You already know what time it is: How do you break into the film industry without film school? That’s what we are all about. There’s no need to get buried in over $100k in debt and taking 4-5 YEARS getting a degree that won’t make the difference between you getting into the industry and getting trapped on the outside.
Here’s a short video on how it’s done. This is how I did it, and this is how you can do it too.
Let’s break this down:
Step 1: Get very clear on what job you want to do. Research as much as you can about that job online. Google searches, Youtube videos, Instagram. Believe me when I say that actually seeing somebody doing the job is going to be extremely valuable. That’s how you’ll be able to see if this is something you really want to do.
I did a lot of research when I started in the film industry and have continued doing so throughout my entire career. I studied the credits for the kinds of films I wanted to work on and got in contact with the production companies and people who worked on those films. I went to meet professionals at their production companies, their offices, their editing studios, and on set. I had a list of questions about their work, how they shot certain scenes, and got a fascinating inside look at what they were creating.
I took notes on everything they said, and because I was so interested, they were happy to share their wealth of knowledge with me. I kept coming up with insightful questions and kept reaching out to professionals to get them answered. I was given opportunities to work on professional sets with these people, all because I showed interest and drive.
I also memorized equipment catalogs for the camera and sound houses. This gave me more to talk about with professionals because they work with this stuff day in and day out. It’s their life. If you are eager and ask intelligent questions about the craft, they will want to help and teach you just as they did for me.
Most people will ask professionals about how they got where they are, as if to say “How can I get what you have?”
Wrong question. It’s annoying for them to be asked that because it implies that you want a shortcut without putting in the work. You must focus your questions on the craft, on the work. Be interested in what they are interested in, and not the things they have.
Step 2: Next I want you to think about the kind of knowledge you can have about the job that most people don’t have. My motto: Do what other people don’t think to do and know the things they won’t know.
Research everything there is to know about your niche. For instance, if you want to be a cinematographer, you need to know about the camera bodies, the software and the monitors, the filters— anything you dig up.
You also need to get your hands on the equipment. You may hear that the only place to get familiar with equipment is film school, and that is simply not the case. There are camera houses you can go to and watch prep. There are also houses for lighting, grip, sound, and props where you can do the same. Some even have workshops.
Also, I developed mentor relationships at these camera and sound houses! I knew I needed to learn the gear inside and out, so I spent a lot of time at these places in Los Angeles. They cater to professionals. They are NOT retail–- they focus on providing amazing service. They are passionate about what they do.
They also know that you’re just getting started, so you’ll be investing in gear soon. They are motivated to develop a relationship with you because you might rent or buy their equipment, and you’re motivated to develop a relationship with them because you have a lot you want to learn. I’ve probably spent $500,000 at the places that helped me out when I was learning. Loyalty.
If you’re thinking you need to go to film school to get access to the equipment, consider how easily you can rent equipment to learn with and shoot some things on your own, for less than the price of film school (by far).
Cameras change so fast in the industry that film schools can’t keep up anyway. You most likely will not be working with the gear professionals are currently using.
You can be creative with how you learn the equipment. One of the fastest ways is to be on professional sets as a a department PA. You’ll be learning alongside the professionals who have been using it for years. There is no better way!
It’s exactly what I did. I found my way onto professional sets and then used the gear that was provided by the shoot.
At the same time, I kept going to the camera and sound houses to get everything down. I spent a lot of time hooking up the gear and breaking it down, changing batteries and asking a ton of questions. I wanted to be fast and knowledgeable.
I volunteered my time at film schools and worked on many student projects. I got a lot of experience very quickly, and all it cost me was my time.
Step 3: To get your career going, you need to build your own network of professional connections. These you can only make on set. You can make friends at film school, but these will be people trying to break into the professional film industry just like you. It’s highly unlikely that you would make a professional connection in film school, because in-demand film professionals aren’t in school– they’re on set.
