Ten Tips for Choosing the Right Film School Project

by Ken Aguado

It’s the perennial film student dilemma: “What should I make?” If you find this question daunting, just know that by asking this question you are already taking a step into a bigger world because this is the exact same question entertainment and media professionals face every day.

Film students have diverse career goals. They want to be writers, directors, cinematographers, production designers, editors, sound mixers, animators, work in film, work in TV, work in commercials, work in documentaries, and so on. And some students may end up in a related career they didn’t foresee while in film school. Maybe a few will start in the executive ranks, where I got my foot in the door. As a result, the answer to the question, “What you should I make?” depends on the context of the individual student and it’s unlikely that every suggestion below will fit every student’s ambitions.

If you polled entertainment professionals and asked them the key to success for student filmmakers, the top answer might be something like, “Do great work.” I agree, but that’s not very practical advice. So, the goal of this article is to come up with a few specific tips that might be more helpful when building your student portfolio. Indeed, this article is specifically intended for students who want to create a film school portfolio as part of a marketable résumé. This is an important qualifier.

So, here’s the short answer: If you want your portfolio to help you get work, the portfolio you create must be both very good but also something that a potential employer (or financier) can reasonably extrapolate to the work they create. This means if you want to work in film or television you might need to create a substantial narrative work of greater length. If you want to work in commercials, you may need to create something that demonstrates you understand the needs of sponsors and how a product/brand is sold, and so on. On the other hand, if your student project is an experimental film about the color red, don’t be surprised if the only job you can get is in sales at Sherwin-Williams.

With that in mind, here are my top ten tips.

1. Stop thinking of yourself as just a film student and start thinking of yourself as an entertainment professional. This means making your choices based on considerations of the marketplace, your artistic “brand,” and so on. Of course, this also means becoming fluent in the area of media you want to be part of and staying abreast of news, trends, and related industry information.

2. Try to imagine what you would do if you wanted to sell your student work. What might you create that someone would be willing to pay for? Or, if no one will pay, what might they really want to watch. Even if this is just a thought experiment for you, it may open your mind to a new way of approaching your art. And let’s face it, once you leave film school, you may need to sell your work to make a living, so start thinking about it now.

3. Have passion for your art but know what you’re good at and understand your limitations. Just because you love something doesn’t mean it will be the thing you’re best at doing. You might love crime thrillers but find you are best at romantic comedy. If you’re a director but not a good writer, find someone who is a good writer. You don’t need to produce what you direct. You don’t need to edit what you direct. Not every writer can be a director. And so on. Sometimes artists will flounder for years before they find their creative groove. The sooner you know what you’re good at, the sooner you can make productive choices about what to create.

4. Try to work in a subject matter for which you have an authentic affinity. The old adage is “write what you know,” but that can be misleading. For example, you don’t need to be astronaut to create a work set in space. That’s what research is for. You can learn all kinds of things about a topic. Rather, in whatever creative space you work, try to bring something you understand intimately and expertly about the topic, the characters, the world, etc. Be the expert in that! In addition to your technical expertise, this authentic affinity is what employers are buying when they hire you as an artist.

5. Find your “voice” as an artist. This is related to #4, above. An artistic voice is a unique perspective or world-view about, well, anything. It’s the thing that makes a Joss Whedon script different from a Cameron Crowe script. It’s what makes Roger Deakins photography different from Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s work. It’s what makes the Coen brother’s directing different from Clint Eastwood’s. Typically, your artistic “voice” develops as you gain life-experience, wisdom, and as you develop a body of works. Think about the significant experiences you’ve had in life (brief as it’s been, at this point), then think about what that’s taught you and find a way to make it front and center in the work you create.

6. Be realistic about your project ambitions. Conceive the scope of your project based on your ability and means to execute it. For example, if you can only afford one day of shooting, and only one location, your film is more likely to be two-character drama or comedy than action-adventure. Also, for short films, limit yourself to a 10-page script or less. In most cases it’s better to create a less ambitious project that you can make great than an overly ambitious project that never gets finished, or forces you to make painful compromises to complete. That said, having ambition as an artist is a good thing!

7. If your goal is to get your student work widely-viewed by the public, try to conceive/create your project in a way that leverages someone or something well-known. For example, if you want to create a music video, start by contacting a recording artist or band with a well-established fan base. (Who knows, maybe they will pay for most or all of the video.) Or, for example, create your project around a famous YouTube celebrity or influencer. Stephen King offers his famous “Dollar Babies” to student filmmakers, and we’ve all heard of him, right? This kind of strategy is used every day in showbiz to attract eyeballs. It can work for you too.

8. Most works running more than 10 seconds will benefit from having a viable narrative, so make sure you have one. In fact, many pros would place “story” at #1 on the list. Unless you’re planning to pull focus for a living, you must know what a good story is, and how to turn a good story into a better story. Every department head is expected to “talk story” and fully understand how the story will affect their contribution to the project. Learning how to make a good project better involves studying why different things work (watch everything) and also listening to the opinions of other people (getting notes or feedback from the people you trust). Herein lies the answer to the question, “Is my work good enough?”

9. The dirty little secret is that 90% of most good work comes from a good story and good casting, so make sure you get these things right. But never undervalue the contribution of a clever concept in your work. Clever ideas can be memorable. The famous HP “Hands” ad campaign was originally inspired by a design student’s video resume. It was a simple but clever idea.

10. Don’t be afraid to explore and try new things. Film school is a time to discover your abilities. Find a creative arena that fits your natural talent and allows you to grow as an artist. Sometimes this means thinking outside the box and outside your comfort zone. There are so many different kinds of media getting made these days. Don’t impose limitations on the path your work might take.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think. Be sure to follow me here on Medium and on Twitter @kaguado.

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