Filmmaker vs. Film Professor
I have taught screenwriting part-time at Fullerton College for the past three years. Where I differ from most film professors is I split my lectures into two parts: one half on creative technique and the other half on business. Notice how I purposely stated ‘most’ film professors in my previous statement? That’s because professors at the established film schools (i.e.: UCLA, USC, AFI, NYU, etc.) usually do teach the business side too. The reason why I teach the business side of filmmaking is because the last thing I want my students to say to themselves when they graduate is, “I can tell a great story with pictures but how the *#%& do I get a job?”
Why do you think most (notice the ‘most’ thing again?) film professors don’t teach the business aspect? Well maybe it’s because if they knew it, teaching wouldn’t be their main source of income in the first place. Don’t get me wrong. There are some industry professionals who teach because they enjoy it. I accept and empathize with that, but for the most part this is not the case.
Here’s my theory on what happened to the film professors who can’t teach their students the business side of filmmaking. They went to film school with the assumption that after they graduate Hollywood would welcome them with open arms. So on their weekends they shot their little projects and watched movies with their fellow film students. After they graduated they were smacked in the face with a certain dilemma: either they couldn’t get work at all since they have no professional experience, or the only work they could get was production assistant work, which is long hours, low or no pay, and gigs are few and far in between.
This wasn’t the promise of film school! They were supposed to be the next Scorsese or Coppola! How could things have gone so horribly wrong?! So what did they do? They jumped right back into film school and got a masters degree so they can get a stable pay check teaching people who knew less about the industry than they do.
Still that wasn’t enough. They still didn’t feel legitimate. It wasn’t enough just to teach naiveties how to direct films even though they’ve never been paid to direct films before. It wasn’t enough to scrutinize newcomers over their screenplays even though they’ve themselves never sold or been hired to write a screenplay. So what did they do to make it feel like they were contributing to the industry? They either formed or joined committees full of people just like them and sat around tables discussing filmmaking without ever actually doing it. Look out Hollywood!
Like I said, it’s just a theory. Only they know the truth. Take it with a grain of salt since I write horror stories for a living so I see the pessimistic side to everything (then again horror writers can see the optimistic side of life when we write scenes of blonds taking ridiculously long showers).
I teach the business side of filmmaking so my students never have to be in that dilemma. Everything I teach my students is either from self-experience or was passed down from some of the greats (i.e.: Guillermo Del Toro, Mick Garris, Frank Darabont, Clive Barker, etc.). I would love to share some of that knowledge with you readers right now, but I think that is for future articles down the road, or if we ever get this OC Screenwriters Film Lectures off the ground.
On the first day of every semester I write FILM STUDENT on one side of the chalkboard and PROFESSIONAL on the other side. I then ask my students what are some traits of film students. They say, “procrastinate, work for free, egotistical, naïve” and I write those traits under film student. I then go to the opposite side of the board and write the polar opposite traits under professional, “punctual, paid, humble, and experienced.” Once the point sinks I tell them the secret to why I’ve been able to get work.
At 18 years old, as soon as I decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker, I no longer thought of myself as a film student and only as a professional. I did all of the things a professional would do in my shoes. I got a production assistant job and worked my way up while I was still in film school. I owned up to all of my mistakes, never made excuses, kept myself humble and never bragged. As an undergrad, I was already a script reader, a professional storyboard artist, and a published author.
As you can imagine by the time I graduated I was not faced with the dilemma so many of my peers were faced with. It was quite the opposite. I went and worked on camera crew for HBO that summer shooting Dane Cook’s TV show. When I was offered the chance to teach screenwriting at my Alma matter I jumped at the opportunity. Not because I needed the income but because I saw it as a chance to pass my knowledge on. I saw it as an opportunity to save future people with the same dream as me from ever asking themselves, “how the *#%& do I get a job?”
I remember having to go to a meeting for all of the new part-time instructors being hired that semester. Ninety percent of the new instructors were English instructors and I was the only film one. I reasoned to myself that the only reason why someone would even major English is if they dreamt of being a writer one day. I then asked them, “How many of you are published?” None raised their hands. I, a film major, was the only published author in a lecture hall filled with English instructors, just because I knew the business and they didn’t. That’s like having a boxing coach that’s never been in the ring.
This final experience solidified my decision to teach my students the business aspect as much as the creative aspect, if not more. Call me crazy but I don’t see the point of film school if you don’t know how to get industry work after you graduate. Honestly, those student loans aren’t going to pay themselves off.
Victor Phan & Clark Jones
Torture Chamber Productions
January 3, 2010