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There are very few things that everyone likes. But movies happen to be one of them. While we certainly have very different tastes in what we like to watch and how we like to view it, pretty much everyone loves to lose themselves in a good film. Some people take it a step further and identify as true film buffs; they love to watch films from across all genres, read the most incisive film reviews, and think about a film’s formal and artistic elements as they watch. If you’re interested in understanding cinema, not just enjoying it, you may be interested in a degree in film studies.

Just as literature and art history subject these fields to study, criticism, and analysis, a degree in film studies covers the history, thought, and implications of film. A degree in film studies offers students the opportunity to learn about the history and genres of film worldwide, to learn about the film industry and its place in modern society, and to understand the formal elements of cinema. They also learn hands-on filmmaking techniques like screenwriting, lighting, and directing. The skills gained in a filmmaking degree program may not make you the next Hitchcock or Lucas, but they have a range of applications in the modern workplace, from marketing to media. Read on to learn about the field of film studies, what film studies degrees are available, and about the pros and cons of a degree in this field.

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What is Film?

The importance of cinema can hardly be overstated. Whether we’re talking about films, TV, or YouTube, the art of moving pictures encompasses over a century of innovation, creativity, business, and culture. Having an overview of the field is essential too finding your place in it.

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No single person can be said to have invented motion pictures; many early versions of film technology grew up in the late 1800s, as people experimented with techniques for sequencing and projecting images. Just before the turn of the century, Edison Studios, founded by Thomas Edison, made major headway in the world of early films, producing hundreds of short films (most only a few minutes long) which were shown to a paying public.

Films evolved by leaps and bounds over the next thirty years, quickly moving from a novelty to a fully-fledged art form, with an important place in the American economy and psyche. Movies developed incredibly innovative and well-developed tropes and genres throughout the 1930s, even as America suffered under the great depression. As President Franklin Roosevelt observed, “during the Depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” Movies have continued to grow in technological sophistication and branched into ever-more numerous genres, but this principle has remained the same; movies have a deep place in our hearts.

Film takes up space in our wallets as well as our hearts. Worldwide, the film industry rakes in $41.7 billion at box offices, and $136 billion when home entertainment is taken into account. When taken as a whole, the industry supports jobs in a mind-boggling array of sectors: studios, screenwriters, actors, film production companies, cinematography, animation, film production, film festivals, movie theaters, distributors, directors, film crews, animators, and more. Movie critics and media writers also play an important role in connecting the viewing public to the movie industry and its products.

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What is Film Studies?

The discipline of film studies is almost as old as film itself. The first schools providing formal instruction in cinematic arts appeared in the 1920s, as feature-length films were first coming into prominence. These programs focused on the technical end of film: directing, editing, lighting and so forth, and later came to include some theoretical grounding as well. As films grew in popularity, film reporting and criticism became increasingly important, and people began to subject films to the same academic scrutiny as literature and art, resulting in the start of film studies. The field of film studies is defined as an academic discipline covering the historical, critical, and theoretical approaches to film. It is considered by many to be a branch of media studies, and is separate from the newer but related field of television studies. In film studies, people critically examine formal issues of a film such as:

  • narrative structure
  • artistic values
  • cultural content
  • economic role
  • political implications
  • In other words, film studies is all about thinking of film as a form, asking questions like “why does this film’s cinematography have such an emotional impact?”, “what cultural biases does this film reflect?”, or “what is this screenwriter saying with their choice of narrative structure?” In addition to interpreting individual films, students learn to critically consider and analyze cinema as an institution.

    What is the Difference Between Film Studies Degrees and Film Production Degrees?

    There’s lots of overlap between degrees in film studies and degrees in film production, both in terms of coursework and in terms of career prospects.

    A degree in film studies provides training in the academic discipline of film studies. In a program of this type, the emphasis is on film theory, film history, and film criticism, as students learn to formally analyze cinema, its artistic qualities, and its role in society. They also get exposure to the basic principles of film production, photography, and screen writing. These classes help students in a film studies program understand the process behind films.

