Friday, July 22, 2016

The MFA Question: Some Film School Statistics

For years, I dismissed the very thought of film school. The attitude that I adopted (after hearing this repeated often) was as follows:

Film school is no guarantee of success, but it costs a lot. Why not take that same money and apply it to a feature film, get on the map that way?

There was a time when this made a lot of sense. In the '90s and early 2000s, small independent films really were a reliable ticket to a filmmaking career. The method worked for a few reasons:

1)  The tools required to make a marketable feature were hard to access, so fewer people were making them. If you made a feature film, you stood out.
2)  There were reasonable stepping-stones between micro-budget and Hollywood. If you made a great movie for $100,000, you could get hired to make a movie for $500,000, and a $1M movie after that, and a $3M movie after that...
3)  Film schools churned out MFAs, but they didn't necessarily get the work because there was less of it - Sure, Hollywood was making more movies back then, but TV was tiny compared to what it is now, so unless you got lucky and landed on your feet in the movie business, there wasn't as much for you to do.

Today, the situation is somewhat flipped.

1)  The tools required to make a feature are ubiquitous. The talent is not. You can make a $100,000 feature, but it's much harder to make that feature stand out in the crowd. For that, you need real talent (and not just your own talent - other people's talent, which usually costs more than you can afford, and is hard to find).
2)  There aren't any stepping-stones between the indie feature and the Hollywood blockbuster. Colin Trevorrow made "Safety Not Guaranteed" for $750k (he was a TV writer, so he knew the people who could give the project credibility to raise that kind of money), then was hired to direct "Jurassic World" at $150M. He had to be trustworthy enough that the studios could take that big a risk, and he didn't have a bunch of mid-sized films with which to earn that trust because mid-sized films aren't being made much these days. He doesn't have an MFA, but he did study at NYU's Tisch School for the Arts (a top-tier, world-class film school). It's something the studios could point to and say 'look! credibility!'
3)  The statistics are much better for film schools these days, particularly the top-tier schools. I recently heard a statistic (and I can't find its source - can anyone help me locate it?) that only 4% of people who call themselves "filmmakers" are actually earning a living as filmmakers. Of those, something like 96% have degrees from USC, UCLA, AFI or NYU. This means that if you want to be a working filmmaker, a degree from one of these schools is almost a requirement. Now, this statistic doesn't actually tell you how many of these graduates are working in the industry. I had to do some of my own research for that.

I did a rough statistical analysis on LinkedIN for three LA-area schools. I wanted to find out how well people with MFAs are doing - are they working in the industry, or did they have to find work elsewhere?

I limited the search to people who attended these schools between 2008 and 2015. The pre-recession industry was very different.

Here's what I found:

SCHOOL: USC School of Cinematic Arts
SEARCH TERM: "MFA Film Television"
INDUSTRY               #            %
Media & Communication 457 53%
Arts & design 133 15%
Entrepreneurship 75 9%
Operations 70 8%
Education 66 8%
Administrative 65 8%
Marketing 35 4%
Consulting 20 2%
Media, Comm, Art, Design total 68%

SCHOOL: AFI Conservatory

INDUSTRY             #           %
Media & Communication 304 53%
Arts & design 76 13%
Operations 29 5%
Entrepreneurship 29 5%
Education 28 5%
Administrative 18 3%
Marketing 16 3%
Program and Project Management 12 2%
Media, Comm, Art, Design total 67%

INDUSTRY            #            %
Media & Communication 320 40%
Arts & design 211 27%
Education 137 17%
Entrepreneurship 76 10%
Operations 49 6%
Marketing 42 5%
Consulting 34 4%
Administrative 31 4%
Media, Comm, Art, Design total 67%
The take-away from all of this? For each of these top-tier MFA programs, at least 67% of students indicate on LinkedIN that they're working in Media, Communications, Arts or Design. To my mind, that's a surprisingly favorable statistic for the film schools. These folks might not be directing movies, but they're working in the industry, and that, in and of itself, can be a difficult feat to accomplish.

These statistics are very un-scientific. It's possible that people's profiles are inaccurate or out-of-date. It's possible that these folks are working but not earning enough. It's also possible that people who get snapped up by the big studios and agencies right out of film school don't bother updating their LinkedIN profiles because they're already working and don't need LinkedIN. Finally, it's also possible that jobs in operations, marketing, consulting, administrative, etc. are also industry jobs - the percentages could be much better than we're currently seeing.

My attitude about film school has changed dramatically as I've researched the subject. I've actually begun the process of preparing applications and researching financial aid options. If you went to a top-tier film school in the last eight years, I'd love to hear from you. What was it like? How have you been finding the post-MFA experience? Is the network helpful? Are you finding better work than you had before the MFA? It's a huge investment, so the more we know about it, the better.

If I do get in, you can be sure I'll write about the experience here!

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