questionmarkI’m currently a grad student at USC film school. Your site was a great help to me in learning how to write screenplays, then applying to and getting into USC.

From the class that graduated with you, either from Stark, production, or writing programs, what percentage in your estimation have gone on to success in the industry? What traits defined those who did from those who didn’t?

And if you post this question, please sign me as…

— Rosebud
Los Angeles

“Success” is a pretty hard term to define when looking at a career.

What’s the measure? Money, credits, awards — or some sort of internal satisfaction index? And perhaps more importantly, what’s the time frame? While some grads are directing $100 million blockbusters within years of graduating, most are happy to keep continuously employed.

Probably the best measure of “making it” is to look at people five years after graduation and see if they’re still working in the industry. Yes, Kathy may have arrived at USC looking to direct, but if she’s now an editor on 24, I’d say she’s doing well. Likewise, Dan may have applied to the Stark program hoping to produce the next Schindler’s List, but now he’s an executive at Warner Bros. So he might still make big Oscar-winning movies, but they won’t have his name on them.

By this metric, from my Stark class of 25 students, more than half are still working in the industry. Some run studios; some run TV shows; some run interference for directors. We were unusally successful right out of the gate,1 but I think there are some general lessons to distill:

  1. You’re not entitled to anything. A film degree is basically worthless. You won’t get recruited, and no one will ever ask to see it.2 An MBA from USC gets you a $100,000 starting salary. A film degree from USC might get you an unpaid internship. All you get out of it is the education, so make sure you’re learning every second of the day.
  2. It’s about the story. No matter whether it’s film, TV, or a 30-second spot, the ability to convey a compelling story in whatever medium is crucial. A director’s reel can have the slickest shots imaginable, but funny comedy or compelling drama is more likely to get him his next job.
  3. Everyone climbs the ladder together. A common misconception is that you need to make friends with people a few steps ahead of you. No. You need a lot of friends doing what you’re doing, and you need to help each other out — with information, with advice, and with manpower while they’re making their sixth short film.
  4. Ask questions. Film school isn’t like other schools. There aren’t many textbooks or exams. Instead, you have smart people who know things, and it’s your job to get the answers you need. Stark has dozens of guest speakers each semester. At first, we’d just ask polite questions about their jobs and the industry. But soon we were asking, “So, what is your life really like? Do you ever see your family? Is it worth it?”
  5. Make your own luck. Sometimes, magic happens and Spielberg likes your wacky short film. But that can’t happen if you didn’t make it in the first place, and the seven others no one saw. You never know which script, which lunch, which random idea is going to be important. So treat them all as important.
  6. It’s not Wall Street. While it seems glamorous and lucrative, if you’re coming to the film industry looking to get rich, you’re wasting your time. While you can get rich, the odds are a lot slimmer than almost any other industry a smart person could choose to work in.

Pushed for a number, I’d guess 30-40% of USC film school grads are actively working in the industry. The people from my program who aren’t are by no means unsuccessful. They each found other careers which suited them — though sometimes, that wasn’t by choice. Hollywood isn’t a perfect meritocracy. Really great people get overlooked, or find their stepping stones sinking into bankruptcy just as everything seems to be coming together. It sucks. Success and circumstance are deeply entangled.

But if you, Rosebud, find your own criteria for what you want to do, and better yet, plan for how you’re going to do it, I don’t think those percentages really apply. If you start each day of school and life with the question, “How am I going to get closer to my goal of…” then you’re unlikely to end up outside looking in.

  1. Michael Cieply wrote a lengthy piece about our class (1994) for the New York Times.
  2. I have no idea where my degree is at this moment.