Film School Dropout Case Study

The day I moved in to my apartment building in 2006, I stumbled upon a small film shoot. There were bright lights, gaffing equipment, and a focused kid carrying a Panasonic DVX 100.

That kid’s name was Pete Atencio, and you’ve probably never heard of him. He isn’t ultra famous like Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino. But Pete has been working, yes working, steadily as a director ever since I met him in 2006, when he was just 23.

When we first met, Pete had already shot his first feature with a group of friends. The feature was called “Night of the Dog”, and it won the Audience Award at the Palm Beach film festival back in 2005. The amazing thing is that Pete and 5 friends used their Panasonic DVX 100 camera, came up with a funny story, and just shot the darn thing. It looks great and is very funny for a first effort.

I asked Pete if he went to film school. He told me had attended the Colorado Film School for one week, realized it was a complete waste of time, dropped out, and used the money to buy his own Panasonic DVX 100 camera. Like most working filmmakers, he taught himself the basics of shooting, lighting, and editing. He then went on to shoot the feature with his friends.

That helped leverage him into paid directing positions. When we met, he was working for TBS, which had a website called “SuperDeluxe”. Pete was shooting a short series he had pitched with comedian Jonah Ray (now the guy in those “Bing Commercials”. The series was called “The Freeloader’s Guide to Easy Living”. Here’s one of my favorites:

The key is, Pete was getting paid to direct, and slowly building his reel. He got other gigs shooting EPK’s at the Oscars, and eventually worked with another indie producer to shoot an action thrilled called “The Rig”.

I was surprised that Pete did a thriller, because his strength is definitely comedy. But it was a decent movie and another notch on his belt. But more importantly, he was entrusted with a six figure budget shooting on location in Louisiana. And, again, he was a working director.

Pete then went on to shoot some really funny videos that went viral on Youtube. “Twilight with Cheeseburgers”

The video has over 1.5 million views. He then shot another really funny sketch called “Drive Recklessly”, a spoof of Public Service Announcements. It’s VERY funny and has over 3 million views:

Finally, the stars aligned and Pete was hired to direct the show “Key and Peele” on Comedy Central. The show is very popular and extremely funny. They even have a sketch called “Obama’s Anger Translator”, where one of the guys plays Obama and the other one acts out, very colorfully, what Obama really means. The sketch was so popular, the President himself mentioned in on Jimmy Fallon last year.

Key and Peele continues to grow in popularity. Who knows what’s next for Pete? I found this photo of him shooting an early video…

it reminds me of the photos you see at New York Film Academy and other film schools. The only difference is that people like Pete had the stones to just grab a camera and start shooting things themselves, without paying a small fortune for permission to do so.



Pete’s a great example of Real Directing Career Success. There are hundreds of working Directors in film and television who are doing great work, getting paid, and more importantly, doing what they love. To learn how you can realistically start your directing career, visit

5 Great Cautionary Movies About Making Movies

Buscemi OblivionEveryone loves a movie; and people who make movies love making movies about people making movies. Self referential humor has become a cultural norm.

The humor derived from most of these movies is either about how insane it is to make a movie, or how insane or ridiculous the people are who decide to make a movie.

But if you are an aspiring filmmaker, it’ always helpful to watch movies like this as both educational and entertainment.

1. Living in Oblivion –

This classic indie gem stars Steve Buscemi as an aspiring director with a vision. Of a movie complete with romance, intrigue, and a dream scene with a dwarf played by Peter Dinklage. The movie captures an poorly run indie film set perfectly.

2. State and Main

David Mamet’s movie has an all star cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman as the screenwriter, who says his movie is about “the quest for purity”. It also stars Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker, William H. Macy, and more. The movie is about a Hollywood production coming to a small town, and skewers the realities of that brand of insanity. Actor egos, a philandering leading man, giving away Associate Producer credits for random favors, changing the script because of corporate interests. The movie is a blast, and a little more truth than fiction!

3. Ed Wood

Ed Wood made some of the universally agreed upon worst movies in film history. Bad bad bad. Cross dressing, UFOs hung from strings. Campy shit. However, he did get those movies made. This film by Tim Burton is extremely endearing, featuring great performances by Johnny Depp and Martin Landau as Bela Legosi.

