Posts Tagged ‘filmmaking’

Since the Super Bowl is tomorrow I thought I’d try to find a quote that tied filmmaking and football together. Mission accomplished from not only a former college football player but one who has a film up for seven Oscars this year— including Best Picture.

“A lot of the things I’ve learned, I learned from playing football. You gotta lead a group of people against sometimes insurmountable odds. Every week, you’ve got to prepare for an opponent. You watch game tape. You prep. You get all your players up. But you get out there, you never know what to expect. I’m 31 years old … this is a high-intensity job. You’re responsible for a lot of money. You’re responsible for a lot of people’s livelihoods, and more importantly, you’re responsible for the audience’s dreams and expectations. There’s no way I’d be able to do this job if I hadn’t had the experience I have from playing organized sports. I’d be a different person.”
Writer/Director Ryan Coogler (Black Panther)
The Undefeated article by Kelley L. Carter 

Related post:

Screenwriting & the Super Bowl

Scott W. Smith

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“When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, no, I went to films.”
Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino

Ang Lee and I were in the same class. Also, another person instrumental in my development as a filmmaker was the great cinematographer Ernest Dickerson.” 
Spike Lee on the benefits going to NYU film school with talented classmates
(As a DP, Dickerson not only shot Spike’s student films but Do the Right Thing, She’s Got to Have It, and Mo’ Better Blues for Spike. He then became a director himself.)

NOTE: Like my post How Much Do Screenwriters Make?, I will continue to update this post because it’s a common question.

“Is film school worth it?” is a simple question, but a complicated one to answer. But it’s best to ask another question first. What does the “it” in “Is film school worth it” mean? There are many layers there.

If you got into a top tier film school on a full scholarship, then the “it”could be just four years of your life for an undergraduate degree or 2 to 3 years for a graduate degree. In that scenario, I’d say yes it’s worth it. Ditto that if your parents are paying for school.

But if the “it” means going into going into debt for $330,000 (as I wrote about yesterday) then my answer is no. I’m sure there are exceptions, but why stack the odds against you in a field where the odds are already stacked against you? (Compounded interest can even make your student loan grow despite your making monthly payments.)

For everyone between getting a full scholarship and having $300K+ of student loans my answer is—It depends.

Over the years I’ve noticed that there are four major ways that writers, filmmakers, and content creators at the top of the pyramid got their education.

Top Film Schools: USC (George Lucas), UCLA (Francis Ford Coppola), AFI (Darren Aronofsky), NYU (Spike Lee), Columbia University (Kathryn Bigelow), University of Texas, Austin (Robert Rodriguez), Columbia College—Chicago (Jansuz Kaminski), Florida State University (Barry Jenkins)

Elite Private Schools: Harvard University (Damien Chazelle) , Stanford University (Alexander Payne), Wesleyan University (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Oberlin College (Lena Dunham), Northwestern University (Garry Marshall), Drake University (Jim Uhls), Carnegie Mellon University (Steven Bochco), Dartmouth College (Shonda Rhimes), Emerson College (Norman Lear), Syracuse University (Aaron Sorkin)

Miscellaneous Public Schools: Iowa (Diablo Cody), Michigan (Arthur Miller)

Little or No College/Self-education: Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Gordon Parks, Frank Darabont, Casey Neistat, Tyler Perry (net worth $800 million), Clint Eastwood, Sam Shepard, Steven Soderbergh 

People come from everywhere. But those above schools have a higher headcount in Hollywood than most places. Some of this has to do with established pipelines to the industry. Many Hollywood executives come from Ivy League schools where Harvard and Dartmouth have deep ties in Hollywood making it easier to get introduced to the business.

It’s also true that the educational standards at most of those places are high— matching smart, talented, and driven people with a solid and proven education. But scholarships and grants aside, some of those colleges and universities are $50,000+ a year so it’s obviously not for everyone.