The kind of connections I’m talking about here are close relationships where people get endeared to you. They take you under their wing and teach you about the job, things you could never learn or comprehend if they were told to you in a classroom or in a youtube video. Sometimes they even bring you into their lives. I got invited to BBQs, parties, even just to go over to their houses and play with their gear. People are so nice!
The best way to make these relationships is by working with people on professional shoots. You’ll be spending a full 12 hours with them, helping them out, being “Johnny-on-the-spot” when they need you, laughing and joking with them. This is how you get connected to people.
It all happens on professional sets. It’s hard to make connections with people at film festivals because they are interested in networking with people who can get them work. You can’t make connections with people at a union meetup because, just like festivals, they are looking to network and find future work.
You want to have people associate you with the environment you’re in. If you’re on professional film sets working in your department, they’ll build an image of you as a film professional. It’s that simple. When they need someone to fill a certain role, you want to be one of the people that comes to mind, and for that to happen, you need those relationships.
Stop 4: You need to be on film sets every week learning your craft from professionals. Every week you should learn something major that will help you in your career.
The fastest way to learn your craft is just to be around it all the time, to watch other people that are really good at it and are being paid great money to do it. You can ask professionals what they are doing that makes them in demand. You can figure out what resources they use and connections they’ve made, and emulate that. For actors this will be coaches and agents, for camera it’ll be the equipment they use and the camera houses they have relationships with. Every professional, for every niche, is going to have information like this that you will want to know.
Basically, you join their clan.
Many people are waiting to get good enough, hoping to someday work on a film set. Instead, you will be working on set right next to professionals, and the moment you’re ready they’ll bring you into their clan. Get on film sets now. You’ll get better much faster by being on set than you will any other way. Use the film set as your training ground.
Step 5: This step will be super crucial: Make a list of people in your area that are working in the niche you want to be in. Add to that list all the people in departments that work closely with yours.
For example, if you’re a cinematographer, you need to know some great editors, special effects people, DITs, focus pullers, and some great directors that match your style.
For actors, make a list of all the working actors in your area. Do some deeper research on them. What agencies are they with? Where did they get their training? What are their reels like? What TV shows have they been on? What workshops have they done? Their resumes are often on their websites, so that info is out there. You’ll also want to be aware of who the casting directors, directors, and producers are in your market.
In our Work-Study program we call this your “Magic List” and it’s something you’ll keep referring to and updating for most of your career. The main intent is not to reach out to these people to hire you, but to know who the major players are in your area are so that when you eventually run into them (and you will be running into them) you’ll know who is in front you at the right time. It will be a huge benefit for you to know some things about them beforehand.
In the process, you also get to learn about the pathways people are taking to get where they are in the industry. You can learn who they are connected to which will tell you the kind of people you should build relationships with. You’ll know which production companies hire them which lets you know where the best work will come from that you can vector towards.
The Magic List is for getting inspiration and building up your Get-It Factor as you’ll know much more about what’s happening around you than everyone else at your level. This makes you stand out (in a good way) and will allow you to move up faster.
Step 6: Continue working on set, and start really vectoring towards the kind of shoots you really want to do. Could be feature films, music videos, TV shows, commercials, or sports. At this point you’ll be taking full advantage of all the knowledge and connections you’ve built up so far.
I started off working on interviews, which led me to documentaries, and from there I went to work on wildlife films with National Geographic. I would have my lists on set of the people I wanted to work with, and I would add more people and production companies to that list every time I was on set.
From National geographic, I moved into commercials with the same process of talking to people on set and finding the production companies and people that did commercial work.
As you can see, when you a focused plan that has you getting out there and doing from your craft, learning rom the best people, building your connections on professional sets, and being very focused on the kind of work that you want to do, you can get there quickly without film school.
Nobody on set is going to ask about whether or not you have the degree. They want to know who you’ve worked with and what you’ve worked on. If they can, they’re going to hire someone they know.
You MUST be on set.