University of Life

Michael W. Dean's new book, $30 Film School, isn't just a crash course in independent moviemaking. It's also an inspiring handbook for personal promotion, whatever the artistic endeavor.

Film school, Dean suggests, is a futile exercise. It's a waste of time and money better spent making art and promoting it for the good of mankind, not some professor's stamp of approval. The book includes chapters on writing, fund-raising, producing, shooting, directing, editing -- everything an auteur needs, all for $30. "If you go to film school," Dean explains, "you'll get connections with people in the biz... and you'll get connections with people in the biz." You say Hollywood is your preferred destination? Try New York University or the University of Southern California. You say you're an artist? Do it yourself.

In $30 Film School, Dean describes the step-by-step process by which he produced his own movie, a documentary called D.I.Y. or Die: How to Survive as an Independent Artist. He lays out in meticulous detail strategies for raising money, hiring staff and eventually paying people for their hard work. "Pay them," he writes. "It's the most fun you'll ever have shocking someone."

Advances in technology have revolutionized moviemaking. With a digital video camera and a computer, what cost $100,000 only ten years ago can now be done for $1,000. The bulk of $30 Film School covers shooting in digital video and the technical process of computer editing (open this file, click that). It may sound boring, but Dean manages to make it interesting. In fact, you could open the book to any chapter and find his instruction useful and entertaining.

A section called "Getting People to Work on Spec (Speculation)" includes a copy of a letter Dean sent to an artist's emergency fund requesting a monetary grant of $755 -- to pay his bills and rent. In the letter, Dean explains, "I basically spent all my money making the film." The agency turned him down. "You shouldn't have spent ALL your money," went its reply. Whatever, thought Dean. "Real artists," he says, "always spend all their money on making art."

For artists, then, poverty is an issue that must be accepted or, at a minimum, kept in check. "Be into free trade," Dean writes, "but don't be a capitalist piggy. If you take the lion's share, you're depriving someone else. I ain't a communist, but some people are just too rich and others too poor. I like to even the score of the universe a little by living larger on less, and creating more. Do it yourself or your art will die. Do it yourself because no one's going to do it for you."

In the chapter "Copy Protection and Rights," Dean addresses the absurdity of the recording industry's crackdown on Internet file sharing. "Corporations going after file sharers," he said in an interview, "is like horse-and-buggy drivers going after people who drive automobiles." Dean didn't copy-protect his film D.I.Y. or Die. In fact, he encouraged people to burn copies of the DVD. "The Universe doesn't care how many records you sell," he writes in $30 Film School. "The Universe cares how sweetly you sing. Art helps people. So, pass it on."