Article by Ben Feuer, photo by John Brawley

If you want to direct the next big Hollywood blockbuster, how do you get to where you're going?  There's certainly no one size fits all answer, but looking at the ten directors of top grossing films in 2017, it's easy to see their similarities (and differences!)  PS: We're not including animated films, because the business/operational side of animation is so radically different from traditional feature filmmaking.

THE LIST

BILL CONDON (Beauty and the Beast): Columbia University BA. No film school (considered UCLA MFA). Worked in LA as a writer very shortly after graduating.
PATTY JENKINS (Wonder Woman): Cooper Union BA. AFI MFA. Directed well-regarded first feature, "Monster", 3 years after graduating. Lived & worked in LA.
JAMES GUNN (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2): St. Louis U BA, Columbia MFA (prose writing). Worked for Troma as a writer immediately after graduating, first produced movie one year after graduating.
JON WATTS (Spider-Man Homecoming): NYU Film School (degree unclear). Worked as a commercial and music video director for Park Pictures immediately after graduating. Got his first feature made by name-checking Eli Roth in a fancy horror film trailer. Sundance director.
ANDY MUSCHIETTI (It): 40 year old Argentinian director. Film school background unclear. Credited feature directing began at age 25 (approximately).
TAIKA WAITITI COHEN (Thor: Ragnarok): From New Zealand. Victoria University of Wellington UG, drama. Nominated for a short film academy award in 2004 (aged 29). Sundance director 2x. Top grossing filmmaker in New Zealand 2x.
JAMES MANGOLD (Logan): Born in New York City, raised by two artists. CalArts Film (UG), Columbia Film (MFA). First feature won best director at Sundance film festival (Heavy). Got his first deal, with Disney, at age 22.
F GARY GRAY (The Fate of the Furious): Born in NYC, raised in Southern LA. Directed Friday, starring Ice Cube, at age 23.
ZACK SNYDER (Justice League): Studied painting, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. Became a commercial director, made feature debut, Dawn of the Dead, at age 29.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN (Dunkirk): Raised in London, England and Evanston, Illinois. Moved to Chicago as a teenager. Educated at Haileybury and Imperial Service College and University College London (UCL). Funded first feature, Following, out of pocket in 1998, aged 28. Film was a 'festival success', and paved the way for Memento in 2000.


Questions about how you break through?  Reach out to us, we're happy to share what we know.

 

Article by Ben Feuer, photo by Eli Pousson

When it comes to getting into a top undergraduate filmmaking BFA like Chapman, all creative materials are definitely not created equal.  What can you do to make your application stand out?

One of the rising stars in the world of film, Chapman University has made a number of bold and innovative moves over the past ten years to put itself on the map, including a highly engaging program for teenaged filmmakers, a massive budget for equipment, high-end soundstages and industry networking. So what does it take to join their hallowed ranks?  Well, first, you have to get into the school -- no mean feat, as top film schools have become more selective every year, with Chapman’s circling around a skimpy 15 percent.

The most important component of your application is going to be your creative portfolio.  Simply put, if it's great, you're in.  Here are the required elements for the Chapman creative portfolio in Film Production for undergraduates, and how to nail each one.

Dodge College Personal Statement. In 500 words or less, tell us what about your distinct experiences/background/values makes you a unique candidate for the program for which you are applying. Please focus on what makes you unique as a person beyond any direct experience you may have in your intended field of study. Use this prompt to talk about aspects of yourself that are not already covered in other parts of your application.

How you handle a personal essay will be different for undergraduate and graduate students. For undergraduates, Chapman is also going to see your Common App essay and supplements, so they’ll know a lot about the fundamentals of who you are as a person, what you believe in and what you’re all about – assuming you’ve done a good job with those essays, of course!  Paradoxically, it’s better to write about your love for film in the common app and write about something else in your portfolio – film schools don’t really like hearing about students’ film experience, they prefer to shape and mold their little charges themselves.

They want to know your story -- your personal, human narrative -- that led you to this point of applying to film school. What raw material, what attitudes and experiences, you're going to be drawing upon when you tell your stories.  So tell them a story -- the kind that only you can tell -- yours! And remember that narrative and documentary filmmakers are storytellers, first and foremost. So make sure it’s emotional and compelling!

Major Requirement “Essay”. Prompt: Create a self-introductory video essay no more than two minutes in length. Your video should visually highlight something about yourself, your personality, your interests, etc. that is not related to film. The only rule is that you may NOT appear in the video in any way (including any photographs of yourself), so be creative. We are primarily looking for your strengths at conveying a story visually and for evidence of your creativity rather than your technical abilities.

Format: Videos can be as simple or complex as you like but should have a clear story. You do not have to edit this project; it can be one long shot. Video essays can be live action or a slide show of still images or photographs with text and phrases, or a combination. Videos must not exceed a total running time of two (2) minutes.

For tips on creating your video essay, and for examples of our top video picks, visit the Admission Video Samples page.

This is the question that Chapman has become famous for. It’s a very different challenge than what you’ll face at any other school, which means that Chapman is trying to recruit people who really want to be there (or want it enough to make them a custom video, at least).

A lot of people seem to get tangled up in this question. How am I supposed to make a video about myself without showing myself? But don’t get yourself in a brain freeze just yet, because Chapman specifically suggested you focus on an ASPECT of yourself. A personality trait or an interest. Obviously creativity counts big here, so don’t just start thinking of workarounds (gee, maybe I can cast someone as me, or I just won’t show my face) … believe me, we’ve all seen that before. Instead, look inside yourself and determine what you actually have to say. What makes you you? And figure out the story first and the visuals second. Don’t let the cart drive the horse. Finally, don’t waste a ton of money on this – you are being judged on innovation, not your pocketbook!

Creative Resume

Provide a one-page (max.) resume highlighting 5-7 pieces of what you consider to be your best creative work. These projects should demonstrate your ability to convey a story or message through creative, artistic or technical talents. As we are only asking for a limited number of projects, include more recent items and projects in which you were the driving force or had a leadership role. These can include class assignments, projects from jobs or internships, or your personal hobbies and freelance work. Please note you are NOT to submit any actual materials from this resume at this time.  Please use the following format when structuring your resume:

Title: title of the project (length of project if applicable)

Source and Date of Creation: You may write “freelance” if it was something you did on your own.

Description of item: An in-depth description of the piece, the inspiration or objective, and your specific role in its creation. Also list any awards or special recognition you may have received for the piece.

Example

Articles for the School Newspaper

Journalism I class, 2008

I wrote several feature articles on various topics from the constant flooding of the men’s bathroom to vandalism on campus. I also did a film review for every issue. I helped with the layout of the paper as well as selecting the final photographs.

Unlike some of the other schools, Chapman doesn’t want a comprehensive list here. They just want your 5-7 best projects. They obviously want dates, so they can get a sense of when you have been creative, and in what contexts. And they want full-paragraph descriptions of the project itself.

Note that they’re not limiting you to movies here. Quite the contrary. You can frame a lot of different things as being creative, as long as you’re able to get creative when you write it. J  Figure out what you’ve learned, and what the key challenges were, in each task you undertook.

So, there you are!  Everything you need to craft an awesome portfolio!  If you have more questions, of course, you can always ask me -- happy submitting!