While Wood’s boylike optimism is hilarious, it’s also a good lesson in how you can get a movie shot, no matter how delusional you are, if you believe in yourself.

4. The Player

For all the people reading this blog who really want to work in the business, watch this movie. It’s witty, real, and disturbing. When you decide you want to “work your way up the ranks” in Hollywood, you’re basically subjecting yourself to the world’s most foul college fraternity, and a world where the fun and creativity of storytelling is sucked bone dry. This movie captures that nicely, and has some fun cameos.

5. Lost In La Mancha

You’ve probably never heard of “The Man from La Mancha”, and that’s because it was never completed. The movie was supposed to based on “Don Quixote”, starring Johnny Depp and directed by Terry Giliam. And out of the movies on this list, it’s the only documentary.

The movie shows the series of disasters that canned the movie for good. To me, this movie is a great educational piece of HOW NOT TO MAKE A MOVIE.

All of these movies are great fun, but each of them speak to various poor ways of making a movie. Working through the political and money laden minefield of Hollywood, being led by an enthusiastic but delusional indie director, or failing to prepare for production and having it fall apart altogether.
All of these movies were made before the digital revolution, before movies could be shot on a much smaller scale, with better inexpensive equipment, and reach an audience directly (without a movie star) using digital distribution.
So enjoy these movies, and have fun watching them. But if you want to learn the smart way to realistically start your Directing career the right way, visit

What You Can Learn From Zach Braff’s $2.2 Million Campaign on Kickstarter

WISH I WAS HERE by Zach Braff — KickstarterZach Braff wanted to make a sequel to “Garden State”. He decided to raise money via Crowfunding site Kickstarter. The goal of the campaign was $2 million. And at last count, they had raised $2.47 million.

Some people have criticized Braff for doing this, since he’s already famous and has plenty of industry connections. Isn’t Kickstarter for the indie filmmaker who doesn’t have any other means of raising money? No. Kickstarter is a democratic resource for people to pimp their artistic projects and allow people to be part of it.

Braff is famous and talented, and has a huge fan base of people who love his stuff. What’s wrong with him appealing to them directly, especially since most of these people would buy tickets anyway?

What’s interesting to me, as someone who encourages young filmmakers to just start making movies, are the reasons why an established actor like Braff would choose not to work within the studio system.

The thing is this: dealing with a studio is what the French would call an “emotional ass ache”. It’s awful. Even a good production deal still subjects the Director to the adolescent mood swings of whatever executive is in charge. Additionally, the main creatives on the project don’t own the rights. And then, of course, there’s “Hollywood bookkeeping”, which is always slanted in favor of the studios.

Kickstarter is desirable because, well, all that money is free and clear. Once Braff shoots his movie and gives away all his free stuff to his supporters, from a production diary to a walk on role, he doesn’t owe them anything else. He doesn’t have to show them any profits or dividends. In fact, he could make the movie and shove it in a shoebox and he wouldn’t incur any legal penalty (so long as he gave a copy to his backers).

Studios have long had a monopoly on financing movies. They are really banks that were willing to gamble on a movie project. With Kickstarter, the process has been democratized, and it’s great. In fact, when you look at some of the crap the studios have been churning out, you have to wonder how many were ruined by notes and changes made by the execs. It would be nice if a Director had the option of saying “hey, we have this great script and we are going to make it with the studio, but these morons want to add a lot of fart jokes and a loveable dog, so how about you guys help us finance it and we can do it the right way?”

Now, if you’re not famous and you don’t have millions of fans, this shouldn’t be discouraging. If anything, you should be inspired by the power of a fan base. So get more fans! You don’t need 2 million dollars to make your movie (if you do, show me the budget and I will show you 11 ways to cut it down and actually have more fun while making it). But if you can start building your fan base now, then if you ever do launch a Kickstarter campaign, you will have a shot of reaching your goal.

