Would George Lucas Have Gone to Film School Today?

I just received an interesting comment from a reader in the UK named Matt. He raises some good points, that speak to the heart of the classic film school debate. Here is the message:

Much as I agree with some of the points you make in your video (film schools are seriously overpriced and there’s a lot to be said for getting out and making your own films), I have to disagree with your entire premise.
If you truly cared about whether or not people who are spending $100,000 on tuition fees, why charge for the information? Make it available free and capitalise from advertising revenue that you would surely be getting IF your information is as valuable as you suggest.

Also I would like to point out that Spielberg studied at CSULB (Film production and Electronic Arts), Rodriguez undertook the film programme at the University of Texas, Stephen Sommers went to USC for cinematic arts, Woody Allen studied Communication and Film, and as an added bonus I’ll chuck in George Lucas (USC), and Martin Scorcese (did an MFA at NYU).

I should note that I am from the UK where the set up is very different, where studying film is more than just picking up a camera and pretending to know what to do with it, and where studying film is about wanting to expand your knowledge of the medium through rigorous research and theoretical study, not focussing on how to point and shoot.

There is more to film than making movies, didn’t you learn that?

Thanks, Matt. This is a classic and apparently accurate defense of film schools, but it falls short.

The main issue is this: are the anecdotal accounts of a handful of mega successful directors who attended film school 20 to 40 years ago enough to offset the reality that most film school alumni graduate with severe debt and no greater access to launch their careers?

And if there really is “more to film than making movies” (which sounds quite esoteric to me), how do you explain the success of directors like Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, David Fincher, Alfred Hitcock, and anyone who made movies before the 1960s when film schools were invented? Did these guys really miss out?

As an honors grad of Tisch I can tell you: the theoretical study of film is a lot of hooey. My film studies classes included Italian Cinema, Silent Screen, and “Comparative Directors: Coppala, Spielberg, and Altman”. We watched “Jaws”, “The Rain People”, and “MASH”. I watched Fellini films and Buster Keaton.

Did I enjoy these movies? Absolutely.Were they worth $4000 a class in tuition? Of course not.

What’s funny is the “free pass” given to esoteric and theoretical education. I’ve had a few people write in, like Matt, chiding me for charging a measly $70 for this absurdly practical information, yet have few qualms about a college allowing an 18 year old to dig themselves into a financial grave for a few theoretical classes.

Students who take Film School Secrets across the board express their appreciation for the value of the course and what it has allowed them to do in their lives immediately thereafter; it’s practical and applicable, not theoretical.

That said, there is one very practical matter to address when looking to filmmakers like Lucas, Spielberg, Scorcese, and Woody Allen.

Each one of these filmmakers attended film school many many years ago, in the 60s, 70s, or 80s. Between 20 to 40 years ago. Citing them as an example of film school having value is anachronistic.

They were living in a time when even making a short film was a distant dream to most people. Film equipment was hard to come by and super expensive. Schools were often the only place you could get access to this equipment, and watch films as there were no VCRs or DVD players.

Lucas himself speaks to this in a prolonged interview. He cites film school as being a place where he got a chance to make a 1 minute animated short that changed his life.


Lucas describes life in the 1960s, and the impenetrable film industry. He didn’t even have an interest in film until his 3rd year in school. To him school was a place to figure out what he might be interested in. And when he got into a film production class it was a rare opportunity to actually make a film; something 90% of the population couldn’t do.

Today, we are inundated with media from birth. Young people have an acute awareness of the business of movies, behind the scenes, etc. and many have a love/desire to make movies when they are in high school, and the means to do so.

Stephen Soderberg enrolled in college courses while he was in high school just to get to make short films; this was in the 80s long before After Effects or Final Cut Pro. College was a great access to this equipment.

If the year were 1965 and you wanted to pay modest tuition at a college to make films, I would say go for it. It was a brilliant idea.

But it was a completely different world than today.

If Lucas were 20 years old today, would he go to film school? Unlikely. He’d more likely be one of these crazy kids owning an entire HD studio, completely with digital editing station, After Effects, and HD camera, and out shooting movies with his friends and putting them on Youtube.

The common thread between all of these directors isn’t school; it’s their vision and determination, which did not come from sitting in a few classes.

Spielberg made a 26 minute short that he peddled around Universal and won the affection of an exec, which got him a directing gig on TV shows when he was only a kid.

Lucas’ animated film changed the department at USC; he brought the creativity to that project, the school didn’t endow him with some theoretical advantage.

Woody Allen started writing jokes professionally when he was in high school. He never stopped working. After becoming a celebrity, doing stand up, etc., his manager and agent encouraged him to make a movie. According to the latest documentary on him, he literally read a book called “Film Directing” the day before showing up on set for “Take the Money and Run”. He had a whole film crew there to support him. A DP, grips, sound support, actors, all put together by his agents and the studio. All he did was write a funny script and show up.

This was not the result or correlated to a few classes at NYU.

Brett Ratner went to NYU… but freely admits he spent all his time making music videos and networking with rappers and regularly skipped class.

Robert Rodriguez was making short films when he was a kid, something he explains in depth in “Rebel Without a Crew”. He is also the founder of the “10 minute film school” and completely encourages young filmmakers to skip film school and probably wouldn’t appreciate being used to defend the merits of film school.

Rodriguez, like many others, started film school because he thought he needed it. When he got there and saw how slow it was moving he instead decided to shoot his own feature. His professor even argued with him and told him he couldn’t do it, but Rodriguez eventually convinced him. Then Rodriguez raised $7000 by submitting himself to a drug study. He used the money to shoot “El Mariachi” then pimped it around LA until he found an agent that recognized his talent.

None of this had anything to do with film school.

There are definitely a handful of great directors who happened to go to film school. But using them as a justification for spending $100,000 to play with $3,000 video cameras is absurd. It’s kind of like thinking Vitamin Water is going to make you a great basketball player because Kobe says so.

You can’t correlate the success of any of these filmmakers to anything they learned directly from their film school programs. And that’s why it is hard to come up with any other names of this caliber from the 1990s onward. All of the big names associated with film school are old, great guys.

And I truly believe if any of them were starting out today, they would be shooting their own movies with their own equipment, taking crazy risks… and using their college funds to make a killer feature.

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