Of course, some people on that list went to film schools back in the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s which was a different era. Back then it wasn’t as common for students coming out of school to have insurmountable student loans as it is today.

“The greatest obstacles to making films was getting access to equipment. And so my generation went to film school.”
Spike Lee on going to film school in the late ’70s & early ’80s.
American Black Film Festival

In the era before digital technology, it was expensive and complicated to get your hands on film equipment. In the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s VCR machines were either non-existent or too expensive for the masses—and there was no internet—so film schools were the best place to get caught up on film history.

The film school question today is a totally different question than it was 20 years ago. The film business is different than it was 20 years ago. I’ve heard it said for all the film school grads to have a job out of school, everyone working in the film industry today would have to quit. I can’t quote the source, but it should cause you to at least pause before you rush into film school.

The average 15-year-old in the United States today has so many resources available—for basically nothing. From blogs, YouTube tutorials, and streaming movies and TV shows to DVD/Blu-Ray discs with director’s commentaries. Toss in an iPhone and iMovie and you’re off to the races.

Let Scott Beck and Bryan Woods be your heroes. They met in middle school in Iowa and had a common love for movies and started creating things. In high school they made features that they showed at local movie theaters for friends and family. They both went to the University of Iowa where they majored in communications.

After graduating in 2007 they kept writing and making low budget films until one of their scripts found its way to producer Michael Bay and last year became the hit film A Quiet Place. Just last night Emily Blunt won the SAG Award for best supporting actress in that movie. Here she is thanking her husband John Krasinski for directing the film.

Now Beck and Woods are working on a script from a Stephen King book. Not everyone gets a Hollywood ending like that. In fact, most don’t. (One top film school professor reportedly said, “I prepare students for unemployment.”)  That’s why I don’t think you go $300K in debt for film school. To paraphrase financial radio host Dave Ramsey—if you have $300K in student loans you better be able to operate on people. (You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to be a filmmaker, but you may need to be a brain surgeon to pay off a $300K loan.  An indie filmmaker might not do that in his or her lifetime.)

I won’t give you a cut-off dollar wise but anything over $25,000 for film school should give you pause to ask—is there a better way of doing this? Be creative looking for alternative ways to pay for school without having a large debt. Look into scholarships, grants, and diversity programs.

The main pluses for going to film school is you can compress your learning curve by benefiting from knowledgable professors who inspire you. Sometimes the right professor can pass on your work to the right person in the industry. You’ll work alongside talented and passionate classmates. They will push you to be better. (Both Ryan Coogler and Barry Jenkins built their core teams at USC and FSU.) You may have alumni connections through your school that open doors for you years down the road.

And a college degree (in anything) comes in handy outside of Hollywood. It’s kind of the threshold that human resources use at companies to sort out people looking for jobs. It shows that you’re well rounded and have studied a variety of disciplines. One of my professors told me when I was questioning my education, “You don’t go to college to learn how to make films, you go to learn what to make films about.”

That answer by Professor George Capewell is even a better answer today than it was when it was given to me back in the 1980s. College is a great place to do a deep dive into humanities, history, literature, business, psychology, sociology, biology, religion, etc. Black Panther writer/director Ryan Coogler’s undergraduate degree is in finance.  (I’m sure that helps him count all that money he’s making.) But it was a creative writing teacher in college that changed his life.

“She said, you should consider being a writer. . . .  You should maybe even consider going to Hollywood and writing screenplays. I thought she was crazy.  I didn’t even know what a screenplay was.”

Ryan Coogler on novelist Rosemary Graham who teaches at St. Mary’s College
2017 interview 

Let me default back to Beck and Woods who in an interview talked about getting the roots of the idea for A Quiet Place while students at the University of Iowa.

Beck: As a filmmaker—as important as it is to study film—it is also important to get enough life experiences. For instance, we took this nonverbal communication course. So much of [A Quiet Place] is about the nonverbal or what’s being said behind the dialogue. That was a really interesting study into human nature and applying that to writing and directing. There were a lot of foreign cinema classes that we took that exposed us to different cinema experiences around the world. Those exposed us to new forms of storytelling.

