How to get practical film experience as a film major

The following piece is an ad-ed—that is, an advice editorial. Somewhat similar to op-eds, ad-eds are articles submitted by knowledgeable members of the CU community. They aim to offer advice, information, and expertise in subjects to help you navigate niche pathways at Barnumbia. Have advice worth sharing? Email

If you’re a prospective or current film major at Columbia, you’re probably aware of the side-world within Dodge Hall known as the Columbia University film department. Replete with crazy hairdos, old people, and foreign students, the Columbia Graduate Film School may feel like another planet. Consequently, for the prospective undergraduate student, navigating the undergraduate film degree can sometimes feel like making your way around Mars.

While the film program has an incredible faculty and array of resources, it can all be overwhelming to the newcomer. Which are the best classes to take? Will this degree get me a (well-paying) job as a filmmaker? When, if ever, will I meet Steven Spielberg?

I’m a junior, and this is my third year in the film program, having (so far) made it  halfway through the jungle of obtaining a degree. For the film majors at Columbia, here’s my advice...

1. Gain practical experience through outside student productions.

The first thing you notice about the undergraduate film program is that it’s very theoretical. In fact, aside from a few practical “labs,” the requirements of the film major revolve around classes on the history and philosophy of film. If you wanted to study film at Columbia to make films, you’re going to have to look elsewhere for that hands-on experience. Fortunately, there is no shortage of opportunities to gain practical experience outside of class.

Columbia University Film Productions is a student-run organization and resource for undergraduate filmakers. It promotes and provides filmmaking opportunities on campus and in the city via email and Facebook so you can network and get real on-set experience. The group also has training workshops, meet and greets, and panels every semester. It also hosts an annual undergraduate film festival, and allows students to check kit out of its equipment closet for free.

Another student group,Columbia University Sketch Show, produces weekly video content, entirely written, shot, and edited by students. Like CUFP, CUSS is another great opportunity to do some real hands-on work with other Columbia students.

@CU Sketch Show / via YouTube

2. Work hard on the theory—it’s still important.

Although the theoretical side of film might seem dull and unimportant, a good understanding and knowledge of film history and philosophy is paramount to being a good filmmaker. See how Tarantino or Spielberg talk about film. Then, emulate. (Or, at least, try to.)

The masters live and breathe their craft. They know everything about it, which allows them to create works that not only move us emotionally, but also push the barrier creatively. Anyone can operate a camera, but knowing how to move and direct it in a certain way that will make an audience shed a tear? Study hard, because that’s what will make you a true filmmaker.

@tutorstream / via Instagram

3. Figure out a career path; paying the bills is important, too.

Here’s a depressing reality check: You’ve followed all of this advice, but it is still very unlikely that your five-minute existential short film shot from your Wien double will land you a six-figure deal.

Scarily enough, the chances that you’ll land in the industry and make a decent living are terrifyingly low. Most big-time filmmakers really don’t make it until they’re in their 30s and 40s (i.e., until they’re old). They need the experience and maturity to make something people actually want to see.

So, then, how are you going to be an adult and pay the bills for the next 20 years of your life? It’s important to understand what your options are as a filmmaker and the type of career path you can follow. There are three main paths you can follow once you graduate.

4. Work in the business side of filmmaking.

As a Columbia graduate, you’re hot property in the management side of the film industry. People see the Columbia brand and assume that if you have what it takes to pass Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilizations, you must be able to handle the logistics and finances of a film. (We won’t discuss whether the former part of this statement is true.)

This means you can get a job working in the development side of a film production company. You can handle marketing, reading scripts, or working on financing. It would be advisable to take a few econ and business classes at Columbia to ensure a smooth transition into the business side of the industry.

5. Enter the commercial/corporate film industry.

If you would rather make your living through your creative craft, an easier industry to break into is the commercial/corporate film industry. In this industry, you’ll be required to create TV and web commercials for advertising agencies. Maybe it’s not the creative outlet that you eventually hope to settle into, but it pays the bills.

For this career path, I’d recommend making some ads for student groups on campus in order to develop a reel that will allow you to land a job at a production company when you graduate.

6. Videojournalism.

Finally, another way to use your video-creating skills after graduation is by creating news pieces, also known as videojournalism. Especially since many print publications have moved primarily to the web, there are heaps of opportunities to make journalistic pieces for companies ranging from BuzzFeed to the New York Times.

To best prepare yourself for this, I would suggest building your documentary-style work, maybe (shameless plug) at a certain publication called Spec.

HLAB LEON WU 1 from Leon Wu on Vimeo.

The Columbia undergraduate film program is rewarding and resourceful, just so long as you understand its strengths and limitations. It truly boasts an incredible faculty, and the network of other film students at your fingertips is inspiring. Knowing how you can use these resources in combination with resources outside of the program will allow you to not only have a successful film career, but also possibly have the time of your life.

Now that you know what you’re facing, it’s time to start shooting. Lights, camera, action.

Leon Wu is a Columbia College junior majoring in film and anthropology. His favorite movie is The Parent Trap, starring Lindsay Lohan. Email Spectrum deputy editor, to respond to this advice editorial.

Updated: Tuesday September 27, 2016. 6:56 p.m. The original article incorrectly stated that Columbia University Film Productions paired graduate and undergraduate filmmakers. Spectrum regrets the error.


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