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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Esmail’

“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

Mr. Robot  creator/writer/director Sam Esmail did his undergraduate film school work at NYU (with a couple of semesters in a Dartmouth College writing program) and then did his master’s in directing at AFI in Los Angeles. Recently before a live WGA audience, Esmail was asked by screenwriter John August if he thought his film school experience and studies were worth it to get where he is today.

“Are there any faculty members here? [Laughter from audience.]  Film school’s expensive. It’s very expensive. In fact, I think the tuition at AFI is almost double what I paid at the time. It was a lot back then. And honestly, it wasn’t until after the first season of Mr. Robot that I was able to pay it all back. There was a point where I was like, ‘I’m either going to hit it big or die in debt.’ I didn’t really see a middle option there. I don’t know. The answer is, I don’t know.”
—Sam Esmail
Scriptnotes, Episode 449

Do listen to the whole interview with August to get the full context of Esmail’s comments.  But that pull quote is an excellent follow-up answer to the recent post ‘Should I Go to Film School?’ A Successful Writer/Producer Gives a Solid Answer for Students Today where Shonda Rhimes weighs in on going to film school verses taking an entry level level job in the business.

And like Rhimes in that post, Esmail’s NYU, Dartmouth, AFI education also carries a total sticker price today of around $500,000. No extra zeros added.  Five hundred thousand dollars. Of course, there are scholarships, grants, and schools with endowments, and less expensive film schools that can keep down the actual costs. But it’s wise to know how much you’ll actually owe when you graduate.

Even a $50,000 student loan can haunt you for decades, especially if you start working as a production assistant in Los Angeles. (Where the cost of living is high even if you have no student loans.) Check out Scriptnotes podcast episode 422 where August and Craig Mazin discuss the realities of low pay for assistants in Hollywood.

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to find articles online where people talk about the reality of dying in debt due to student loans.  In the past ten years, student loan availability and compounded interest have changed the game, mixed with young people (and their parents) not fully comprehending the ripple effect of massive student loans. That if you’re just making minimum payments each month, your loan amount can actually be growing.

And adding a monthly student loan in the amount somewhere between a new car payment and a house payment to your budget each month is an uphill climb for many. That includes doctors and lawyers—not just film school grads.

Esmail did hit it big. I’m not sure what percentage of 40,000+  film school grads hit it big, but it’s not a high percentage . (I once heard less than 1% of film school grads ever make a feature, which is different than hitting it big with a sustainable career. If you have more empirical data, send it my way.)

Would Esmail have found success without going to film school? Like with Rhimes, we’ll never know. He did say that contacts he had at AFI opened doors to agents and managers right out of the gate. Plus he picked up a few skills that allowed him to work as an assistant editor on a realty TV show.

At night after his day job he wrote scripts that got him meetings (via AFI contacts) with studios but no assignments or sales. He had a couple of scripts land on the Blacklist (starting with Sequels, Remakes & Adaptations in 2008) that brought sales, but didn’t get produced. Finally, he decided to write a contained story and eventually cobbled together the funds and a crew to direct the film —with help again from his AFI contacts. And in film school you make short films (ideally a lot), make mistakes, and learn while working with others.. Esmail didn’t go into directing his first feature film unprepared.

Comet was released in 2014, ten years after Esmail finished his MFA from AFI. Mr. Robot premiered the following year. Since he was born in 1977, that puts him around age 37 or 38 when he hit it big. So factor that trajectory into your film school expectations.

The main thing that Esmail encourages others to do (regardless if you went to film school or not) is as soon as you finish writing your great script, start writing the next one. (That worked for Oscar winner Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)—How To Be. a Successful Screenwriter.)

And keep in mind that while USC, AFI, and NYU have extensive lists of graduates in the industry, many went there back in the day—when the expense was more easily managed. Or had parents or other means to defray the costs. (One film school grad with no debt, and working in the industry in LA, told me that if his parents didn’t cover his car payment and insurance and help with rent he wouldn’t be able to make it there.)

If you’re set on film school, keep in mind there are less expensive options out there. And because high-quality equipment in relatively inexpensive, you can take the Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) path and make your own films even before you go to college. And when they did go to college at the University of Iowa, they majored in communications. It never hurts to have a college degree if you’re looking for a job outside the Hollywood system.

P.S. The one guy who hit it big that I went to film school with is David Nutter. But if I recall correctly, he wasn’t even a film major. He was majoring in music with the goal of becoming the next Barry Manilow ( Manilow was a hit maker through the ’70s and has sold 75 million records). But Nutter started taking film classes, and made some super student films that opened the door to directing Cease Fire with Don Johnson soon after graduating from college. A couple of decades later he became a multiple-Primetime Emmy winning director for his work on Game of Thrones. Read the post The Perfect Ending for the upside of film school . (But, again, film school in the ’80s was a different game financially than it is today.)

Homework: Watch your favorite film 50 times and study what makes it work. How many scenes are there? How long are the scenes? How many camera set ups are in each scene? How many scenes feature just two actors talking? Watch it with the sound off. Listen to only the audio. What’s the major dramatic question? Where’s the conflict in each scene? How does each scene move the story forward? What changes from one scene to the next? How many scenes feature the protagonist/hero? How many locations did they use? Etc., etc. You can learn a lot from one film that costs you less than $20. (Indie films Winter’s Bone and Pieces of April are personal favorites of mine to re-watch since you have the added benefit of studying how they pulled of compelling movies on a limited budget. Lesson 1: Solid casting and a good script are more important than a big crew and expensive equipment.)

Resources (While film school can be expensive, here are some great free resources.):
Scriptnotes 
Go Into the Story
Indie Film Hustle
The Rewatchables (My current favorite podcast)
YouTube tutorials on everything from lighting to editing to film history. Start with the Every Frame a Painting channel.

Related post:
Keeping Solvent and Sane
Is Film School Worth It?
What’s It Like to Be a Struggling Writer in L.A.?
Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcuts’
The $330,000 Film School Debt

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

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