Why No One Gives a Shit About Your Student Film

On last Friday’s blog post, I wrote:

Directing a student film doesn’t really count for anything.

As long as it’s clearly labeled as a student film section [on your resume], you can include your directing and producing credits. Just understand it’s not going to help you get anything better than a PA gig.

Over on Facebook, John replied:

Yet student films get optioned for features all the time?

I challenged John to name one. His answer? THX-1138. Or, more accurately, Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB.

A 49 year old film.

There’s probably a more recent example of a student film being optioned for a feature, but sure, let’s talk about George fucking Lucas’s student film.

Lucas went to USC, which is my alma mater, so I happen to know a lot about how the film was produced. It was made for a class called CTPR 480, which is the senior level production class. The school doesn’t pay for anything; the entire budget comes out of your pocket. Lucas volunteered to teach a class in order to get free film stock and access to locations. He was actually quite ingenious in how he got such high production value for a student film. Almost like he’s a better producer than he is a director…

I don't like sand.
It’s like poetry. It rhymes.

But it’s not like Warner Brothers just saw THX-1138 and said, “Here’s your money! Go make a feature!” What actually happened was, the film was good enough for Lucas to win a contest to visit a set on the WB lot. The movie was Finian’s Rainbow, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

The two became friends, and formed American Zoetrope together. Warners signed a seven picture deal with Zoetrope, and Lucas wanted to make a a feature-length version of THX. But that wasn’t because they liked the short so much; Coppola had made several films for them at that point.

So, THX did set Lucas on a path to directing his first feature, but a lot of things had to break his way and he had to respond to the opportunities correctly. This kind of networking and luck can happen to you, too. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t go out and make short films, but it’s unlikely to be your meal ticket like it was for Lucas.

Just as important, there was less competition back then. There were fewer than a dozen film schools in the 1960s. Now there are a hundred just in the United States. Completing film school with a degree and a student film is no longer as impressive as it once was.

You're a filmmaker!
Pictured above: Everyone’s reaction.

You don’t even have to go to film school to make short films, anymore. You can shoot one on your cell phone.

Unless you’ve won some kind of award, you’re not going to impress anyone with your student film. It’s certainly not going to help you get a job as a PA, because most student film shoots are clusterfucks.

Which is totally okay! When you’re a student, you’re still learning. But it’s not the kind of experience that gets things done on real film shoots. Bear in mind, THX wasn’t Lucas’s first and only student film. Lucas has several others in the USC archives. I’ve seen them, and they’re mostly terrible.

I haven’t seen your student film, but, just playing the odds here, it’s probably terrible too. If you’re willing to accept that, you can face your future with an honest assessment of your job prospects.

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5 Responses

  1. This is still sad to me. I think I made a pretty good senior film and junior film. I have friends who are working more than me and didn’t even go to film school. I feel screwed over by my own industry that I do love but it’s a tough love.

    1. Aw, man, really? Part of the course was learning how to raise money.

  2. Even more interesting is that Luca’s prize-winning short was infinitely better than the turgid, endlessly tedious and waaaaay too long feature it eventually morphed into. But hey, it helped launch his career.

    It might have launched more than one career, actually. As a teenager watching the local PBS station one night back in the Cathode Ray Gun days of three networks and public television, I saw THX 1138 4 EB (hmmm… I never knew about the “Electronic Labyrinth” part of the title) along with several other student films, and it made a huge impression on me. Before that night, the notion of making films or working in Hollywood was the furthest thing from my mind, and although I didn’t immediately set my course for Hollywood, that little film stuck in my head and — like a North Star of sorts — served as a guiding light when that’s exactly what I needed.

    No doubt George would be so proud to know he unwittingly sparked the future career of a juicer…

    As for Lucas, next came “American Graffitti,” which was terrific in its time — and allowed us all to forget about his previous effort, a grim and lamentably boring vision of our future.

  3. I guest lecture at several film schools and universities, and have acted as senior advisor on many student films, even two student features.. My imdb is vast and I belong to the PGA. So this is my experience based on 40 years mentoring lecturing and producing film production. A student film is a step on a career ladder. Hopefully if will get you a directing gig, into a fellowship, into a program etc etc..but I don not know of a single student film that was opted for a feature..

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