The subject of student films seems to be coming up a lot lately, and the discussion usually goes something like this:

Actor 1: Student films suck.
Actor 2: Yeah, seriously. Students suck.
Actor 1: Yeah, like, totes. I refuse to do any movie unless James Cameron is already attached
Actor 2: Word. You should hold out. I mean, you had that one line on 1000 Ways to Die. You got cred.

Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit, but my point is that student films seem to get a very bad reputation. (And that actors often have poor criteria in choosing projects.)

Below is a trailer for Dilated, a project in which I played “Private Parts” (true story):

Now tell me that looks like a “student film,” directed by an undergraduate with an entire crew of students. (Impressed? Find out more about FPS Productions.)

Now, I’m not saying that all student films are good, or that you need to rush out and do as many as you can. However, don’t discount a project just because it’s being done by a student. The three absolutely best films I have done in my life were all done by undergraduates in film school. None of those student films paid me anything, but I much preferred them over the myriad projects I’ve done that paid me (sometimes well) but ended up looking like they were filmed by an untrained monkey walking around during an earthquake.

There is also a widely-perceived belief that there are only a couple good film schools in Los Angeles (USC and AFI often rise to the top of that list). Would that it were that easy to judge a film’s potential. I’ve done projects for the “best” film schools that sucked and projects for the “worst” film schools that turned out great. Most stereotypes are there for a reason, but just because a school has a good reputation doesn’t necessarily mean the student has their $hit together.

Before you do any project–student or otherwise–here are some questions to ask yourself in order to determine how worthwhile the project might be (and in the end, trust yourself):

  • What are they shooting on?
  • How big is the crew?
  • Do they have a DP? A sound person? A lighting guy?
  • What are the sides like? Is the script any good?
  • What is their budget?
  • How many days is the shoot? (compare that to the length of the script)
  • Did they give me a phone number to call (if they did, call them!…you will find out oodles of good info)
  • How professional is the communication from the project?
  • How thorough is their breakdown?
  • Is this a role I would LOVE to play (and might not get to otherwise)?

Pros of Doing Student Films

  • They probably have a deadline for their class, which means there’s a good chance there will be a final product
  • Students are often super thankful that you are doing their project, and will go to great lengths to help you (like going out of their way to get you your reel footage)
  • If something goes terribly wrong, you have someone to go to (their professor)…as well as someone to sue (the University)
  • Students often have access to the best equipment in the business
  • SAG makes it quite easy for a student film to register with SAG (and thus use SAG actors)
  • The student is probably getting a grade, so they have an incentive to do good work
  • Many students have an easier time getting money for their films than “normal adults” do
  • Students can be young and naive (i.e.: they think their film could make them millions so they work their ass off) 🙂
  • Most students aren’t total dicks…some adults are
  • Steven Spielberg was a student once…just sayin’

Cons of Doing Student Films

  • Very rarely will you get paid
  • There is no guarantee the film will be any good (but is there ever?)

One warning I would proffer is to never go into any project expecting that it will yield great footage for your reel. There is never any guarantee (for that, you must produce your own work). Do the project for the experience on set, to meet great people, to look like a bad ass (see trailer above), and to get precious time practicing your acting on camera.

Final Thoughts

I think it vitally important to be selective about the projects you do. There is a tough balance here. Many actors become fed up with the way they are treated or the final product of lower-budget films, but without more significant credits/a beautiful face/a famous parent it becomes that much harder to get work on more ‘legitimate’ projects. Moreover, if you have only done, say, a handful of student films, it is rather unrealistic to expect that you are going to get a lot of work on full-fledged projects. It takes time. Whatever project you do, please ask yourself why you are doing the project, and keep your expectations in check.

Would love to hear your experiences with student films in the comments below!

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