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    How, then is film studies different from film production? In a degree in film studies, the emphasis is on the technical side. Some theory and criticism classes are also included alongside these technical courses in order to provide a context for making technical and artistic decisions. Students in a program of this type study topics like:

    • Audio production
    • Screenwriting
    • Film editing
    • Cinematography
    • Pre-production
    • Visual Effects
    • Advanced Lighting
    • Post-production

    The difference between Studies Degrees and Film Production Degrees is not completely cut and dried, however. The content of each of these programs can vary by school. Some schools, for instance, offer a film studies degree that’s heavy on classes in film production. Some film production programs offer a lot more classes on film theory and history than their peers. And some schools offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Film Studies, focused on technique, as well as a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in film studies, focused on theory.

    What Classes Will I take for a Degree in Film Studies?

    Film studies degrees usually represent some balance between classes in the theory and practice of film. As discussed above, the focus of film studies programs varies widely between schools, and the curriculum for each school will reflect that particular school’s focus.

    Some schools offer a bachelor of fine arts (BFA) or master of fine arts (MFA) in Film Studies, which is a professional degree that is highly focused on the practice of film making, along with some courses in theory and criticism. In a BFA or MFA in film studies program, you can expect to take courses in scriptwriting, lighting, directing, sound, and so on (as in a film production degree). But most schools offer undergrad film studies degrees as liberal arts degrees, degrees designed to produce students who are well-rounded critical thinkers with a broad base of knowledge about the world. As a liberal arts degree, a BA in film studies will require about half of a student’s classes be in general education, with classes in a range of topics like history, science, sociology, math, and psychology. The remaining half of the course load will be in classes specific to the film studies major.

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    Typical courses titles for a degree in film studies include:

    • Introduction to Film Studies
    • Trans-cultural Chinese Cinema
    • International Cinema
    • French Cinema
    • German Cinema
    • Spanish American Cinema
    • Film, Literature, and Politics of the Third World
    • Film Analysis
    • Film Theory
    • History of Cinema
    • History of Animation
    • Gender and the Cinema
    • Documentary Film

    Many schools also require students to complete a senior project, thesis, or capstone seminar in film studies before graduating.

    What Degrees in Film Studies Are There?

    You can earn a bachelor’s in film studies (usually as a BA), master’s in film studies (Master of Arts, or MA) or even a PhD. Most degrees in film studies are conferred at the bachelor level. Bachelor’s degrees take four years to earn, on average, though accelerated programs exist that condense the coursework into just three years. An undergraduate degree in film studies, as discussed above, usually includes a large general education core, and prepares graduates for entry-level work in a wide variety of fields where critical thinking matters.

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    A bachelor’s in film studies can also lead students deeper into the realm of academia, and be a stepping stone to a master’s in film studies. A master’s degree usually takes two years to earn; those who want to speed up their degree timeline can enroll in an accelerated master’s program, which can be as short as 18 months. A master’s is a graduate degree, and focuses entirely on the film studies discipline, with no general education classes. In addition to graduate level classes, you can expect to complete a senior thesis, a research based project completed under the supervision of a thesis advisor.

    A PhD in Film Studies is the highest possible degree in the field, and shows an elite level of scholarship. A graduate with a PhD in film studies can be said to have a broad basic knowledge of every area of the field, as well as intensive knowledge of one particular area. To earn a PhD in Film Studies, you’ll take graduate-level classes in film studies and related areas, then work with a doctoral advisor to select a very specific area of film studies that has not yet been researched. You’ll spend several years conducting original research and writing up your findings before defending your dissertation before a panel of experts and finally publishing your findings. The entire process can take as few as two years, but more often takes 5-7 years.

    What Jobs Can I Get with a Film Studies Degree?

    It’s no secret the film industry is fiercely competitive. The Guardian reports that in 2009, 12.5% of film studies graduates with full-time jobs worked in the art/design/culture sector. Of those in the film industry, 2.1% became directors, 1.2% became video/film recorder operators, and 1.4% became broadcasters. Abut 34% of film studies graduates took positions in retail/hospitality, likely as “day jobs” to augment their income from creative work on the side.

