How to Become a Film Director Without Going to Film School

Do you dream of calling the shots behind the camera?does the prestige of attending a top-tier film program seem out of reach? I‘m here to tell you that formal training at university film schools is not the be-all-end-all path to success.

As someone who‘s directed over 200 commercials and documentaries without a film degree, I can assure you that strategic self-education combined with relentless drive can propel you towards a thriving directing career.

In this comprehensive guide drawing from my 15 years of experience, I‘ll be sharing:

  • My proven roadmap covering education, experience, portfolio building, networking and continual learning
  • Hard data around film school costs vs opportunities in independent film
  • Insider advice and anecdotes from acclaimed directors like Ava DuVernay, Kevin Smith, and Taika Waititi who skipped film school

If you‘re ready to take charge of yourdirecting destiny without burying yourself in debt, read on.

Should You Go to Film School? Weighing the Tradeoffs

When aspiring directors ask me if film school is necessary, there‘s no universal answer. For some, the structure, network, and resources make sense despite the steep price tag. Many graduates leverage alumni connections to jumpstart careers.

For others, financial realities rule out this path. But independent data shows opportunities abound regardless of your educational background.

Consider these stats:

  • Average 4-year film program tuition: $31,774 per year [Source]
  • Total student debt from film school: Over $120,000 on average [Source]
  • Growth of independent film market share: 20% increase over past 5 years [Source]

Many acclaimed directors never stepped foot into a film classroom, instead building careers through on-the-job training, short films, and strong collaborative networks.

Indie icon Robert Rodriguez famously made his first film El Mariachi for only $7,000. He leveraged its success despite technical limitations, proving that compelling storytelling transcends big budgets. Oscar-winner Ava DuVernay took a similar path working in PR before pivoting to direct acclaimed indie films and Netflix‘s When They See Us.

So while a university pedigree opens some doors, the do-it-yourself approach can pay off with the right vision and work ethic.

Now let‘s explore that roadmap to directing success sans film school.

Gain a Core Foundation with Film Education

There‘s no question hands-on experience is paramount. But before jumping into the director‘s chair, some type of core training will give you a solid base to build from.

You don‘t necessarily need a fancy certificate – even YouTube has great tutorials these days. But seek out structured learning tailored to your schedule and budget.

Useful Options for DIY Film Education

Local Production Workshops

  • Overview: Short 1-5 day intensive classes focused on specific filmmaking skills
  • Benefits: Cheaper and more flexible than semester-long courses
  • Sample topics: Screenwriting fundamentals, camera operations, directing actors, editing techniques
  • Pricing: Ranges from $150-$500 per workshop

Certificate Programs at Public Colleges

  • Overview: Comprehensive 1-2 year filmmaking programs with a practical focus
  • Benefits: Build a well-rounded skillset; cheaper than private film schools
  • Sample curriculum: Storytelling, lighting, audio, post-production, directing
  • Pricing: $3,500-$10,000 total on average

Individual Skill-Specific Classes

  • Overview: À la carte college or community college classes like Intro to Documentary Filmaking
  • Benefits: Only pay for specific skills you need; flexible scheduling
  • Sample topics: Cinematography, editing, documentary directing, screenwriting
  • Pricing: Ranges from $500 – $1,500 per course

This "mix and match" approach to self-education allows you to tailor your training to your talents, weaknesses, and budget. No fluff required.

Emmy-winning director Ava DuVernay took a similar path, gaining hands-on experience in PR and as a movie publicist before making an ambitious mid-career shift into directing. She leveraged short projects and self-education to quickly reinforce her natural storytelling strengths.

“I took the skills and survival techniques that I learned as a publicist and used them to inform how I create images, how I work with the press, how we market and distribute. It was very grassroots.” – Ava DuVernay [Source]

Acquire Invaluable On-Set Experience

Veteran directors will confirm that true directorial skills – working with actors, managing crews, problem-solving in the moment – can only be learned in the trenches.

Wherever possible, immerse yourself in real production environments. Start as a fly on the wall through roles like:

Entry-level Positions to Build Hands-on Skills

Production Assistant

  • Shadow all departments (camera, lighting, art, etc) to understand their roles
  • Log practical hours loading film, setting up gear, running basic errands
  • Attentively observe director interactions/decisions from the sidelines

Second Unit Director

  • Lead filming of supplemental footage like establishing shots or action sequences
  • Make key stylistic and continuity decisions with fewer main cast/key crew
  • Gain experience collaborating with cinematographers and other departments

Assistant Director

  • Provide organizational and logistical support to main director
  • Interface heavily with all department heads to execute directives
  • Opportunity to give creative feedback and weigh in on decisions

Director Mentee

  • Shadow established directors on professional sets
  • Ask thoughtful questions about their process during downtime
  • If possible, meet separately for coffee to pick their brains

Cultivate relationships with working pros who can eventually grant you a shot to co-direct or solo direct a small project. Prove you‘ve got the drive and vision to succeed.

