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SHOULD I STUDY FILM PRODUCTION AT DEGREE LEVEL?

July 2021 | Georgie McGahey

My first job in film

With many students questioning whether the significant financial investment is worth it, will a degree in film production equip you with the necessary skills for the film industry?

If you’re hell bent on working in feature films, you’re going to need to do some serious research and planning for your future career, and that does not include watching the DVD extras of Captain America. If you’re thinking about furthering yourself academically you’re going to be confronting some questions, such as what degree should I chose to maximise my chances of employment, the second is deciding if a degree is the best option for working in the film industry.

With the cost of higher education in the UK spiralling, more and more students are looking at alternative methods of learning, options that don’t leave graduates entering the job market with a sizeable debt hanging over them. According to the NUS, the average cost of a degree course in the UK is £15,533 for each academic year. This total breaks down as follows:

£8,425 tuition fees

£631 travel

£610 books, equipment, etc

£13,521 living costs (rent, bills, food, leisure, etc.)

Over a three year period, this total comes to £46.599. That is the value of a degree if you’re considering moving away from home to attend a university. Obviously that figure can depend on whether you’re working over this period, still at home, or have taken a few years out to work and save up. One of the first things you need to consider is how to bank role yourself; the next is thinking about the return on your investment; is spending the best part of £50,000 going to provide you with employment or the skills to move up the ladder quickly.

So, with this in mind let’s look at what a degree in film production can give you. Firstly you should be rigorous in your research, don’t just pick the one that’s closest, or has the best looking ‘TV celebrity stylist’ designed campus bar. Many BA courses will tell you it’s possible to walk away from their course straight onto a set; some may have you believe that you can walk into HoD roles off the bat. Yes, you will learn how to make films while you're there, but what skill set will you bring to the job market with you when you graduate? The chances of any production company employing you as a HoD without any experience outside of campus is foolhardy - it very, very rarely ever happens. Remember, the real world, unlike the student world, has money attached to it. Those paying for a final product want to know the very best people are heading up the project, not a first timer. The vast majority of BA graduates will find themselves starting in the same place as school leavers, in runner or junior level roles.

Work experience.

Making sure you graduate with some work experience under your belt from placements offered by the university is essential - find out what they offer and what those placements are. Members of the industry who take time to lecture at university often cherry pick students to work as trainees, or can accompany them on work experience placements on a professional production. Which is why you need to find out who the university have connections with when you are researching, who are their lecturers and are they working in the industry. In the majority of cases, finding work experience will be up to you, so make some calls and apply for places independent of the university.

A word to the wise. Don’t start looking for work experience placements on first day of the holidays, get your CV in months beforehand. Always make sure you pack your free time with as much practical experience as possible, whether that’s working on short films or placements. Not only is it furthering your professional development, having some contacts to approach before you graduate to look for junior roles or opportunities to work as a daily floor runner/camera runner, etc. is invaluable. If the course does not offer placements, then question what else they can offer you.

Experimentation.

Being able to experiment with the different job roles at university can be an excellent opportunity to broaden your horizons. You can start your first year wanting to direct, only to graduate with a passion for editing, or set design. For this experimentation the university of your choice needs to offer up to date equipment and facilities, they also need to provide you with practically taught modules with members of the industry. If your ultimate goal is to become a DoP for example, are there any modules in lighting, will you be taught how to load a film magazine and learned about gamma curves, will you be able to spend some time with a DoP? More importantly, will they teach you about camera assisting?

Life experience.

Those university years will be packed with personal development alongside your academic pursuits; it’s a formative time as many people leave home - some not knowing how the use a washing machine! You will meet friends who stay with you for the rest of your life; you can build working relationships that continue in a professional capacity. You will make decisions you are proud of, and some not so much. Although you will feel a slight stress of negotiating personalities, it’s a far cry from the stresses and strains of the working world, where decisions matter and money is changing hands for your services.

Options.

A degree can provide you with some future proofing if you decide that working in the industry is not for you. You may have a degree in film, but half of your degree will probably be academic, not practical, which can indicate to potential employers your aptitude for written work.  

Within the first year of a career, many people realise that what they love about films is watching them rather than making them. Upon reading this, you may not think there’s a difference - believe me, there’s a difference. Naturally, one of the reasons you want to make films can stem from your love of cinema. However, you might be the type of person who enjoys being told the stories rather than telling them yourself - or working as part of a team of individuals supporting the HoDs. You may also be someone who likes regular hours of work, rather than irregular working patterns and longer than average hours. See how you feel after your first 16 hour day.  

