you need to have God-given talent and some (if not a lot) of experience. It helps if you know someone (or someone who knows someone who knows someone) in the industry; but not many people do, even if they live in LA or New York.

The Creative Media Institute, Summer 2014

That's why my eyes opened wide when I saw a blurb about a special program Hampshire College is offering this summer. (Just in case you don't know, Hampshire College, one of the "Amherst Five College Consortium," has offered an experimental film, photography and video program since the early '70s and over the years produced dozens of Academy Award and Emmy nominees and winners.) From July 13 through to August 9, this highly respected, out-of-the-box college is hosting The Creative Media Institute, four weeks of creating, editing and screening nonfiction cinema that will take place within hands-on laboratories, workshops, discussions and special events.

Hampshire alumnus, Ken Burns, the widely acclaimed producer and director of PBS documentaries such as The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, is an integral part of the program. So is another Hampshire alum, Erica Huggins, President of Imagine Entertainment, who works alongside Ron Howard to produce the likes of Rush, the upcoming James Brown movie, Get on Up and the TV series Parenthood. Other guest lecturers include Ivy Meeropol, an esteemed journalist and director of feature documentaries, and Brett Morgen, yet another Hampshire alum, known for his documentaries on OJ Simpson, Robert Evans and most recently, Kurt Cobain. Many other film pros will be involved.

Who Can Attend

As the title of this blog suggests, I see the Creative Media Institute as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students to learn about cinema and video. Open to entering freshmen who are at least 18-years-old and undergraduates at any college in the country, as well as professional film and video makers, the program will be filled with totally accessible practicing writers, editors, producers, directors and technicians. Believe me, it's not easy to get yourself into that kind of environment any one day, let alone for a month.

Which Colleges Offer Film Programs?

While we're on the subject of film programs, you should know that Hampshire College is one of about 150+ colleges across the US that offer Film/Cinema/Video Studies. Surprised to read that there are so many schools with film majors? You're not alone; even "people in the know" automatically think of USC, UCLA, NYU Tisch, Columbia and maybe Emerson College as the places to go for a BA or BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts). Just so you know, a BA degree in film arts usually means that students take a core set of courses in the various aspects of cinematic arts, but also an array of liberal arts and other courses. A BFA in film is a degree that focuses almost exclusively on cinematic arts, with a few liberal arts courses sprinkled in.

There are lots of excellent film programs in the country at the likes of Wesleyan University, Florida State University and DePaul University, located in such non-Hollywood locations as Middletown, Connecticut, Tallahassee, Florida and Chicago, Illinois. A list of those 150 colleges can be found in the College Board's Book of Majors 2014 and also Steven Antonoff's The College Finder.

Film programs usually offer a number of specific study areas, such as Acting, Animation & Digital Arts, Film and TV Production, Film Studies, Screenwriting, Television and Broadcast Journalism, and Visual and Media Arts. You can read about these and other majors in the following books: Film School Confidential: The Insider's Guide to Film Schools by Tom Edgar and Karin Kelly, Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers, Blain Brown; and In The Blink of an Eye Revised 2nd Edition, Walter Murch.

What If You Can't/Don't Want to Attend Film School?

Straight from the lips of a film exec, another take on getting prepared for "the business" is for students to attend a small, liberal arts college, and major in an academic subject such as history, English, or psychology, so they have a content area that can be brought to their film work. As one producer said, "After getting a good education and finishing college, you can always pick up a lot of the technical 'stuff' along the way." If after reading this, you are still determined to go to a film school, have a look at Variety's hot-off-the press Entertainment Education: American's Film School Programs and "Entertainment Education: Film School Programs Overseas."

The Way People Get Started in Hollywood

The most usual first job for people entering the film industry is a no-pay/low pay Production Assistant (PA) position. This is where you learn first hand what the entertainment world is all about, gain practical skills and especially make all-important contacts. Often a major part of that job is to read and evaluate dozens of screenplays... every night after work and during weekends.

As I said above, it's not easy to find out what the film and television world is all about. Let me suggest that experiences such as the Creative Media Institute are what you need to be looking for.

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