5 Back to School Tips for Film Students

By  · Published on August 31st, 2016

Make the most of your graduate or undergraduate film studies.

As football jerseys and pumpkin beers creep their way into every corner of our waking world, millions of students are wrapping their heads around their next semester at college. Some are graduate students who have finished their bachelor degrees and are excited to be focusing exclusively on film studies going forward. Some are undergraduate students who are still working up the courage to tell their parents they want to switch majors. And some are just off-the-clock cinephiles looking to round out a busy semester with whatever fun film class catches their eye. As someone who has, at one point or another, belonged to all three of those groups, I thought this might be a good time to offer some hard-earned advice from my own experience as a part-time graduate student. I may not have followed all of this advice myself, but hey: do as I say, not as I do, right? Right.

Here are my five back-to-school tips for all you film students out there.

Network, Network, Network

Unless you’re an MFA or Film Production major, odds are you haven’t really thought too much about the networking component of being in film school. Sure, you’ll make friends and likely keep in touch with a couple of these people throughout your career, but you really never know who is going to end up as the next Executive Director of the Museum of Modern Art or the Managing Editor of BuzzFeed’s entertainment section. Sharing a few words with random classmates throughout the semester – at least enough to ensure they’ll accept your LinkedIn or Facebook invitation – can help keep you on a lot of radars as you advance in your career. You’d be surprised how often having someone already in your professional network can come in handy.

I’d even go one step further: as much as possible, buddy up with the business students in your film electives. While you may struggle to see how they can help you meet your short-term goals, these are the people who will end up as the decision-makers at the studios and arts institutes you hope to work for some day. Increasingly, non-profits are looking at potential employees who possess a little more business acumen than in generations past. If you’re not willing to bite the bullet and take a few accounting classes to round out your degree, the least you can do is get to know the name of the person sitting next to you who has an internship with Disney over the summer. Knowing the name of someone at the hiring organization could be what allows your resume to find its way into the right hands someday.

That Class On National Cinema You Know Nothing About? Take It.

One of the frustrating things about living in the future is how narrow our movie-viewing habits have become. In his excellent column addressing the alleged death of cinema, our own Danny Bowes made the very strong point that we simply are not watching enough movies. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime have been a boon to people who could not afford to rent dozens of movies a month, but it does come at a cost: it limits the number of non-streaming movies we’ll check out over the course of a month. For all the reasons that Bowes outlines – money, free time, accessibility – we’ve never had so many movies at our fingertips, and we’ve never been less likely to watch the majority of them.

On top of that, we all have comfort zones. I could watch middling studio horror films until the day I die (and pat myself on the back for a life well-lived), but it’s important to my personal and professional development that I seek out cinema from cultures I know very little about. That’s the beauty of school: no other time in your life will someone curate and contextualize a collection of the greatest films from a lesser-known country and carve out space in your calendar for you to watch them. I knew objectively that Hungary has produced some pretty impressive filmmakers over the past few years, but it wasn’t until I took a class on Hungarian Cinema that I understood their impact on the global film scene. Challenge yourself. That Christopher Nolan survey can wait.

Write As Much As You Can (Paid If Possible, For Free If Not)

You’re in school to study. That should always be your primary focus. That being said, writing is never easier than when you’re doing a whole bunch of it at once. The most frustrating article you’ll ever write is the one you try to cobble together after you’ve stepped away from your keyboard for a week. Furthermore, unlike a lot of culture criticism writers – they who often find themselves desperately waiting for some juicy piece of gossip to come down the pipeline – you are presented with an endless ocean of inspiration. Nearly every film you watch or lesson you hear will contain some kernel of a story idea or an article idea. My biggest regret from my undergraduate degree is that I didn’t spend the whole time pitching articles and writing like mad.

Writing on your own website or Medium account gets the blood flowing, but writing for another website is always going to expose you to a bigger audience and a healthier dose of feedback. Ideally, every quality piece of writing would receive a nice paycheck to go with it, but we all know that film criticism doesn’t quite work that way. And since your basic amenities are more-or-less covered while you’re in school (student loans or not), now is the perfect time to start building up a portfolio for yourself. Identify a couple of smaller sites whose content you enjoy and pitch them a few story ideas. Once you have a couple of strong article under your belt, push onwards and upwards to that next tier of online and print publications. The beautiful thing about culture criticism is there is a pot for every lid: academic or light and breezy, if you stick with it, you’ll find a place that’s a good match for your style.

Why Is Everyone So Quick To Proclaim the Death of Movies?

Read As Much As You Can, Too

I certainly can’t speak for all of my colleagues, but the one part of film culture I feel endlessly behind on is the reading. There are so many excellent academic journals and biographies and histories and essay collections being written every year – many of them can even be found on self-publishing platforms – that you could choose to ignore movies altogether for weeks at a time and still be ahead of the game. Everything is a tradeoff, though. Time spent reading is time you could spend watching a movie, and once you throw jobs and commutes and all the complications of the real world into the mix, it really does feel like you have to choose between words on the page and pictures on the screen.

Your faculty will help form the foundation for your academic reading with most of the usual suspects, but don’t be afraid to branch out in new and interesting directions. Read collections of academic writing by great thinkers like André Bazin. Read any of the books by Pauline Kael, a titan among film critics. Dive into less stolid works by popular film critics of the modern era; you may not know it now, but “Seagalogy: The Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal” will be one of those books that changes your life for the better. Read whatever you can get your hands on, whatever captures your interest, because reading requires time, and your time will be eaten away soon enough.

Take At Least One New Media Course

Cinema may not be dead, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t changing. Not only are films like Nerve and Unfriended best appreciated through comparisons to social media and screen culture, the rise of the Oculus Rift and similar technologies has caused studios to dabble in the potential of virtual reality as a compliment to their feature films. Lucasfilm, for example, recently created ILMxLAB, a division meant to focus on new and emerging technologies. One of their first projects is a short – but canonical! – story about Darth Vader, written by Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice screenwriter David S. Goyer. Meanwhile, Mashable recently highlighted a movie theater in Amsterdam that deals exclusively with VR films. Both are exceptions to the rule right now, but it only takes one hit for these to become increasingly standardized.

You may not be personally interested in watching a movie via a pair of goggles and headphones – or writing about the intersection of video games and cinema – but the demand for this type of content isn’t going to go away any time soon. Academic conferences are held on trends in new media. Studios are hiring people who are as fluent in the iPad as they are in 35mm. Museums are devoting increasing amounts of space to new media installations and technologies. Being able to discuss the theory behind audience interactivity will only improve your chances at catching on with employers and outlets who increasingly look for people who can speak to a variety of technologies fluently. Audience preferences are changing how we think about long-form visual media. Don’t be afraid to meet those audiences half-way.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)