    In short, a degree in film studies doesn’t necessarily prepare you for a career in filmmaking, though it certainly can. A film production degree is a better fit for this field, where hands-on skills mean everything, and industry connections forged at student film internships matter greatly. Instead, a film studies degree develops an array of soft skills that are transferable to a number of jobs.

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    Film Studies graduates can be said to be generally knowledgeable about the world, thanks to their liberal arts background. As The Hill has reported, formal study in the humanities produces graduates who are better problem-solvers and decision-makers. And while much has been made of the increasing need to STEM graduates, research conducted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education determined that the demand in the workforce for non-routine analytical skills taught in a science degree program has increased more slowly than the demand for social skills. These in-demand “soft skills” include:

    • conflict resolution
    • organization
    • coordination
    • negotiation
    • social perceptiveness

    And while STEM graduates do get paid more than humanities graduates, that salary difference does not tend to exceed $5,000 per year in most fields. Research conducted by Douglas A. Webber, an economist at Temple University, showed that top the 75th percentile of humanities graduates earn about as much as the median computer science or business graduates over their lifetimes.

    In addition to the communication and social skills listed above, film studies majors have well-developed critical thinking, research, and analytical skills. Altogether, these soft skills can be applied anywhere that people come together to communicate and solve problems. Good fields for a graduate of a film studies degree program include media, marketing, project management, and education. And while there are not an abundance of job openings for film and television critics and writers, those that exist are likely to go to film studies graduates.

    If you’d like to stay with the academic discipline of film studies itself, you’ll want to earn a master’s or PhD in films studies. A graduate degree is required to teach at the postsecondary level, and a degree from a highly-ranked school is especially important for landing a job in academia. A master’s in film studies can make you eligible to teach film studies at the college level, but a PhD is preferred, and is the only way to get on the track to a tenured position. If you choose to pursue a career in academia, be aware that teaching positions don’t open up frequently in this field. You’ll need to be prepared to wait until a professorship in film studies opens up (usually when another professor retires), and possibly relocate in order to take it.

    What are the Pros and Cons of a Film Studies Degree?

    Based on what we’re covered, there are obvious advantages and drawbacks to a film studies degree, and just as easy to see that this degree is not right for everyone. It’s easy to highlight some of the difficulties potentially posed by a degree in film studies. The biggest of these is that a film studies degree does not lead to a clear career path, apart from teaching film studies itself. While a degree in film studies will give you lots of marketable skills, it will be up to you to market them but showing potential employers how your communication, research, analytical, and critical thinking skills can serve you on the job. Employers, too, may not be as familiar with film studies as they are with other humanities degrees like English or Sociology. You will likely need to use your skills in communication and analysis to connect the dots between film studies expertise and the ability to excel in a field like marketing or media.

    If you decide to remain in the academic discipline of film studies by going on to teach, you’ll also face challenges. Namely: job scarcity. Each school only has a few teaching jobs open in film studies when compared with departments like business, engineering, or psychology. These tend to open up only infrequently, and competition for them is fierce. You’ll have difficulty getting a foot in the door without a PhD, and even then, a position (especially in a location you’d like) is not guaranteed.

    On the other hand, there are a number of excellent reasons to go for a degree in film studies. For one, this interdisciplinary degree will expose you to a variety of topics, from art history to politics, all in the context of film. This, along with the general education core included in all liberal arts degrees, will make you a well-rounded thinker with a grasp of many topics. You’ll also develop in-demand soft skills like research, analysis, collaboration, negotiation, and project management.

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    Apart from the practical reasons to pursue a degree in film studies, the most compelling ones may be personal. Those who are passionate about film want to pursue their passion by studying the subject as deeply as possible. And in today’s flexible career landscape, a degree is not necessarily a road map. In fact, The Washington Post has reported that only 27% of Americans hold jobs related to their college major. Given that, film buffs may want to seriously consider a degree in film studies.

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