The global film industry is an economic powerhouse generating $88.3 billion in revenue in 2015 alone, yet demand for the art continues to grow. A study by The Harris Poll found that 68 percent of Americans attended a movie screening in 2013, while Netflix memberships jumped from 31 million to 43 million between 2014 and 2016. This trend brings new opportunities to aspiring directors, cinematographers and other filmmaking professionals. The following guide highlights what it takes to break into the cinematic world by outlining the different educational paths available to prospective students.

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Film Careers At-a-Glance

Cinematographers, producers, editors, screenwriters, directors, videographers and the myriad of other film professionals work in a creative and adventurous field. It can take years of study and experience to break into the film industry and cinch a professional title. Aspiring film pros must have an unrelenting passion for all that comes with filmmaking and a willingness to take on virtually any related role that comes their way, at least until they make it. Because the industry is so dynamic, people with diverse interests and passions can find positions matched to their skills and future goals.

Film Careers In-Depth

Individuals seeking a standard nine to five job with no surprises should probably look elsewhere than the film industry. Film careers can be anything but routine, so are best suited to people who want changeable work outside the confines of an office. One might shoot on location in Berlin at 4:00 a.m., or spend the weekend writing a script. Whatever the role, jobs in the film industry are largely filled by creative and visionary people with a passion for storytelling, human emotions and beautiful moving images.

Steps to Going to Film School &
Pursuing a Film Career in Cinematography

1
Gain Experience in High School

Many leading filmmakers say their enduring and unerring passion for cinematography started at a young age, as did their work. Whether making short films with friends and classmates or filming high school events, experience counts for everything in this industry. Even films created on a smartphone and edited on a laptop can convey your raw talent and eye for cinematography.

2
Pursue a Degree in Film or Cinema Studies

Degrees are rarely an absolute requirement in cinematography since the industry relies so much on creativity and experience. That being said, a degree can help fill in the gaps where creativity and vision fall short, specifically when it comes to technical skills and understanding the history of filmmaking. Film school also gives students access to expensive cameras, digital editing software and other tools they’ll use in a professional role.

Individuals who see the value in pursuing a film degree should do so with a sense of purpose. Rather than simply attending classes and completing assignments, consistently look for extracurricular opportunities to learn; you could, for instance, study abroad in an area known for filmmaking, or create promotional materials for your school.

3
Complete Fieldwork or an Internship

Most film programs require students to complete some type of experiential learning component such as fieldwork or an internship. While some regions offer students many hands-on opportunities in their backyards, others might complete summer internships in a different state where filmmakers are more concentrated, such as California or New York. Regardless of where you choose to undertake this component, use it as an opportunity to grow in your craft and meet professionals in the industry.

4
Keep Working on Your Portfolio

While most industries require new graduates to pay their dues before gaining their first meaningful position, this is especially true in filmmaking. This is a highly competitive field requiring much expertise; individuals who expect to be lead scriptwriters or assistant producers within a few years of graduating often burn out and pursue other work before ever getting their first big break. Rather than focusing on titles at this stage, film students should seek out opportunities to build their portfolios and develop in-demand skills.

5
Network in the Industry

Like many creative fields, landing cinematography jobs is often a factor of experience and who one knows. Unlike traditional industries where jobs are posted on career boards, roles for cinematographers are frequently filled through word of mouth or existing relationships with professionals working in film. Film students and graduates should meet g as many industry colleagues as possible, be it through a minimum wage assistant role, a volunteer position or by attending events sponsored by professional associations in the industry.

What Film Programs and Degrees Are Available?

Matching Film School Degrees with Career Goals

Career Goals & Educational Needs Associate Bachelor’s Master’s Online
I’ve made a few films by myself using basic software and want to learn more about the process, but I am not sure if I want to pursue film as a career.
I’ve been passionate about cinematography for a long time and have some practical experience. I’d like to develop more technical expertise while refining the real-world skills I’ve gained.
I’ve worked in the film industry for a while and enjoy all that comes with creating moving pictures. Still, the life can be a bit hectic. I’d like to transition into a senior-level role that allows for more stability.
I’m currently working on my own film project, but find I’m missing technical skills that would really improve the finished product. I need one or two classes to really hone my knowledge of filmmaking.

Degrees from Film School

Many traditional colleges and universities offer degrees in film, cinema studies or related topics, and at several different levels. Which degrees students should pursue depends on their interests and ultimate career goals. Review the array of degrees available below.