Some people think you just throw up a project on Kickstarter and people will donate; not so. It isn’t charity! They need to know what’s in it for them. I loved “Garden State”. So, for me, it’s selfishly fulfilling to know that donating $25 or so will help me get to see a sequel. You need to have fans that WANT to see your next project, and want to be part of it, so they will feel compelled to give money.

And even if you only have a budget of a few thousand dollars, the freedom to make your movie the way you want is worth it. After all, Braff drives his reasoning for using Kickstarter home with his summary of the Hollywood casting process:

Casting Choices:
Traditionally, in order to procure your financing, a filmmaker will often have to choose from a list of pre-approved actors with whom the financier is willing to make the movie. Although there are often many wonderful actors on these lists, you may not see the actors you had in your mind to play those parts. The lists are compiled of actors who’ve been in films that have had large successes overseas. Their names are put into an algorithm, and a computer calculates how much money the financier will be able to pre-sell the foreign distribution of the film for based on that actor’s past successes. Bored yet? Basically, you have to cast who they want, not who you want.

Be careful what you wish for. Don’t move to LA and dream of becoming a Hollywood Director (who is forced to alter his or her script and casting choices to fit the needs of the studio) when you could be making and profiting from your own movies, where you live, right now. To learn more about how to do this, visit

Angry Film Student Inadvertently Proves My Point

I received an interesting and aggressive comment today, as I sometimes do from film students who become defensive against what I am saying. This film student started out attacking the validity of what I am saying on the site and then went on to prove my point. I have responded to each point below.angryfilmstudent

Um… so let me get this straight… you’re basically asking us to drop our classes (by the way, I go to an extremely respected film school with a huge success rate, modern equipment and can list names of students who have graduated and worked on films made in the last two years… like The Avengers) and instead, come flock to your side and listen to your pearly gems of wisdom?

Absolutely. I’m sure you will get much more practical knowledge from what I have to share than you will in your $30,000 plus a year program. However, you seem to have an extremely arrogant attitude, and that leads me to believe that you’d be pretty resistant to anything valuable I might have to teach.

And what do you mean by success rate? Do you mean the number of graduates who have found entry level crew or assistant positions on film sets along side their colleagues who never went to school? That is great!

I’m sorry, you are…? I mean, if I’m to take a single thing you say seriously, I think one of your biggest selling points should probably be showing us just how many Hollywood films you’ve directed. Because as far as I can tell (using magic and whatnot), you’ve never even stepped foot inside of a production lot. You seriously cannot call yourself a filmmaker and try to persuade people to listen to you as an alternative to a school with fact sheets of successful students when you can’t even show us a single thing that says you’ve succeeded. Owning a camera and hosting a website doesn’t show us that you made it. It shows us that you are bitter about the education you hoped would make you something big and didn’t. That’s not the case for everyone, and I cannot, in good conscience, listen to a person speak about how to succeed in filmmaking when they themselves have not.

I’d be very careful with your attitude as you set out in this industry. You never know who someone is, or what they have done, and it’s best not to as they say “burn bridges” by lashing out baseless insults. I was crewing while you were probably in Middle School, and negotiating contracts and raising investment capital before you were in film school.

My position is, like all progressive opinions that question a long accepted belief, bound to push some buttons, but it’s not personal. I’m simply voicing a reality that is not widely known outside of the industry.

That said, I never claimed to be a famous Hollywood Director, nor is such an accomplishment any indication of one’s ability to help young filmmakers get a powerful start beyond “the bottom of the ladder”. I consciously chose to take the time out to educate young filmmakers about the realities of working in the business, so they don’t end up deeply in debt and uncertain about how to proceed towards a directing career. I am a Consultant and a Teacher; I help others achieve their goals with practical advice,. You can ask any of the over 200 students I have helped so far.

A few things…

First; Wes Craven already had eight films under his wing before doing ‘Nightmare.’ In fact, ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ is generally considered to be a pop culture hit and that was seven years before Krueger was even born. Second; Kevin Smith had a hit with ‘Clerk’s’, but he didn’t know that when he made it. In fact, had the movie flopped, he would have been screwed since he maxed out a handful of credit cards just to make the film. It was a HUGE risk on his part and he got lucky.