If watching rather than making films is where your passion lies, a university can offer the option of film as an academic study. The UK have some world renown courses, with faculty members that present papers on academic and cultural study at conferences around the world. In the US the theoretical and practical are more closely linked than in the UK, so institutions such as NYU have direct links to filmmakers who deliver lectures on a regular basis. Much like the film industry the academic circuit is small, but can offer those with a love of cinema and critical study a viable career path.  

Becoming set ready.

After you graduate you need to think carefully about the next step, and whether you are set ready. In most cases, the answer to this is invariable - no. As much as anyone can prepare you for life on set, the only way to understand it is to do it. A fully functioning feature film set is a very different affair to a student production. If you have the right tutors who are hands on - rather than leaving you to your own devices - they will be guiding you in the rights and wrongs of on-set behaviour. Show a bit of humility when you make your way onto a professional set for the first time, a degree is for you, your work ethic and attitude is for the set.

It is not uncommon for graduates to believe they have done their time at university, only to arrive on the job market confused and frustrated at a lack of opportunity. In 2013 it was estimated that the UK film industry employs 42,000 people in film and video production, in a country where there are currently 31.42 million people in work you can see how small the industry is. It’s going to be extremely competitive out there in the real world, so if you’re investing a significant sum in a degree make sure you are getting your monies worth, or can at least justify the expense as personal development. You may still be in the same place - applying for runner work - but you should know you’re going to have to be proactive, you create the opportunities and no one else. If you want to work in production in the film industry, a degree is very rarely the golden ticket to your career.  

If you do decide on a degree in film production, keep the above in mind. However, it’s not unheard of for a graduate to leave with an award winning short film and an exceptional showreel up their sleeve. It is possible to use the momentum and contacts you have to springboard into the industry; this is rare, but it is possible.

So, you want to make sure you are leaving university with a degree at the highest level you possibly can (because a 1st class degree can be eye catching on the CV, as can a degree from a reputable institution) and some funds. Those first few years, whether looking for work on major film sets or going it alone on the short film circuit, are going to need some funding behind them - think about this very carefully.  

Film school.

If you harbour dreams of applying for the NFTS, then a degree is going to be necessary, but does it have to be in film production? Remember, you are getting ready for the job market so you want to give yourself as many options as possible. Obviously, the NFTS is one of the most, if not the most, prestigious film school in the UK, producing graduates who have gone on to shape the UK film industry. If this is the part of your career plan, and the ROI stacks up, think carefully about the degree you need to get your there.

Does my degree need to be in film production?

If you wish to enter the business side of the industry or have a sure footing in it, you may find that a degree in film production is an option but not the only choice. When discussing the business side of the industry, we refer to non-production areas such as distribution, film sales, film finance, production companies and marketing.

The film industry is a business, and like all businesses they exist to make money, so recruiters will be looking for business savvy, commercially aware candidates who can work with numerical and statistical data. Candidates for this side of the business need to display a strong aptitude for written work, being able to concisely convey clarity of thought and argument in their writing style. If you have a degree in film production all is not lost, but you may find some solid academic focused A-levels behind you could greatly help your cause.

What are the alternatives?

In all honestly, if you want to work in production you’re not at a disadvantage if you decide to leave school after A-levels and dive straight in. Some departments can be looking for graduates, but in the main, it’s your attitude and experience that count. There is also no reason that you can’t study at degree level at a later date, especially if you decided the film industry is not for you.

Formalised apprenticeships are making their way into the film industry, such as the VFX apprenticeship run by the Nexgen Skills Academy. They are apprenticeships in the traditional sense of the word; some time is spent in college focusing on the theory, but the majority of the course will be gaining hands-on experience under the tutelage of those who are working in the industry.  

In summary.

Deciding on a degree is one thing, deciding whether that degree should be in film production is another. Think about your long-term objectives and whether a BA in media is going to get you there, or give you any viable alternatives. One of the best things you can do is get out there and talk to people, call up the Cine Guilds and ask them their thoughts. They are representing the workforce of each particular department, and in a great position to offer advice. It all comes back to research, taking advice and making sure that your choice is going to work for you. Remember, if you’re going to make a significant financial commitment you want to be sure you can get the most out of the opportunity, and you’re going to enjoy doing it.  

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