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3 simple ways for students to get ahead in the film industry

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

Prior to joining Thinktown as an Educational Consultant, I worked for a few years in creative development in the Film & Television industry. To land jobs in such a notoriously competitive field, I worked tirelessly to cultivate a handful of skills that helped separate me from the ever-growing crowd of budding creatives. You can read more about my story here. For students interested in the entertainment industry, I highly recommend dedicating your time and energy to three specific activities if you wish to do the same:

Study Storytelling

Story is king in entertainment. It always has been and it always will be. Anyone aspiring to a career in film and/or television must therefore work diligently to familiarize themselves with the basics of storytelling - but more specifically, cinematic storytelling. While film and television are visual mediums, everything you see on screen is first written down on the page.

So, first things first, read. The best way for beginners to acclimate to the rhythm of cinematic storytelling is by reading screenplays. Regardless of where you see yourself landing in the industry, be it a writer, director, actor, producer, or cinematographer, you’ll need to know the basics of screenwriting. Here’s a collection of 50 of the best screenplays to start with.

Additionally, reading some industry-standard books on screenwriting and cinematic storytelling will work wonders in supplementing your study. Story by Robert McKee, The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, and The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri are the heavyweights. But modern works such as Blake Synder's Save the Cat and Jill Chamberlain's The Nutshell Technique are equally deserving of attention.

Now, here's a fun and tremendously powerful exercise to practice with: pick your five favorite movies or television pilots (a “pilot” is the first episode of a television series), then watch each of them at a snail's pace. As you watch, write down what you see happening on screen, preferably in standard screenplay format. Describe the settings, the action, the atmosphere, and the characters’ movements, and transcribe the dialogue word for word.

Once the film or show is over, find a copy of the screenplay (you can find almost all scripts online on websites such as ScriptSlug) and compare your version to what the screenwriter(s) actually wrote. Pay attention to what's similar (and congratulate yourself!), but pay closer attention to what's different to identify areas for improvement.

Learning to read, write, and think in cinematic language is a crucial skill to develop, and there's no better way to do this than by reading and writing scripts. The better you become at telling stories, the more doors you'll see open for you.

Learn to Think Visually

Unlike novelists or poets, filmmakers have an array of unique visual tools at their disposal that enable them to present their visions to audiences directly. When we watch a film or a show, we aren’t required to "translate" the stories in our minds like when we read because movies and television shows visualize characters, settings, and actions for us. Therefore, aspiring industry members need to learn the basics of visual language and foster an understanding of how it enhances storytelling.

The most effective way to acquaint yourself with visual language is to watch the films of the masters. While it's true that art is subjective, great art is empirically good, and over the course of its short history, film has seen several artists establish themselves as particularly deserving of attention, study, and reflection. This list is by no means exhaustive, but by exploring some of these directors, you'll familiarize yourself with the principles of visual language as it relates to cinema - and you'll prepare yourself for the endless discussions of their work in your day-to-day life in the industry!

Some artists to explore are Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Yasujiro Ozu, Larisa Shepitko, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Wong Kar Wai, Agnès Varda, Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Bresson, Stanley Kubrick, Satyajit Ray, Claire Denis, Barry Jenkins, David Lynch, and Steve McQueen.

I also recommend reading The Visual Story by Bruce Block. It's an excellent book on visual theory and a must-read for anyone interested in filmmaking.

Establish an Insider’s Perspective

If you want to enter the entertainment industry, you'll need to be able to speak about it intelligently and thoughtfully. Thankfully, it's easier than ever to keep up with the industry by reading "the trades" (publications covering all of the happenings in film and TV).

Start reading Variety, Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Wrap and follow emerging trends. Pay attention to what buyers are looking for, what types of shows and films are successful, and also which ones are flopping.

Additionally, screenwriter John August's website and the online platform No Film School were great resources for me when I first started exploring the industry, and I highly recommend leveraging each to begin building your foundational knowledge.

Above all, stay curious. Ask a ton of questions, read ferociously, and do whatever you can in your day-to-day life to enrich your worldview. This is an industry built on stories, so don’t close yourself off to them. Have fun with it!

In my next blog post, I will talk about my own experience stepping into the film industry, and what it taught me. Stay tuned!

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