Thank you for clarifying the point on Wes Craven. “Nightmare” wasn’t his first feature. You sure showed me. My point is that he had to hustle and struggle to get it made, after which time and it’s performance he was then able to make “connections”, and that it wasn’t his “connections” that led to his success.

Kevin Smith did take a big risk to make “Clerks”. But he didn’t “just get lucky”. There were elements to his process and his movie that made it successful. Including the hiring of a brilliant Sales Agent. The exact process of selling the movie was outlined in the book “Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes”.

Don’t you think it’s wise to study his success and see what you can potentially learn about making a low budget feature length movie and leveraging it towards a career, rather than dismissing it as “luck”? I do.

Third; Film schools do short films because the thesis project is graded by a review board and a class generally doesn’t consist of one or two people. A feature length film graded by say, five people, and submitted for review by a hopeful graduating class of even 200 students would literally take weeks and all they are looking for is whether or not the student learned the things they were taught.

You’re right. At NYU and AFI, students paying $40,000 a year in tuition do have to submit their thesis ideas before a committee to get approved to shoot it. Students who aren’t approved don’t get to direct, they have to serve as crew on other student’s films, even though they are still paying full tuition. Following the same procedure with a feature film would be a nightmare.

If only there was a way for a human being to shoot a movie without getting permission from a review board and paying $40,000 a year in tuition? Unfortunately, there is no other way.

And finally; short films DO make money and MANY big name directors do them often. Shorts done on YouTube are a completely different breed and shouldn’t even be compared to directors or film students.

Please provide an example of a business model whereby short films produce income. I, and the rest of the financial sector of the film industry, would be very interested to know. I would also be interested in knowing what big name directors regularly make shorts as part of their professional career.

Also, most film schools do, in fact, teach students about promoting and adapting to feature length.

Financing is mentioned, but since a financier is typically a very wealthy person (or company) with the means to back a multi-million dollar feature film, the likelihood of a fresh faced film student getting financed is slim to none since it’s already a well known fact that ALL film students will start at the bottom of the food chain when matriculated into the industry.

If you’re serious about working in any industry, don’t you think that the financial element should be more than merely “mentioned”? Furthermore, are you aware of the advances not only in digital technology, but in media consumption and distribution, that have changed the way people watch movies and pay for them, and the impact that has had on film production costs and how they are sold?

Even if it still did require millions of dollars to produce a quality feature film, don’t you think the path to procuring that investment capital should be a main topic of study? These are the kinds of things we discuss in my course. How to get a movie made intelligently and with a smart budget, how to build an audience directly, and how to leverage your projects to potential investors.

I am not famous, but I have had strangers write me checks for $20,000+ for movie projects. And that’s a skill that every young filmmaker should learn how to do, if they want to direct. However, as you say…

A film student is NOT a director in every case and not every director that is a film student wants to make feature films. Some of us want to do documentaries, music videos, artistic films, broadcast journalism, etc. More than one career exists with a degree in Film, and since most of us focus very little on directing and more on the production aspect, it’s very likely many of us will go on to do everything BUT direct.

I think you just proved my point. My program is specifically for people who want to direct feature films. In hundreds of conversations with aspiring filmmakers these last 5 years, I’ve learned one thing: most people want to direct, but they aren’t trained how!

And you’re absolutely right. Most film students will end up doing everything but directing. 

I think you said it better than I ever could. Thanks! 🙂

If you are reading this, and you’d like to learn how to have a career directing movies and not start out at the bottom of the food chain, visit



Interview: Working as a DP at Age 16

I get a lot of emails from high school students asking for advice. The reality is that your high school’s A/V program is advanced as any film schools’. Seriously. In the old days, yes, a big name school might need $70,000 to buy a quality camera.

But if your high school has any HD Panasonic or Sony Cameras, or any DSLR Cameras like the t2i, t4i, 5D, or 7D… you’re using a lot of the same equipment they give students at almost all undergrad film programs. And the Final Cut Pro editing lab you have in your high school is using the same software they use at New York Film Academy or NYU.

