Here’s a list of things student filmmakers have: great equipment, support from a film school, technical knowledge, committed collaborators and an endless supply of energy on long shoot days. Here’s what student filmmakers lack: the connections, know-how or confidence to talk to actors. (Writing this article as a former film student, I feel like I can make this call.) Wouldn’t it be great if you could offer them the one thing they lack—no, more than that: the one thing that they desperately need? Let’s talk about the benefits of acting in student films.
Acting in student films allows you to develop your skills and process, gain some much-needed screen credits and on-set experience. While there’s almost never a chance of a payday, the reach of student films on studio circuits can boost your profile significantly. Furthermore, you will have the chance to work closely with up-and-coming talent in the screen industry—a favour you may be able to call in when their own careers progress.
In this article, we’re going to talk about the many benefits of acting in student films, so you can approach any potential job or offer made to you with the best possible information. While I freely admit I threw my camera-wielding colleagues under the bus in that opening paragraph, I should acknowledge that film students are still students, still growing. And the vast majority of them are excited to work, learn and collaborate.
What is a Student Film?
A student film is a screen project produced and created by students of a film school or related arts institution (university, college, etc.) It may be part of a course requirement, or simply a project undertaken by students while they study.
Student films are typically low budget, simple in script and execution. Cast will be minimal, and the entirety of production will take place in any time frame from a day to a week or two. As a rule, cast and crew are unpaid as the film is not intended to be released commercially. However, there is a chance that a student film may tour a festival circuit (see below), acting as an industry ‘calling card’ for those involved.
Is there a Difference Between “Student Film” and “Short/Indie/Low-Budget Film”?
Yes and no. Some people use “student film” and these other terms interchangeably, especially when the filmmakers involved are current or recent graduates of an institution. The difference with a student film is that it generally has more in-kind support from that institution. It will receive production support and equipment, if not some small budget. It may also enjoy the supervision of teachers/mentors who can step in and bail out a filmmaker who finds themselves stuck or overwhelmed.
Structurally and artistically, they’re all one and the same. Just remember that a potential bail-out from a fancy school won’t save any project if it’s truly a stinker.
“Can I make money acting in a student film?”
Some projects will pay actors to step in and perform, often as they’re the one missing ingredient for a young artist with most other resources at their disposal. However, it’s pretty rare. As mentioned above, student films are not intended to be sold as commercial vehicles.
If this is something that bothers you, then that’s completely fine. Knowing when to work for free is as important as knowing when to say “no” to a role; if it’s not something you want—or, more importantly, something you can’t support—don’t bend over backwards to sign on. Do it for the love, or at least the credit.
“What’s the commitment/workload for a student film?”
As student films are low-budget and generally short in length, the lead-in work commitment is small. That being said, the shoot dates will often be long to maximise the amount of time the producer can pull together a crew for little-to-no money. You’ll be fed, but get plenty of sleep and pace yourself—especially if you’re not used to long days on set.
One final thing we should cover before we jump into the benefits is the actor/director partnership on a short film. Due to their inexperience, directors may struggle to articulate themselves or know how to get the best from you as an actor. Our advice is to cut them some slack and remember they’re just starting out (just don’t put up with bad behaviour.) Do a bit of extra homework before you arrive. Ensure that you’ve thought about character, objective, actions, as it’s entirely likely the director will prioritise these lower than getting the thing shot.
Okay: question time over. Let’s talk about the benefit of acting in student films!
Add Credits to your Acting CV
Student films are the perfect way to pad your CV in between other acting jobs. They’re quick to work on, meaning that you could potentially do a number of them in a year if you had the motivation!
It’s also a nice insurance policy in cases where the film isn’t, well, very good. It might not be something you’d include on your showreel, but it still has currency as a line on your resume because it signals that you’ve had some on-set experience and booked the gig. Truthfully, a casting director is unlikely to try and track down everything you’ve ever been in. Who’s to say it wasn’t the best film of all time?!
Gain On-Set Experience
A film set is a surreal space to traverse: a whole other reality you want to be ready for before you step up as a professional actor. Working on a student film will help you gain understanding of film set etiquette, and help you learn what everybody does.
Bear in mind that a student film set will run a little differently to a professional one—it’ll be smaller for one thing, and corners will definitely be cut. However, you’ll get the gist of it, and your crew of industry hopefuls will be doing everything they can to get the same professional experience you’re looking for. And if they lack some seasoning or seem a little amateurish? Rise above and show ’em how it’s done.
Develop Your Skills
Acting in student films is not just about CVs and set life. It’s a perfect chance to flex your skills as an actor and develop hone process. Remember those long days we talked about? You need to be a professional, you need to be prepared, you need to be on for as long as the director requires. It can be taxing, but it’s vital for progressing your career.
So use each day on a student film set to improve your acting chops. Truly build a character, find your voice and your physicality so you’re not acting for the camera (from the neck down!) And when they’re setting up lights or adjusting the sun/moon/stars, why not use that time to do some script analysis? If you’re across the part in this film, consider working on the next, or reading a play. Improve yourself!
Work with the Next Generation of Filmmakers
When you find yourself acting in student films, you’re going to rub shoulders with a lot of up-and-coming industry talent. Use this: think of the goodwill you’re investing in these young pups and how this may later become a call-back when they’re R & F! You may find a real kindred spirit with a director or producer, and discover a collaborative relationship that kicks of a decades-long partnership.
If they don’t turn out to be the next Greta Gerwig? No harm no foul, and it’s still a credit on your CV. But the attitude we recommend taking into a job is this: who’s to say what these people will be doing in five years time? So don’t risk treating the 3rd Assistant Director like a lowly assistant: they might end up running a studio one day. In our business, it happens all the time. And stories like what we’ve just described never include the name of the actor who simply faded away…
Feature in Film Festivals, Promote Yourself
Student films aren’t about making money, they’re about networking. For the directors/producers/crew, they’re a chance to show their skills to the industry and announce themselves as new talent to be reckoned with. What does this mean for you as the actor? You may end up with a striking piece of art that features you and makes you look good. Student films mean festivals, festivals mean exposure and new contacts in new places and even awards!
If you’re thinking about acting in a student film, ask the director what their plan is for the project. Do they have a festival circuit in mind? If they don’t, it’s actually a great thing to encourage them to do. You’d be doing both of you a favour.
Strengthen your Creative Community
This last one’s a bit sappy, but bear with us. The lives of creatives are difficult, whether you’re in front of the camera or behind it. Acting in student films, even in times when it’s not directly going to benefit you, helps bolster your creative community. Support your fellow artists. Make connections, support each others’ art and ideas. Do what you can to bring their projects to life.
Actors can audition dozens of times a year for multiple projects. You may find yourself reading for a play one Monday, shooting a commercial on a Wednesday and then participating in a development workshop over the weekend. For filmmakers, it’s often a lot more isolating: projects take years to reach the filming stage, and it may be years until they can afford to make a follow-up. On set, give them your everything. Once you wrap, keep in touch: make a friend!
So have we convinced you? Are you ready to update your casting network profile with student films in mind? Let us leave you with one final point: student films are incredibly fun to be a part of. You get to step into somebody else’s story and be an integral part of bringing it to life. Sure, they can get chaotic. But it’s a wild, vivid ride with you at the centre—doing the one thing you love more than anything else.
Student films have multiple ways of benefitting you, as we’ve covered in this article. For the people behind the camera, you’ll be like a superhero to them. So enjoy doing some good for yourself and for others in this industry. We’re all in this together.
For more ways to build your acting career, check out the companion article: Why You Should Be Acting In Indie Theatre.