The Film Major: How an Education in Cinema Can Jumpstart a Career
The decision to become a film major can be a great professional springboard for someone interested in entertainment.
But like any other discipline, the choice should not be taken lightly. Especially when an investment of several years and thousands of dollars is involved, those aspiring to work in film should carefully consider the type of film major that best serves their professional passion and allows them to hit the ground running after graduation.
The following takes a look at some of the most popular film major specialties, as well as a few of the top film schools across the United States that can help emerging filmmakers achieve their career aspirations. So let’s dive in!
One of the most remarkable facets of filmmaking is how it is achieved—through the time, dedication and talents of many, many specialists. Directors, Cinematographers, Editors, Sound Designers, Screenwriters….The list goes on and on. And because all of these disciplines require an in-depth knowledge of the craft, many colleges and universities have created specific film majors for them.
Says current film student Eden Braunstein, “By getting a film degree you not only have some sort of a tangible proof for future employers that you are educated, have grit, or able to meet a goal (committing to 4+ years in school and getting good enough grades to graduate), but you also open doors to connections with your classmates and opportunities to lead projects of your own that you will then be able to use as a portfolio.”
For individuals who want a broader scope of the entertainment landscape, a general film major program can often be found at many film schools. But for those looking to gain a specific skill set, let’s take a look at some film disciplines.
Film is often referred to as a visual medium—and for good reason. Movies can show us the reaches of outer space, the depths of the oceans, the chemical reactions inside a single cell and everything in-between. Especially given the advances not only in camera technology but also visual effects, there are hardly any boundaries on a filmmaker’s imagination.
And that’s exactly why someone interested in the look of film may want to explore cinematography as their film major1. This discipline blends the technical with the artistic side of the craft, making it a great choice for those with both passions.
While films are unmistakably a collaborative effort, they are also often considered the vision of a single person: the Director2. For that reason, many film students choose directing as their film major. Though an opportunity to make many of the chief creative decisions on a film, directing also typically means being attached to a movie far longer than any other talent, so a Director must be committed to it. The Director must likewise know how to manage and interact with a multitude of personalities. With that in mind, students wanting to direct can gain invaluable instruction and hands-on experience with this film major.
There’s a common saying that goes a little something like this: “A film is made three times—once when it’s written, once while in production and once in post.” It’s that last incarnation of a film—the version an Editor puts together—that also happens to be the final one for audiences to see.
“A good Editor can save a bad movie.” Again, a phrase frequently tossed around because it’s true. Pending how much influence they have, as well as their relationship to the Director and Producers on the film, an Editor might choose not only the takes that go into a movie but also the length of them and how they piece together. As a result, many film students are passionate about exploring this crucial craft.
Some film enthusiasts love the medium, yet they’re not keen on actually being part of the filmmaking community. That’s okay! Not everyone needs to—or should—be a Director, Cinematographer or other craftsperson. And that’s exactly what the film studies discipline is for.
Film studies is a fantastic way for someone interested in cinema to learn about its history and aesthetics, which typically provides a path to filmmaking-adjacent careers, such as teaching or film criticism. (Think Roger Ebert!) Film studies can also be of use to those who want a behind-the-scenes role at a production company or studio.
Speaking of production, let’s move on to one of the most ubiquitous and misunderstood roles in Hollywood—that of the Movie Producer3. For someone considering a film major, going into producing could be useful for both learning what it is and seeing if it’s right for them.
The Producers are typically the individuals who go up on stage to accept their Academy Award for Best Picture. Outside of that illustrious moment, though, producing can often be an arduous task. No one ever said filmmaking was easy, and especially not a Producer! These are the individuals who look over every facet in the creation of a film, from script development to financing to the actual shoot and beyond. Because of how pervasive this role is, though, different Producers are often brought onboard a production to handle the various aspects of it.
Speaking of script development, let’s get into writing, shall we? Because when all is said and done, there’s no film if there’s no script. Screenwriters are the ones whose imaginations set the stage for what will eventually become a feature film4. But like so many of the talents that go into moviemaking, screenwriting is a combination of creativity and technical know-how, which is why so many colleges and universities offer the screenwriting discipline as part of their film programs. And like aspiring Cinematographers, Directors and other specialists, those who pursue screenwriting in school will have the chance to work on their craft and improve it before heading out into the professional world.
Top Film Schools
The film major has grown so much in popularity over the last several decades that it isn’t difficult to find options no matter where an aspiring filmmaker may live. Some may choose their neighborhood community college while others trek across the country for a four-year university. But like most experiences, it’s what the student makes of it that will determine their future success.
With that being said, some colleges and universities have made a name for themselves because of their prestigious film programs. Below is a small selection of institutions that students may want to explore. Each comes with different discipline options and professional opportunities.
American Film Institute
Located just east of downtown Hollywood, the American Film Institute Conservatory offers a half-dozen programs for those who have already completed their undergraduate degrees. This world-renowned institution offers MFAs in cinematography, directing, editing, producing, production design and screenwriting. For emerging filmmakers who want an immersive, hands-on education, AFI might just be the place for them.
California Institute of the Arts
Nestled northwest of Los Angeles is California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts. Like AFI, this school concentrates on the disciplines that can springboard future filmmakers into their respective professions. With “more than 70 comprehensive degree programs in the visual, performing, media and literary arts,” CalArts is where students can explore a wide variety of concentrations, all within the filmmaking world.
New York University
Let’s move 3,000 miles east to New York City and the school that bears its name. New York University, or NYU, has long been on the top ten list of best film schools in the nation. While a school that caters to many different disciplines outside film, its Tisch School of the Arts has a widely known reputation for excellence and offers several film major options for both undergraduate and graduate students.
University of California, Los Angel
And we’re back in Los Angeles! Several miles west of Hollywood sits the University of California, Los Angeles. Better known as UCLA, this school likewise has been heralded as one of the top institutions for those wanting to gain an education in filmmaking. Prospective students can apply to one of its many undergraduate or graduate programs, as well as its less intensive Professional Program or Extension Program.
University of Southern California
Nearly perennially at the top of the best film schools list is the University of Southern California, also known as USC. Why? With an impressive alumni list ranging from George Lucas to Shonda Rhimes to Ryan Coogler, this institution has long offered undergraduate and graduate options through its Cinematic Arts department that have molded some of the most innovative and talented individuals currently working in film.
On why she attended USC, filmmaker Christina Yun notes, “USC was my first choice when applying for MFA programs because they don’t require you to declare a specific concentration. You enter as a ‘production’ student. Because I knew I wanted to train as a Director, this was a vital deciding factor. As a Director, you need to understand each component of your team and this approach allows you to study every department from cinematography to sound mixing. You get to decide what you need to balance out the knowledge you’re coming in with and what you need more of to be successful.”
The choice of a film major can be a life-changing one. While that could be an overwhelming proposition, the good news is that with the proliferation of outstanding film schools across the United States, the dedicated student can find success both in their academic and professional life no matter their decision. And with enough time, determination and perseverance, the fruits of that film major labor will pay off.
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- 1Masterclass. "Film 101: What Is Cinematography and What Does a Cinematographer Do?". Masterclass.com. published: Oct 22, 2019. retrieved on: Dec 14, 2019
- 2Same. "Principals of Directing". Elements of Cinema. published: . retrieved on: 25 November 2019
- 3Metz, Nina. "What does a movie producer do? No, seriously, who really knows?". Chicago Tribune. published: Feb 20, 2019. retrieved on: Nov 25, 2019
- 4Hauge, Michael. "Do You Really Want to Become a Screenwriter?". Writers Store. published: . retrieved on: 25 November 2019