Associate Degree in Film Studies

Associate degrees in film teach students the fundamentals of production and cinematography through a variety of classes, workshops and field trips. They study history of moving pictures and the art of storytelling and screenwriting. Students interested in entry-level roles as production assistants often hold associate-level degrees. Common courses include:

Intro to Cinematography

This course teaches students all that goes into making a successful film, including casting, film locations, direction, editing and sound. Studied projects range from documentaries and shorts to dramas and experimental cinema.

Skills Gained
  • Awareness of different types of films
  • Understanding of the major components comprising a film
  • Ability to analyze film aesthetics
Film Eras

Starting with silent films and moving into the 21st century, Film Eras provides students the opportunity to see how moving picture content, production and styles evolved throughout the decades. Students will also consider the cultural, political and social factors at work during different eras.

Skills Gained
  • Knowledge of the history of filmmaking
  • Ability to articulate how films have changed throughout time
  • Understanding of how outside forces can affect the tone and message of a film
Screenwriting Basics

Even if a student already enjoys writing, screenwriting is a significantly different form of artistic expression. This class reviews the principles of ancient theatre before moving into a study of past and present dramatic writing. Students discuss what makes a good story before learning how to present it in script form.

Skills Gained
  • Awareness of the foundations of screenwriting
  • Ability to start with a story and end with a screenplay
  • Understanding of how different genres require different forms of writing

Bachelor’s Degree in Cinema Studies

Typically offered as a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Fine Arts, undergraduate degrees in cinema studies survey cinematographic topics while delivering a liberal arts underpinning that helps students think about historical, cultural, societal and political forces at work in filmmaking. Individuals who graduate from these programs could become screenwriters, producers, lighting directors and scenery supervisors, among other roles. Common courses include:

The Director’s Chair

This course exposes students the works of renowned directors–such as Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock or Wes Anderson–and asks them to consider each professional’s historical period, reception and legacy.

Skills Gained
  • Awareness of leading film directors from different eras
  • Ability to articulate how each produced a unique body of work
  • Understanding of the lifespan and evolution of each director’s films
Contemporary Cinema

While students complete some coursework during this class, the main focus is on watching contemporary films as a cohort to discuss themes, outside forces, art direction, production techniques and actors’ performances.

Skills Gained
  • Ability to identify different modalities used in films
  • Ability to articulate viewpoints about different artistic directions used in films
  • Understanding of how contemporary cinema differs from previous eras
Acting and Directing

This highly interactive class helps aspiring actors or directors learn the tricks of the trade. Actors are encouraged to listen to directors’ cues while directors are given tools to effectively communicate their character visions with actors. Coursework and in-class workshops are incorporated.

Skills Gained
  • Understanding of the relationship between actors and directors
  • Knowing how monologues and dialogues are used differently in films
  • Ability to take or give direction for a scene

Master’s Degree in Film Studies

Master’s degrees in film or film-related topics are ideal for the most dedicated students and for seasoned professionals who want to refine their knowledge and skills. Programs are often offered as a Master of Arts or a Master of Fine Arts and continue to impress upon students the importance of understanding film and cinematography as an art form. The theories and philosophies behind film production take center stage, and students conduct independent research about the emotions and passions that drive a masterful film. Common courses include:

Documentary Production

This course introduces students to all that goes into planning, shooting, directing and producing documentary films across various media. Students often work in teams to create their own short documentaries.

Skills Gained
  • Ability to plan for and produce a short documentary
  • Understanding of how filming a documentary differs from other forms of cinema
  • Completion of short documentary for portfolio
Advanced Script Editing

Editing a script can sometimes feel even more laborious – especially when it’s your own. Advanced Script Editing teaches students about style and narration, and how lines are written versus spoken. Students workshop their own scripts and provide feedback to peers.

Skills Gained
  • Knowing how to properly craft a story for cinema
  • Understanding different editing tools and how to judiciously rework a story
  • Ability to communicate the strengths and weaknesses of a script
Commercial Production

This course introduces students to certain types of recorded video, including commercials and promotional materials. Students learn about the different forms of media that support these productions while gaining valuable marketing skills.