Woods: We always felt it would be advantageous for us to get a well-rounded education. It never felt like we were making movies outside of class. It was all one thing. Class was informing us as people—how you are as people impacts how you are as writers.

So while I am anti-$300K debt, I am pro-college. Even pro-film school . . . if the conditions are right.

But . . .

You’ll find established filmmaker after established filmmaker—from Spike Lee to Sean Baker— today just encouraging you to make films with whatever digital camera you can find. Even if that’s with the phone in your pocket. No film school needed. Just talent, guts, drive—and an incredible work ethic. But don’t just take my word for it . . .

P.S. I did my undergraduate work in Cinema and have a graduate degree in Digital Journalism. It didn’t make me the next Steven Speilberg—though I do have a signed certificate from him for my work on the Shoah Project—but working in production in one form or other has paid my bills for over 30 years. It’s been a good ride.

This is a great time to be a content creator. Colleges all over the country are offering degrees in film, digital production, multimedia journalism, electronic arts, and the like.  And those grads are working on corporate productions,  in broadcast and cable TV, in education, with internet companies, and their own start-up production companies. But most of them are not pulling in salaries that could make a dent on $300K.

As I think back over the people that I’ve personally worked with in production over my career and I’d estimate that 85% of them do have college degrees—and studied film or television. So I imagine they’d all say it was worth it. But I don’t think any of them have student loans over $40,000. But not everyone is built for college and if you look at the above list of people who have little or no college you’ll find some incredibly accomplished people.

Related articles to check out:

“$182,000 in Student Debt for a Film Major?!”/Money

Credit Risk: Student Debt’s Impact on Post-University Film Careers”/ Filmmaker mag

“My Film School Degree Ruined My Life”

Is it worth it to go to USC Film School for $200K?

“10 Reasons to Not Go To Film School”/No Film School

“Despite Expense, Film School Remains the Best Option for Cineastes”/Variety

Scott W. Smith









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“In all this darkness, is there anybody who can make out the truth?”
The Twilight Zone/ episode I Am the Night —Color Me Black (1964)  

Writer/director Sean Baker spoke at Rollins College yesterday and asked the question, “Can cinema change the world?” He talked about the filmmakers and their films that have inspired him over the years.

As with his own films (The Florida Project, Tangerine), Baker is drawn to films that are “passports to the underrepresented,” and ones that shine a light on a specific subject or problem, and have potential to have a positive impact on society.

Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake)

Nicholas Meyer (The American TV movie The Day After Tomorrow, with and a nod to the BBC TV movie Threads—both movies sparked a debate about the fallout of a nuclear holocaust.)

Robert Kenner (Food, Inc)

Those films—as well as An Inconvenient Truth, JFK, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel— give you some insights on why he would be interested in doing a film about the hidden homeless or about an illegal Chinese immigrant.

Starting with an issue or a theme can be a dubious beginning as it can be seen as didactic and stepping into the murky waters of propaganda. Baker acknowledged that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he is committed to asking the hard questions.  He’s working toward change knowing that change takes time. Sometimes years or even a generation.

As a side note, Rod Serling began with a theme on The Twilight Zone episodes yet eventually found a universal audience with timeless truths.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a storyline or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
Rod Serling letter to Dave Pitt

Read Serling’s 1968 Moorpark College speech and you’ll see where he stood ideologically. But in the early ’60s he couldn’t overtly write about racism and other social concerns, so he used metaphors.  He could address xenophobia by writing about space aliens, as he did on The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.  

