Why Should Actors Study Film History?

byJeff Richardson

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I studied film as a graduate student, I teach a film history course, and I spend my days working in a film library, and I’ am still routinely humbled when I browse the “Top 10” section on the Criterion Collection’s website and come across a famous young actor gushing about a film I’ have never seen. It always reminds me that filmmaking is truly a world of cinephiles. From the director to the technicians, a majority of the folks you’ll find on a film set have a passionate knowledge about great movies. They watch them, they study them, and they aspire to make them. Studying the history of film should not be considered a bonus for an aspiring member of the industry – it should be considered a necessary step towards becoming a complete artist and professional in your field.

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"Studying the history of film should be considered a necessary step towards becoming a complete artist and professional in your field."

Jeff RichardsonFilm History for Actors

This is particularly true for film actors. There’ is a reason it seems like every magazine article about the making of a film mentions the director screening movies for the cast. Great art demands great inspiration. As Quentin Tarantino said, “”I steal from every movie ever made.” Great artists steal.” Having shared references and common inspirations is incredibly important for the collective process that goes on between an actor and a director –and among actors themselves. Familiarity with great works of cinema, having a catalog in your head of performances and scenes, will pay amazing dividends. And not just on a film set, but in other contexts as well: auditions, industry parties, chance introductions. Film is a collaborative art form, and being able to connect with others who love and study cinema is a tremendous professional asset.

It i’s also important to recognize that film is not just an art form, it’ is also a business. A very expensive business, where “indie” films routinely cost millions of dollars to finance – and millions more to market. As in other walks of life, if you want to become a paid professional in the film industry, it’ is important to learn a thing or two about it. Where has it been? Where is it now? Where is it going? The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) was formed in 1933. Why? Who are the major studios, and how did they get where they are? Why did Steven Soderbergh “retire” and why did Hollywood just announce a slate of over two dozen superhero movies in the next five years? Like any other industry, working in film demands an awareness of the past and an understanding of the present. On both a professional and an artistic level, studying film history gives an actor an important leg up, and it is a process that should not be underestimated.

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