Kevin Smith worked at a convenience store before directing his breakout first film Clerks which he famously shot at the store after hours. It was the hands-on education that ignited his passion for guerilla-style filmmaking against all odds.

“We were convinced we wouldn’t have to go to film school if we made an actual film. So we looked at Clerks as our film school.” – Kevin Smith [Source]

Direct Smaller Projects to Build Your Reel

Think big picture about the career you envision, but start small to stack tangible successes. Identify bite-sized directing opportunities to sharpen your skills:

Potential Early Directing Gigs


  • Pays well; brands embrace new talent
  • Highlights stylistic range in short form storytelling
  • Great portfolio pieces to showcase breadth

Short Films

  • Maximum creativity with less pressure
  • Enter contests and film festivals to gain visibility
  • Demonstrates directing talent on a budget

Music Videos

  • Cool collaborations with musicians
  • Experiment heavily with visuals tied to songs
  • Creativity stands out to potential backers/collaborators

Micro-budget Indie Films

  • Test full narrative arc directing with lean team
  • Emphasize resourcefulness and scrappiness
  • Chance for recognition on film circuit if compelling

Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit, Thor: Ragnarok) leveraged experience directing TV ads along with acclaimed indie films like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople to get noticed by Hollywood execs.

Low-budget directing teaches the flexibility and problem-solving required on bigger sets. It clarifies your voice and builds real-world credibility that money can‘t buy.

Forge Strong Professional Relationships

Even directors with unlimited budgets and staff rely heavily on collaboration. Surround yourself with supportive peers who complement your skills and fill project needs.

These connections stem from actually working on sets vs mingling over lobster rolls at film school mixers. Still, consistently engage with the community by:

Smart Tactics for Expanding Your Network

Join Relevant Film Organizations

  • Build camaraderie through groups like regional film councils and makers clubs
  • Attend new member orientations and free networking events when possible

Follow and Engage Promising Artists on Social Media

  • Shout out inspiring work you see online
  • Reply to posts asking for collaborators if project excites you
  • Avoid spamming people with generic connection requests

Attend Film Festivals and Conferences

  • Initiate organic conversations in common spaces like concession lines
  • After screenings/panels, share quick compliments but don‘t aggressively pitch
  • Collect business cards if someone shows interest in your work

Volunteer on Indie Film or Commercial Sets

  • Meet other passionate cast/crew dedicating free time
  • Bond over shared goal of gaining experience
  • Always reliably show up when committed

Ava DuVernay acknowledges this community-over-competition mentality was crucial in her career ascent:

“I make it my business to reach out, to lend a hand, to offer advice, to make connections between other filmmakers because we‘re stronger together. I know I‘m not supposed to say that because it‘s competition, but it‘s really not.” [Source]

Stay generous, grateful, dependable and momentum will build organically.

Continually Evolve Your Directing Skills

Veteran directors never rest on laurels. Be a lifelong student by:

Actionable Ways to Keep Growing

Voraciously Study Classic and Contemporary Films

  • Break down techniques used by masters like Hitchcock and Scorsese
  • Analyze framing, editing, symbolism – understand why shots communicate effectively
  • Apply admired approaches thoughtfully to develop your style

Stay Current on Advances in Filmmaking Tech and Tools

  • Follow film tech journalists and video production influencers online
  • Read gear review sites like Cinema5D for camera/lens updates
  • Experiment with new software and techniques on personal projects

Define and Refine Your Creative Voice and Niche

  • Determine specific genres or subject matter that lights your spark
  • Embrace themes, stories and styles you connect with most authentically
  • Let this passion permeate all your directorial choices and brand identity

Solicit Constructive Criticism from Trusted Colleagues

  • Ask talented peers to review rough cuts or scripts
  • Probe their feedback about strengths vs room for growth
  • Incorporate improvements proactively into your evolving creative process

Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious, The United States vs Billie Holiday) continues honing his craft, even after decades of acclaim:

“I thought I was special. But I had to start all over again because there was so much more to learn.” – Lee Daniels [Source]

Complacency kills creativity. The learning process fuels growth. Continually challenge yourself.

Conclusion: Forget the Degree – Just Keep Shooting

Pursuing your directorial dreams without formal pedigree may seem daunting. But the do-it-yourself road, while messy and challenging, breeds true resilience.

Arm yourself with fundamental knowledge, get scrappy acquiring practical experience, create short portfolio pieces, surround yourself with collaborators who lift you higher, and never stop cultivating your creative voice.

Chart your own course, stick to the vision that lights you up inside, and don‘t wait for someone else‘s permission. Legendary directors do what they must because no other path feels like living. See you on set!

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