The point is: you have a lot going for you, even if you are in high school. And you don’t need to be in New York or LA or have a “connection” or degree to start working on film or video sets. I personally got my first PA gig when I was a junior in high school, a small city in upstate NY. No, not near New York City. I grew up closer to Canada. More on this in future posts. But in the meantime, I want you to listen to this.

HS-BuzWallickBuz Explains How He Started Working Without Experience or a Degree

A couple years ago, I interviewed Cinematographer Buz Wallick. Buz was 21 years old at the time, focused primary on EPK production, and had been working steadily behind the camera since age 16. 16?! How did he get started so young, with no experience, and no degree?

In the interview, he very generously shares his story, and humbly acknowledges that he has been very lucky. At the same time, it’s not that Buz was just lucky. He did something few 16 years olds do: he took a chance and just started taking action on doing what he wanted to do, instead of waiting for permission.

He conducted himself like an adult, carried himself with confidence, and followed his passion. How it unfolded is pretty hilarious.

Buz even went to film school in San Diego for a couple of semesters, but soon found that he was missing too many classes because of paying gigs in LA. And that’s really a quandary isn’t it? If you’re supposed to be going to college to get a degree to get a job, but you already have work coming in, does it make sense to get the degree?

Buz’s Father, an English Professor, didn’t think so. He was smart and practical in a way few Parents are these days: he saw that his son was already on a career path and knew that, in this case, school was just getting in the way, and none of his colleagues cared about the degree anyway. It didn’t have anything to do with how Buz was able to light a scene.

By the way, for anyone thinking about paying the big bucks to learn how to light a scene: you need to hear how Buz learned it. He learned it literally on the job, about an hour before he was supposed to do a professional interview. It’s a pretty hilarious story.

We also talk about the real path people take to becoming a director, and what it’s really like working in the film business.

This 2010 audio interview used to be part of the “Film School Secrets” e course, but I decided to make it public. Here is the full 60 minute interview. Buz talks about how he actually started working at 15 at about 18:00 in.

  • This is Buz’s IMDB Profile:
  • He also was the DP on “Scream: The Inside Story”.
  • You can check out Buz’s site and Podcast by clicking here.
  • This is a trailer for the documentary about “Nightmare on Elm Street” Buz shot , Never Sleep Again”. Buz has shot with many of the biggest names in horror cinema, including the stars of “Scream”.
You can buy the DVD of this below:

And finally, this is Buz’s reel:

Buz is only one example of the hundreds and even thousands of working film professionals who have no formal training, no degree, and never went to film school. If you are serious about ever Directing your own movies, make sure to learn more about our new course by visiting

Crossing “The Line”: What They Don’t Tell You in Film School About Film Jobs

To realistically start a directing career, you don’t just apply to film school, get accepted, make some shorts, and wait for the offers to come rolling in. You have to be proactive, smart, and think different than 99% of filmmakers. And that starts with understanding the difference between “Above the Line and “Below the Line”, and a whole lot more…

The Right Approach – Understanding the Business

Most people approach a film career without a clear understand of what they are doing or how to realistically get there. And that’s why so many film students fail. It’s like trying to open a Restaurant but knowing nothing about food.On top of the fact that there is so much conflicting and inaccurate information on the web about the film industry, it can be very confusing.

Whether you want to Direct, Produce, DP, Edit, or Write… you need to have a clear overview of the business you want to work in. 

Let’s start by looking at an Abridged Sample Production budget. Did you know most people, especially film students, have never even seen a budget sheet like this?

But inside this simple spreadsheet lies the key to your film career.


topsheet abridged

The Truth About “A Foot in the Door” & “The Ladder”

You may have heard that to work in the film business it’s “all about who know”, you need to “get a foot in the door”, or “pay your dues” or “climb the ladder.”

Well, that depends on what you want to do. Do you want to Direct, Producer, or Writer?

Or do you want to Get Coffee and Support People Who Do These Things?

The Budget Sheet is simply a summary of all the expenses of any Production; Feature Film Commercial, Documentary, etc. It’s also provides a window into the hierarchy and organization of a Film Production. Kind of like seeing how a Business is Organized, from the CEO down to the Data Entry Clerk. Or how a Government is organized, from the President of a country down to the Mayor of a city.

