Film School Dropouts: Other Ways to Make it in the Film Industry

film school dropouts

Film school isn’t the only way to find success in the film industry

There is no secret sauce to becoming successful in the film industry.

Traditionally, those with a hankering for being the next George Lucas focus their attention towards the top film schools, where they imagine they’ll learn the ins and outs of the industry both technically and creatively.

That path has worked for many, including directors David Lynch, Ron Howard and Tim Burton.

But it’s not the only path, as proven by this list of top filmmakers who never went to film school.

Wait, what?!

Rock the establishment! No advanced film schooling and they still have food on their plate?! Well, that is, if they move their Oscar’s off the dinner table to make room.

did spike jonze go to film school

Rejected by NYU and UCLA film schools, Spike Jonze found another way in. (Photo Courtesy:

8: Spike Jonze

The 1999 Best Director nominee for Being John Malkovich, was actually rejected by most of the film programs he applied to, including NYU and UCLA. Undaunted, Jonze turned his attention to print media which led to an opportunity to direct a promotional video for a skateboarding company.

The next logical step was music videos where Jonze truly found his vision, turning 4-minute music breaks into entertaining short films, devoid of the standard superficial flare and instead creating something unique with a point of view. (See: Beastie Boys “Sabotage” – pure genius)

Eventually Jonze made his way to the big screen, even without film school, directing such films as Where the Wild Things Are and Adaptation.

7: Sam Raimi

An English major at Michigan State University, Raimi, the acclaimed director of the Spiderman trilogy, never finished even his undergrad degree.

Inspired to make films, Raimi showed some true initiative by dropping out of school and crafting short movies that he could show to potential investors. One of his shorts, Within the Woods brought in $375,000 in new money and became the financing for production of the horror classic The Evil Dead.

Eventually Raimi strayed from the horror genre, and I mean strayed, into the romantic drama For Love of the Game. Thankfully he didn’t stay there for long, although my wife really liked that movie.

6: George A. Romero

If anyone deserves credit for the zombie apocalypse phase today’s production studios seem to be mired in, it may be George A. Romero, the man credited with the cult classic, Night of the Living Dead.

Romero attended Carnegie-Mellon University as an art and drama major, but after graduating found out his true love was in film-making. Without enough money to fund a feature picture, Romero and his partners decided it would be within their budget to create a horror flick.

Little did they know, that shoe-string budget creation would someday end up being acquired by both the Museum of Modern Art and the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Romero stayed in his lane, focused on horror movies for most of his career, but anyone who doubts his impact on film-making hasn’t been watching much TV or movies lately.

Quentin Tarantino Never went to Film School

Video clerks everywhere worship Quentin Tarantino, one of their own who made it big. (Photo Courtesy:

5: Quentin Tarantino

Here’s the misconception about Tarantino; his story of being a video clerk who made it big gives off the impression that he got lucky. He didn’t. He made his own luck, working tirelessly and at times possibly blurring ethical lines in order to crack the film world.

Rather than have a big “nothing” on his resume, he claimed he was in the Jean-Luc Godard movie King Lear…which he was not.

He claimed to be in Night of the Living Dead, as a motorcycle gang member…which he was not.

And finally he’d claim to be a UCLA film student to get interviews with film directors he idolized. You guessed it, he was not.

But, he did write Reservoir Dogs and when it was originally lambasted at the Sundance institute in 1991, he didn’t give up, he made it better. That’s the thing about Tarantino, he has a confidence in his vision and it didn’t come from a diploma.

4: Peter Jackson

The three-time Academy Award winning director has no formal training in film-making, instead learning editing, special effects and directing techniques through trial and error on some really bad horror movies.

Long before The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the New Zealander gained early attention by directing “Splatstick” horror comedies, such as 1987’s Bad Taste. (Raise your hand if this is the first time you’ve heard of this genre.)

Just to make Jackson’s ascension to reputable filmmaker even more unbelievable, Bad Taste was about an alien fast-food chain that was searching for human meat on the menu. Can’t learn that in school!

did james cameron go to film school

Reportedly, James Cameron learned how to operate a camera by taking it apart and figuring it out. (Photo Credit:

3: James Cameron

Talk about finding a way, James Cameron began college as a Physics major, switched to English and then dropped out completely to become a truck driver (which I’m sure made his parents proud).

But this is where he differs from most, he began teaching himself film-making in between routes.

I’d go down to the USC library and pull any thesis that graduate students had written about optical printing, or front screen projection, or dye transfers, anything that related to film technology. That way I could sit down and read it, and if they’d let me photocopy it, I would. If not, I’d make notes.”

In 1977 after watching Star Wars, he gave up the glamorous life of a truck driver and jumped into the film industry, raising money and renting cameras to start filming.

He worked his way up through special effects in various science fiction productions and eventually had his big moment, writing and directing The Terminator.

2: David Fincher

To me, David Fincher is the Chuck Norris of film making (just wait, it’s a compliment).

You know all those one liners espousing the strength and conviction of Chuck Norris, stuff like, “Chuck Norris died 20 years ago, Death just hasn’t built up the courage to tell him yet,” well that’s kind of how I see David Fincher, a visionary legend who appears too cool to even notice.

The current owner of the dark and dramatically stylish genre bypassed formal schooling for on the job training, originally taking a job with Korty Films loading cameras and performing other odd jobs. Later, he was hired by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic where he worked on classics Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and others.

After directing such films as Se7en, Fight Club, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network one thing is for sure – “David Fincher doesn’t call the wrong number, you answer the wrong phone.”

did steven spielberg go to film school

I’m not sure which is more scary, the jean shorts or the big teeth. (Photo Courtesy:

1: Steven Spielberg

Well this is anti-climactic.

There is always this desire to put a surprising ending on an article, but truth is when the movies you have directed have a lifetime gross revenue of $4,155,901,520 (that number starts with a B) and you didn’t go to film school, it’s near impossible to put anyone else on top.

What can you say out of respect to Steven Spielberg other than, every time Jaws or Indiana Jones or Saving Private Ryan come on the TV I stop what I’m doing and I watch.

That may be the best compliment you can give a director, their movies are impossible to flip away from. (Well, except A.I., that was painful)

Key Takeaway from Film School Dropouts:

  • The biggest determining factor of success isn’t money or schooling, its perseverance and self-confidence. That, and working on a few low budget horror films seems to help.
  • Gaining real experience through on the job training can be just as effective as going to film school.
About Brian Clapp

Brian Clapp has worked in the broadcast media for over 14 years as a writer, editor, producer & news director. After beginning his career in Atlanta at CNN/Sports Illustrated, he switched coasts to Seattle to work at Fox Sports Northwest. In 2010, Brian began pursuing a new found passion on the digital media side, launching a successful website and then taking on the role of Director of Content for &

Recently Brian has become addicted to Google+ and LinkedIn so add him to your circles and make him a contact. No seriously, you should.


  1. This article is a great reminder that being a filmmaker is possible with diligence. Brian Clapp dialed the right number. Thanks!


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