“[Rod Serling’s] optimism about the human condition led to stories that made one feel good about the race and its chances for emotional triumph. That, well told, will always sell.”
Producer Buck Houghton (The Twilight Zone)
What a Producer Does 

I wrote many positive posts on this blog about The Florida Project, but one thing it wasn’t was a film that gave us hope for an emotional triumph. I think that is why it had a limited audience. Audiences like to see a character change for the better, even if it’s just one tiny step forward. Halley (Bria Vinaite’s character) took (at least) two giant steps backward and devolved (taking her daughter with her) making it difficult for some to even finish watching the film.

Baker’s a bold filmmaker. It takes him three years to make a film so he made the film he wanted to make.  And maybe the change—the emotional triumph that he wanted to see was not one that happened on the screen, but one that happened to those that watched the film. Personally, no film resonated and haunted me more in 2017 than The Florida Project. 

Baker said last night that “the true success of The Florida Project” was that Rollins College has promised a full four-year scholarship to Christopher Rivera, the child actor who plays Scooty in the film. Rivera was living in a hotel in Kissimmee, Florida when he was cast to be in the film alongside Brooklynn Prince. (According to the Orlando Sentinel, with room and board at Rollins that offer is “roughly $250,000 at current prices.”)

As Baker pointed out, change can be on a micro level. One life changed because The Florida Project co-writer Chris Bergoch learned via news outlets about the hidden homeless living in hotels in the shadow of Disney World.

P.S. I know one of the conventions of indie filmmakers is unconventionality. Offbeat (even unlikeable) main characters, mini or non-plot stories, and downbeat endings. But if you want to nudge the world a little—to borrow Tom Stoppard’s phrase once again—please revisit On the Waterfront. It’s Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. (Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg, Eva Marie Saint, Leonard Berstein) And it’s based on articles by Malcolm Johnson (see the book On the Waterfront) based on corruption that was common on the New York Harbor.

It’s a film that’s very specific to New York City/Hoboken, New Jersey in the ’40s & ’50s, and yet a timeless story that’s played out in one form or another throughout the world, throughout history.  Considered a great American film—by some—and an anti-American film by others. Nothing like a controversy to keep the conversation going. It’s number eight on AFI’s 100 Films…100 Years list, and one of my favorites that I return to again and again.

On the Waterfront won eight Acadamy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. Here’s the screenplay. The film is available on Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection.

Not all writers agree on the role they have in plying their trade. Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet writes in On Film Directing, “People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people’s lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn’t work. It might be nice if it worked for those things, but it doesn’t. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story.”

On the other hand, when Charles Dickens wanted to address child labor laws and other poor social conditions in London, he didn’t write a pamphlet encouraging reforms—he wrote Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and A Christmas Carol.

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
Bruce Springsteen/My Hometown

Musician Bruce Springsteen walks that line of entertaining large crowds, yet at the same time writing and recording songs with a social consciousness. Youngstown is one of my favorite Springsteen songs because it connects me to a grandfather I never met who spent over 30 years working at Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel mill.

I’ll write more about Springsteen and his Broadway special later, but one of the reasons his songs are both gritty and hopeful is he mixes blues with gospel music over and over again in his songs.

“If you look at all my songs – ‘Badlands,’ ‘Promised Land’ – it’s the way I sing ‘Badlands;’ it’s the verse of ‘Promised Land;’ it’s the chorus of ‘Born in the USA.’ The spiritual comes out in the choruses, which I got from gospel music in the church, and then the blues and what the song is — the details of what the song is moving to transcend are almost always contained in the verses.”
Bruce Springsteen
NPR interview with Terry Gross

Related posts:

The Florida Project Revisited 

The Florida Project

The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of The Florid Project

Sean Baker Aiming for Someplace Different…and Striking Gold

The Rusty Gears of Three Acts and Blurring the Lines of Traditional Screenplay Structure with The Florida Project

The Florida Project and Shining a Light

The Eye Candy of The Florida Project

Thanksgiving with The Florida Project and Pieces of April

The Florida Project—Margaritaville or Bust

Scott W. Smith



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Ted Quotes


Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 7.24.02 PM

Yesterday producer Ted Hope (@tedhope.fanpage on Facebook) gave a nice shout-out to this blog, so I thought I’d use that to wrangle together 10 Hope-centric quotes from various places. Many are from his Hope for Film book.