Skills Gained
  • Ability to create content based on client needs
  • Understanding how commercial productions differ from other types of cinematography
  • Knowing how to work with different teams to create a product that satisfies the needs of multiple stakeholders

PhD Degree in Cinema Studies

While no job in film or media production requires a PhD, doctorate programs may appeal to students who wish to research film or teach postsecondary courses. PhD candidates focus on the historical and philosophical currents running through the art form while delving deeply into film theory and the social, cultural, political and socioeconomic meanings that define various works. Doctoral film programs often require extensive independent research and a sizable dissertation on a specialized topic. Common courses include:

Film and the Senses

This course examines the aesthetic, psychological and social factors at work in film via numerous theoretical frameworks. Students are asked to think about how the five senses shape the interaction between the screen and the spectator, and what those interactions can teach them.

Skills Gained
  • Understanding how the five senses are used when engaging with a cinematic production
  • Ability to use theory to better understand motivations and underlying factors in a film
  • Awareness of different theories and methodologies behind film research
Curation of Moving Images

Whether addressing the environment in which an audience is exposed to a moving image or discussing how to archive, preserve, or restore existing footage, this course examines the many different types of curation at play in the film industry. Students are asked to think in broad strokes before discussing individual methods of curation.

Skills Gained
  • Understanding the many different contexts for curation
  • Ability to curate films and moving images based on context and usage
  • Knowing different methods for film preservation and restoration.
Chinese Cinema as History

This is one of many courses available that closely examines a particular country’s or culture’s filmmaking traditions. By studying international cinema individually, students are able to compare and contrast how different parts of the world use film to explore their humanity.

Skills Gained
  • Awareness of different cinematographic traditions around the globe
  • Ability to articulate the similarities and differences between world cinema
  • Understanding how cultures and tradition influence a country’s cinematic body of work

Career Paths in Film

Filmmaking, and the careers associated with it, exists in a place where the creativity inherent in fine, popular, and commercial artistry intersects with the latest developments in technology. Historically, the art of filmmaking involved huge capital investments because the technology itself was expensive, and thus rested in the hands of big Hollywood studios and production houses. However, as technology has evolved, filmmaking has become much more accessible. Digital cameras, desktop editing software, and the proliferation of online video streaming services are just some of the developments that have helped to decentralize the industry, and to open it up to new possibilities.

Careers in film offer prospects for the artistically gifted, the technologically savvy, and the entrepreneurially inclined to enter a dynamic and challenging field in which new opportunities are opening every day. Take a closer look at some of the familiar careers in film.

Film/Video Director

The director of a film or video project is the person at the helm of the project, the individual whose creative vision ultimately determines the direction of the project from start to finish. It’s the director’s responsibility to corral all of the other members of the production crew, to coordinate their activities, and to oversee the day-to-day work of creating the film, with one eye on the camera and the other on the budget. A good director has that rare combination of organizational and communications skills, technical filmmaking knowledge, and a well-defined aesthetic sensibility.

Education Requirements

There are very few absolute educational requirements for most careers in film, and it’s theoretically possible to learn much of what a director knows through apprenticing and trail and error. However, a BFA or an MFA in filmmaking from a well-established program, along with some on-the-job experience, is generally thought to be the best way to acquire the combination of artistic, technical, and organizational communications skills necessary to succeed as a director.

Film/Video Producer

The standard Hollywood filmmaking model begins and ends with a producer, who finds a promising script, recruits a director, perhaps cajoles several key actors into signing onto the project, and then raises the money to get the film made. In that sense, the job of the producer was to overcome all potential obstacles and contingencies in and effort to get the film done on time and on budget, while providing the director and his or her staff with the resources, motivation, and support to accomplish all of that. However, producers can play many different roles, from simply raising money, to attending to the various off-set logistical issues that a part of filmmaking, to participating with the director or even as the director in the creative process of bringing the project to life.

Education Requirements

Because there are no clearly defined parameters for what a producer can or cannot do, there is no firm educational requirement for the job. Producers may have a background in film in the form of a BFA or an MFA from a filmmaking school, or a business or management degree from an undergraduate or graduate school program. But, producers are essentially the self-made entrepreneurs of filmmaking, which doesn’t require a degree so much as an ability to understand the challenges inherent in making films.

Actor

Actors may have the most clearly defined and wide ranging roles in the realm of filmmaking. They are, quite simply, the on-screen talent, the people who read the lines, portray the characters, and inhabit the roles that are laid out in the script as instructed by the director. There are lead actors, supporting actors, character actors, and extras, all of which have designated parts to play in a film project.

Education Requirement

There are no educational prerequisites for becoming an actor. Some actors begin their careers as children. Others work their way up through small roles in commercials and as extras. Professional actors often do have some kind of formal training, through an acting school or a undergraduate program with a drama department. In such case, a BA or BFA is fairly typical.

Screenwriter

Screenwriters create treatments and scripts that, if all goes well, find their way into the hands of producers and directors willing to turn their ideas into films. In that sense, they are the novelists, short story writers, and playwrights of the film world, crafting compelling narratives in a form is designed to be acted out on film. Screenwriters may also be hired by producers and/or directors to provide rewrites to existing scripts, to add additional dialogue to specific scenes, or to flesh out someone else’s idea.

Education Requirements

Just as there are no firm educational requirements to becoming a published author, screenwriters need only to excel at writing for the screen to be successful in the field. That said, most screenwriters have some kind of formal training in creative writing, dramatic writing, or in screenwriting itself, from an undergraduate or a master’s degree program.

Film/Video Editor

Traditionally, film editors have been post-production specialists who primary job is to work with the director to realize his or her creative vision after the film has been shot, through cutting and pasting together the best footage and leaving the rest on the proverbial cutting room floor. The emergence of digital editing software that is fast, portable, and powerful in its applications has changed the nature of film editing. Now, it’s possible for film editors to be on set, editing footage very nearly in real time in preparation for the final, end-of-shoot edit, when music and other sound effects may be added.

Education Requirements

Film and video editing requires a solid base of technical knowledge, along with an artistic sensibility that takes into account narrative rhythms and plot structures. So, while a good show reel — the film editor equivalent of an artist portfolio — is the main requirement to get hired, the skills and training necessary to work as a film editor generally require at least a bachelor’s degree from a film program.

Casting Directors

Producers and directors may have a lot to say about who gets the staring roles in big-budget films, but it’s the job of the casting director to pull together the complete cast for most films. Working in concert with the director and perhaps a producer and/or a screenwriter, the casting director puts out a call for talent, pre-screens that talent, and then sets up and oversees auditions, on the way to selecting the best cast, with or without the assistance of a director or a producer.

Education Requirements

There are no formal educational requirements for casting directors. The skills the job requires revolve around communications, organization, and intangibles like instinct and intuitiveness. It’s not uncommon for casting directors to come out of film school undergraduate programs, or to start in theater or television, before moving into film casting.

Set Designer

Some films are shot on location, and some on pre-constructed sets. But, in most cases, some degree of set design is necessary, whether its building or removing a wall or a doorway from an existing room, or constructing an elaborate artificial environment in which filming will take place. A set designer works with the directors to help realize the full vision of a film, creating drawing and mock-ups that can then be turned into complete structures for the actual filming.

Education Requirements

As with most careers in film, there are no absolute educational requirements to become a set designer. There are, however, a number of skills required for the job: Set designers may have drawing and drafting skills; they may be adept at digital design; they must be familiar with construction materials; and, like many in the film industry, they should be good at interpersonal communications. It’s not uncommon for set designers to come out of film schools or design programs at art schools.

Cinematographer

The cinematographer, also often called a director of photography or DP for short, is often the person entrusted by the director to stand behind the camera and take the actual shots. On bigger shoots, the cinematographer may be tasked with coordinating a larger group of camera operators, lighting technicians, and other essential personnel. So, typically, the DP or cinematographer is essentially the director’s right-hand man or woman, a technically proficient camera specialist who shares the director’s artistic vision and brings his or her own creativity to the job as well.

Education Requirements

Like directors, cinematographers/DPs generally need to have the combination of technical know-how and artistic vision that a BFA or an MFA from a quality film program can provide. This is not an absolute requirement, and much of what cinematographers do can be learned in apprenticeship role, as a camera operator and an assistant director of photography.

Components of a Successful Film Career: Skills, Tools, and Technology

Skills

Because there are so many different kinds of careers in film, there isn’t any one particular skill set that covers each and every job description. Cinematographers, videographers, and other camera operators need to be detail oriented. The require good visual acumen and hand-eye coordination, as well as the communication and interpersonal skills necessary to work with directors, producers, actors, and the other members of a film production crew. Producers and directors need to develop solid leadership and organizational skills, to go along with a creative vision and technical knowledge of filmmaking. Screenwriters benefit from having well developed social perceptiveness, to go along with the creativity and literary abilities required to be a writer. And, actors can benefit from a variety of abilities, including reading and public speaking skills, physical and mental stamina, and the same kind of attunement with social interactions that is a help to screenwriters.

Tools and Technology

The tools and technology used in filmmaking vary great depending upon the specific job description. Casting directors may have to maintain and access databases of actors, and be proficient in performing online searches. Music consultants and supervisors, whose job it is to put together soundtracks and other musical accompaniments to films, need to have a high-level working knowledge of copyright laws, fair use, royalties, publishing, and other legal issues involved in securing music for films. Lighting and set designers, as well as artistic directors, work with particular equipment that is unique their jobs. And, directors and producers may or may not require a working knowledge of how to operate camera, lighting, and audio equipment, although it can be a distinct advantage. Below are a number of tools and technological assets that are commonly used in filmmaking, and that can be helpful to those seeking to pursue a career in film.

Graphics and Photo Editing Software

including Adobe Systems Adobe After Effects and Photoshop.

Sound Editing Software

like Adobe Systems Adobe Audition, Avid Audio Pro Tools, Sony Sound Forge software, and Sony Vegas Pro.

Video Editing Software

including Apple Final Cut Pro and Avid Media Composer.

Camera Equipment

including robotic camera controllers, electronic viewfinders, and Canon and GoPro HD professional cameras.

Audio and Lighting Equipment

including control and mixing boards.

Desktop Design and Publishing Software

like Adobe InDesign and Quark.

Graphics Software

like Adobe Illustrator, ImageReady, and Photoshop.

Audio/Visual Equipment

including microphones, digital mixers, lens filters, noise reduction systems, and special effects equipment.

Film Career Salaries

The range of likely salaries in a field like filmmaking ranges widely, depending on a person’s talent level, experience, and a host of intangibles that some would consider the equivalent of plain of luck. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does maintain data for a number of professions related to the film industry, and the chart below offers a glimpse of what’s typical in terms of salary, job growth, and entry level education in the these careers.

$84,380 Actors
$80,880 Art Directors
$71,350 Producers and Directors
$62,860 Fashion Designers
$61,370 Multimedia Artists and Animators
$55,940 Writers and Authors
$46,280 Film and Video Editors and Camera Operators
$44,150 Graphic Designers
$41,200 Broadcast and Sound Engineers and Technicians

Source: BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/home.htm

Job Growth, Prospects, and Outlook for Careers in Film

The global film industry is a behemoth, with lucrative tentacles reaching far and wide in many different directions. To put the scale of the film industry in perspective, the Motion Picture Association of America reported that profits were up a mere 1 percent in 2014 global box office revenues from the year before, but that number was $36.4 billion. In keeping with that, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2012 Occupational Outlook Handbook projected modest growth in the range of 3-5 percent for most film professions through the year 2022, slower than the national average of 11-12 percent for all professions, but still respectable.

What Do Related Occupations Make?

The film business is considered to be part of the larger entertainment industry, which includes television, music, video games, and other cultural sectors of the economy. It’s also closely related to the telecom industry, through its use of communications technologies and digital platforms like cable television, Internet streaming, and mobile device applications. To get a sense of what careers in these related fields earn, take a look at the BLS data for median salaries in the graphic below.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statists, 2014 Occupational Employment Statistics

Related Occupations: What You Need to Know

To put careers in film into a broader perspective, we’ve surveyed a number of occupations that are broadly related in terms of bringing together creativity and technical know-how. Below is Bureau of Labor Statistics data on average salaries in related professions, along with project job growth and entry-level educational requirements.

Film School & Career Resources

Directors’ Guild of America

The DGA is the leading membership organization for those working in the field or actively training to become directors.

International Documentary Association

Students who want to work specifically in the creation of documentary filmmaking can find many resources and benefits from membership with the IDA.

The American Society of Cinematographers

This membership based society provides numerous benefits for cinematographers, including students aspiring to work in the field.

The International Screenwriters’ Association

Whether seeing specific classes to hone skills or job opportunities, the ISA is a valuable resource for screenwriters across the globe.

University Film and Video Association

The UFVA is made up of filmmakers and artists studying or working in the industry. Members may be teachers, students, directors, screenwriters or other cinematographic professionals.