If you've been paying any attention to the breakdowns lately, you will have noticed that we are getting slammed with a bunch of student films. Makes sense, after all it is that time of year. It's deep enough into the fall semester that the classes have finished covering the basics: pick/write a script, scout a location, learn to draft a production schedule. Now that mid-October has arrived, it's on to step four... casting... and those eager-beaver undergrad USC students are out in full force.
These student films are the perfect place to start practicing all that stuff you've been learning in class. You'll start finding your way around a film set and begin to get an understanding for what it means to work with a director, with other actors, with a crew. You'll learn the process, the lingo, how to deal with the pressure, and the waiting game. If you're lucky, you might even end up with that holy grail... decent footage for your reel. (Extra emphasis on lucky.) Be forewarned... 99.99999999% of the student shorts you'll work on will turn out to be absolute shit at 24 frames per second. The scripts are weird, the lighting will suck, your acting will probably stink. There's more fumbling on a student film set than in the back seat of a teenager's car on prom night.
But we all go through it. If you're just starting out, get out there and do as many as you can. I
moved to LA with basically no credits, so I did my fair share of SAG
student film contracts. (Let me warn you, lest your heart break like my
clueless one did a couple weeks after moving to LA... unfortunately
booking a role on SAG student film project does not get you eligibility
to join the union. If you're hearing it here first, sorry to be the one
to break the news to you.) Still, get in front of that camera and play. Figure out exactly what makes you tick as an artist.
I don't do student films any more. Well, I should say I rarely do them. A certain set of perfect circumstances have to align for me to be interested in helping out on a student short. First of all and the most important initial criteria: it has to be a graduate level project. Though it's never a guarantee, it means the people working on it -- namely the director -- have at least filmed something before. It's also a good indication that whomever is making the film is serious enough that he/she has decided to spend the extra precious time and money to attend graduate school. I visit websites, watch director/cinematagrapher reels, read the full scripts. Before I will even submit to an audition, I have to be sure the team behind the film can produce a high-quality final product.
Once I feel the crew ability is there, my acceptance of any project (student or otherwise), is contingent upon the fulfillment of at least one of what I refer to as my big three:
1) Creative Incentive
2) Career Incentive
3) Financial Incentive
Student films will obviously not provide financial incentive, so in order for me to be interested it must strongly fulfill either category 1 or 2. It either must be one helluva story that I find incredibly interesting from a creative standpoint, or it must provide the potential to add value to my career. Because no short film will really boost a career in credit alone, it has to contribute to the hustle in other ways. Either it is a great script that is destined to compete at big-time festivals, or the footage it will provide is exactly something I could use to beef up my reel. This potential has to be so strong that I'm willing to risk the (very likely) reality that the footage will be unusable. So... to say the least, it is very rare that I will work on a student film. (All this applies to new media contracts as well, which are essentially the same thing but without any affiliation to acadamia.)
Or sometimes I'm just HUNGRY for time in front of a camera. I can always tell when I haven't shot in a while because I start glancing over student film breakdowns. It's kind of like the acting equivalent to reminiscing about the good times you had with an ex... you start thinking, sure it wasn't perfect, but it was kinda nice to have someone to cuddle and it just seems like it's taking forever for the next one to come along.
At some point though, they're just not worth it anymore. I'm at that point. I've probably done near 20 of them; I don't even put them on my resume anymore. It's far more effective use of my time to write and create my own projects than to hope for a good student project to come along. But I've been doing this for a while, so if you're still there, go get 'em. It's almost a rite of passage in this town. Who knows, maybe you'll end up in the first film of the next Spielberg-to-be.