There’s a great scene in Casino that reveals the secret of Las Vegas’s success: The Whale. The Whale is the rich guy who loves to gamble, and comes to town ready to spend. Once a whale arrives, the entire casino is re-engineered to become one big happiness machine, centered around him: free rooms, free hookers, free anything. And if the whale attempts to leave while he’s ahead, they disable his plane, forcing him to spend one more night on the tables.
Everyone going to film school should watch this scene, and not just to learn about filmmaking. When you go to an expensive film school, you are the whale. Everything they do is designed to keep money shooting out of your spout. Even if that means sabotaging your education.
It doesn’t have to be this way: After I got out of college, I delivered pizzas, made movies on mini-DV and took occasional film classes at a place called Minneapolis Community and Technical College. MCTC charged $400 a semester, which I paid out of pocket using my pizza tips. To my surprise, the quality of the program was excellent. The facilities and equipment were top notch. The faculty was smart, intense and dedicated. The main professor, Bruce Mamer, actually wrote one of the directing textbooks that was used at NYU. He was also brutally honest with his dirt-poor students about the economic realities of filmmaking, which we appreciated.
So where was our $100k in tuition going? Columbia, it turned out, had gotten addicted to buying up property in Manhattan, even though the real estate bubble had inflated prices into the stratosphere, so educational budgets had all been slashed to the bone. MCTC was a government-subsidized institution, but Columbia’s only source of money was us. And they intended to milk us for all we were worth.
But even so, that left one thing I still couldn’t forgive them for: the program had no standards. And standards are free.
There was no curriculum. There were no grades. There were no tests. There were no criteria that we were supposed to meet. Simply put, they expected nothing of us. They cheered our output, they handed out prizes, and they told us we would soon be on easy street. Why did they have no standards? Simple: that would have interrupted the happiness machine, and that might have upset the Whales. The longer they kept us happy, the more money we spent.
Of course, if they were loaning us the money themselves, then it would all be different. They would have done everything in their power to harden us into a great filmmakers who could go out there and earn enough to pay them back. But they get paid upfront, so they could care less if their students ever get a career, or even any career skills.
Okay, things look bleak for the struggling filmmakers of the world. Is there any hope? Yes there is. Tomorrow, let’s talk about what to do instead...