‘A new and vibrant cinema’—Ted Hope 
‘If I ran a film school  …’ — Ted Hope
You vs. Kurosawa (and the History of Cinema)
Ted Hope on Finding a Film’s Theme
My Formula for the Perfect Sundance Film—Ted Hope
Ted Hope on Finding a Safe Harbor from Liars and Cheats 
‘Helping others rarely hurts anyone, particularly yourself’—Ted Hope
Define What You Love & Ted Hope’s List of ‘32 Qualities of a Better Film‘
‘A Quiet Place‘…  in Iowa 
The Case for Making a Not So Good Film

His blog Hope for Film—with a focus on the business side of filmmaking—is still online, but not updated anymore because he’s too busy with his role at Amazon. But he’s active on his Facebook fan page so check that out for his wisdom, inspiration, filmmaking experiences and film recommendations.

And if you want short Ted (Hope) Talk, here you go:

Scott W. Smith


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I know there is a lot of noise and distractions out there— in regard to finding filmmaking information and inspiration—but I’m enjoying producer Ted Hope’s Facebook posts recently. Here’s just a short excerpt from yesterday’s post.

“To make a great film, you generally have to make a good one first — and to make the good one, you have to make a not-so-good one even before that. Sure, the exceptions come out of the gate strong, but that is not most of us, and certainly not the ones who have to run the long distance race.”
Ted Hope,  Amazon Studios
Facebook post 8/20/18

P.S. The best example of that is Quentin Tarantino. His first feature film was not Reservoir Dogs—that was his first completed feature film. Before that he spent three to eight years (reports vary) shooting and editing  My Best Friend’s Birthday which was never completed.  Along with watching movies, Tarantino considers that his film school. It’s estimated that he spent $5,000 on My Best Friend’s Wedding—which makes for a pretty inexpensive film school.

Related posts:
‘If I ran a film school…’—Ted Hope
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
‘A new and vibrant cinema’—Ted Hope
Failure, Failure—Wild Success (Larry David’s Journey to Co-creating ‘Seinfeld’)

Scott W. Smith



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“You get tired of going to the movies and seeing stuff that you don’t want to see or not seeing the stuff you want to be dealt with. When the subject matter you love is not being done right, you have to make your own movies.”
Writer/director Spike Lee
(I don’t remember where I first read this quote, but it’s at least 15 years old. Found it in handwritten in an old notebook today. What I used to do just for myself before I had this blog. )

Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman has a 97% Rotten Tomato rating from all critics.  And it opened this weekend in 1,512 theaters making a respectable $10 million. Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz developed the original spec script based on the memoir of Ron Stallworth. (Read the  IndieWire interview  to see how they contacted Stallworth directly and pitched their idea to him.)

Lee and Kevin Willmott are also credited as writers on the finished film.

Scott W. Smith


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“When we shoot these films, I don’t move my lips very much. I keep my mouth kind of closed so that when I see the film before we finish it, I can change the dialogue and make it better.”
Marlon Brando during ADR session for The Godfather (via editor Walter Murch)

“There’s a movie you think you’re making, and there’s a movie you made. The movie’s made three times; once on paper, once on film, and once on the AVID [the edit]. And it’s only then that you know what movie you made. And you go back and you do some pickups and some reshoots and shape the dialogue. And if you don’t believe me that this happens on every movie, go home tonight and put on The Godfather and listen to it with headphones, so you can hear all the ADR [Automated Dialogue Replacement] very clearly in that movie. And you realize that movie is a pile of spaghetti in the editing room—it made no sense. If you take out the ADR the movie completely falls apart. I’m not saying it’s not a great movie, but that’s how great movies are made.”
Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible — Fallout)
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

Here are some videos that explain the how and why ADR is used.

Scott W. Smith


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