You may notice that at the very Top of the sheet are the familiar positions you may aspire to: Producer, Director, Writer (the Story line). Then, you’ll see a big dark line separating the positions below these. We call everything above that big dark line “above the line”, and everything below “below the line”.

And here’s where a major confusion takes place. There is a huge difference between the two types of positions.

Above the Line Positions = Creative and No Mobility

  • Director – Manages Set and Maintains Artistic Vision
  • Producer – Makes Production Happen, Helps Director
  • Writer – Creates Original Vision of Production (Not active on Set)

There is Little to No Mobility in these positions. Meaning, you can’t “get promoted” to becoming a Director, a Producer, or the Writer of a movie.

That’s also why people like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Craven, James Cameron, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderberg, Oren Peli, Billy Bob Thornton, and dozens of other Directors were able to start their careers working as Directors.

They just Directed a movie. Period.

You never hear of someone “working their way” into a position of Producing or Directing. Many film students get assisting positions, hoping to somehow launch their Directing career, but that never happens. It’s like getting hired as a Receptionist at Yahoo, hoping to become CEO.

To learn how you can skip “paying your dues” into an Above the Line position, click here.

Below the Line Positions = Technical With Mobility

Below the line positions, however, offer many opportunities for advancement and improvement. Having a connection or knowing someone can definitely help you out. Some below the line positions include:

  • DP (Camera Department) – Shoots the Movie (Technical & Creative); Support the Director
  • Gaffer – Supports the DP, Head of Lighting Dept.
  • Grip – Supports the DP and Gaffer, Lighting and Camera Dept.
  • 1st Assistant Camera – support the DP
  • 2nd Assistant Camera – supports 1st Assistant Camera
  • Sound Recordist/Mixer – Records Sound
  • Boom Operator – Supports Sound Department, Sound Recordist
  • Editor – Edit films once Shot
  • Assistant Editor – Assists Editor
  • Script Supervisor – Maintains Continuity
  • Line Producer – Human Resources (handles “lines” on Budget Sheet)
  • Assistant Director – Assists Director, Runs and Organizes Set
  • Production Manager – Runs Production, works with AD to run things smoothly
  • Production Assistant – Helps out with Anything, reports to Production Manager

Notice the hierarchy in the Below the line positions. A 2st AC can move up to a 1st AC. A Production Assistant can move up to becoming a Production Manager.

But look at the nature of these positions. They are Technical and Organizational. They are Support positions for the Above the Line positions. It’s like being hired as a Salesman at a company and working your way up to Head of Sales.

These positions are absolutely necessary, and the people who do them are indispensible to a film production. But…

Don’t Work Below the Line if You Want to Work Above!

There is no mobility between Below and Above the line positions! This is why its so tragic that film students are advised to get “Internships” and PA gigs out of film school. These Below the Line positions can only lead to another Below the line position.

That’s why, out of my colleagues who went to NYU Film School, only a small percentage are still working in the industry. But none are Directing. Most work in Administrative or Support positions (below the line); Production Managers, Post Production Technicians, and people who work in Advertising.

Below the Line positions are essential, and filled with fantastic, dynamic people who make the film industry hum. However, if you want to work above the line, there’s an entirely different approach.

And if you aren’t careful, you will end up like the film student in this clip you may have seen elsewhere on our site. Kevin Smith, who dropped out of Vancouver Film School, provides some very wise insight as to the plight of film school grads.

To learn how to become a Director Now, without climbing a ladder to nowhere, check out

Best “Die Hard” Music Video Ever

Die Hard 2If you haven’t seen this, drop everything and watch it. It’s not a mish mash of clips with some random song overlayed. These guys actually wrote a ballad, a 4 verse rock song describing the entire Die Hard Series! (Minus the 5th installment thank God).

The band is called Guz Nite. The video is expertly edited, very funny, and has one of the best refrains I’ve ever heard” Yippee Kai Aie Aeee Motha-” Plus, it’s better than anything Bruce Willis ever sang in his short musical career. If you’re a fan of the series, you are required by law to check it out: