Film Fund-amentals: The Online Film School Biz

As I remember it, film school was a unique experience. I got to meet and work with people based upon a shared interest. Got to see lots of movies. Received hands-on experience with an extensive range of extremely expensive equipment. If it hadn’t been for all of the boring academic stuff, it would have been totally fantastic.

Most important was the direct engagement with the material. Film is all about the material (cameras, lights, editing, etc.), and you only learn how to do it by actually just doing it. The quality of this direct experience is the primarily reason for any film school to exist. Or at least that is what I thought until I stumbled into the world of online film schools.

Thanks to an e-mail I received from American Cinematographer magazine (and it should be noted that the ASC does not endorse the ads they send out to their subscribers – they just hawk the stuff for money), I can sign up with Full Sail University to receive a master’s degree in a wide variety of film pursuits. I don’t even have to go to their campus in Florida. I can sit on my butt at home and tap away at the keyboard. Why, this is almost better than free pizza!

Unfortunately, there isn’t exactly any such thing as free pizza, and the whole concept of online film school strikes me as a tad contradictory. Certainly you can learn some aspects of the craft, but it’s going to be a bit like learning how to drive a car by watching some videos. The only real test is getting behind the wheel and hitting the road.

There are some pretty significant institutions moving in this direction (for example UCLA). Likewise, the steady shift toward digital production makes online education more feasible. Of course, the online student will be taking on the major cost of necessary equipment and software, but production can now be done this way. Well, more or less. As with any form of online training or education, the degree of drive and discipline brought to the process by the student becomes supremely important (I suspect more so than in an actual classroom).

So some online film schools are totally legitimate. Likewise, some are not. And some float in a gray zone in between. If you’re thinking of pursuing an online course, you probably should start by reviewing the basics at, which provides a quick check list of things to look for in case the setup is fraudulent. One of the first things you need to check for is accreditation. I mean real accreditation as listed by the US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. If the online school is not accredited, skip it. But even if it is, check out what form of accreditation they offer. Full Sail University is accredited, but only as a 2-year vocational school, and their accreditation is not accepted by virtually any 4-year university in the country. So basically, their degrees are pretty useless (though I’m sure they look real nice on the wall).

The rest of the warning signs listed by eHow have to do with money. How hard is the online institute hustling for the dough? To be honest, all colleges and universities are a form of business. But is the Joe Cool School of Film Auteurship calling you every day for your credit card number? For that matter, is their financial aid office also working as a collection agency, bail bondsman and bookmaker at the same time? And why are they so interested in whether or not you have the title to your car?

As always, you should extensively research the school. For example, you might be looking at the Vancouver Film School. A quick search through Google turns up many informative links about it. Of course, if you also type in the name and the phrase “online film school scams,” you get an absolutely fascinating read at What you will learn is that the Vancouver Film School is not by any means a scam. But it sure has some pretty pissed off former students (and I should add that this will be true with many schools out there. I should know. I went to Ohio University, where we made an art form out of being pissed off).

There are many web sites you should start with in order to gather primary information, such as and Film School Exposed. Once you locate some institutions you might be interested in, run their name through every search engine known. Look for good as well as negative postings about the school. Compare notes. To be really certain, run a search combining the institutes’s name and the word “scam.” The results are sometimes very enlightening. Do all of this before you even contact the institute.

When you contact the school, find out the costs. Any legitimate school will give you the standard figures (tuition and basic estimates of standard costs regarding equipment and/or software you will need for the program). There should be no hidden costs. The minute that appears, pull out. Likewise, they should be able to assist and advise you on the various approaches available for financial aid. I mean real financial aid for education, not some dubious plan to simply put you in hock to the “school.”

Fortunately, you won’t need to know anything about dress policy and you will basically be in charge of your own code of student conduct. Count your blessings. In my day, you had to go to grad school for that taste of freedom.