Jon Reiss DV Magazine Column: Top 10 Subjects They Should be Teaching in Film Schools

by | May 18, 2009 | Uncategorized

I wrote a column for DV Magazine on what film schools should be teaching students besides how to make films: Top 10 Subjects They Should Be Teaching in Film School.

Here it is – let me know what you think:

Top 10 Subjects They Should Be Teaching in Film School
May 18, 2009 By Jon Reiss

Film schools are normally quite good at teaching students how to make films. But they generally have not seen it as their mandate to help students actually learn how to survive in the modern media landscape. Because of this, I developed a class at Cal Arts — where I teach — entitled “Reel World Survival Skills: Everything I Wish I Had Been Taught in Film School.”

To succeed, it’s no longer enough to have a body of work and a script in hand for what you want to do next. You instead need to develop a range of entrepreneurial skills in order to develop, pitch, fund and distribute your work. Filmmakers need to be the architects of their own career and create a wider and wider network of relationships to help them on their path.

What follows are the Top 10 subject that should be taught in film schools (and by film organizations around the country/world), broken equally into “Old School” and “New School” categories.

Old School Techniques That Are Still Essential:

1. Building Relationships
Filmmaking is a business based upon personal relationships, but, unfortunately, most filmmakers are intellectual wallflowers. You need to come out of your skin, go to as many events as possible and learn how to create lasting relationships. Hint: People like to talk about themselves instead of exclusively listening to you.

2. Pitching
Whether you like it or not, half the battle of getting a film made is all about selling – both yourself and your idea. You have to be constantly pitching, whether it be in a meeting or at a dinner party.

3. Writing Effective Cover Letters and Resumes
Having reviews thousands of resumes and cover letters over the years while making music videos, feature films and documentaries, I’m consistantly appalled by how very few people know how to introduce themselves in writing. All cover letters should reference why you want that specific position on that specific project — literally only 5% of cover letters attempt to do this. Research the company you’re trying to sell yourself to. Also, you need multiple resumes, one optimized for every type of job you’re applying for.

4. How to Work in the Music Video and Commercial Worlds

How those industries function. How to break in. What companies expect. How to make effective specs spots.

5. An Understanding of Film Finance
Not all forms of film financing apply to independent filmmakers. Filmmakers should know the basics of what kind of financing is available, especially the emerging Web-based models.

New School Necessities:

6. Cultivating an Audience/Creating a Fan Base
Understanding that the film world is shifting from a project-centric career to creating a sustainable relationship with a long-term fan base. The concept of 1,000 True Fans

7. A Working Knowledge of Web 2.0 Skills
How do you effectively use the Internet to promote yourself and your films? Creating a dynamic Web site — blogging basics. Social Networking 101. Web marketing, e-mail campaigns etc.

8. Creating Content for the Web
Shorts, features and TV shows are no longer the only forms available to filmmakers. What works as content on the Web and mobile? Webisodes, Mobisodes – how these differ from the traditional forms?

9. An Introduction to Hybrid Distribution
A eulogy for the “overall deal.” Basics on how the distribution landscape is changing and morphing. What are ancillary markets, and which are still available for independents: television, foreign, educational. Redefining the theatrical experience – how to reinvent the filmgoing experience: People watching “films” with other people. Understanding the new theatrical release: festivals, community screenings, non theatrical and traditional film theaters.

10. DVD and Digital Distribution
How to distribute your own DVDs via the Web. Authoring basics. Full-blown replication vs. on-demand production. Fufillment companies. Aggregators. Web hosting. Download-to-own vs. streaming vs. download-to-rent.

Jon Reiss is filmmaker and consultant living in Los Angeles. His most recent project was the feature-length graffiti-art documentary Bomb It. He can be reached at

Jon will be addressing these issues and many others in forthcoming posts to He will also be a speaker at the upcoming Digital Video Expo (September 22-23).