Kevin Hickman was going to be the next Spielberg. After film school at the North Carolina School of the Arts, he'd direct a few blockbusters, then win an Oscar or two. Once he arrived at NCSA in 1995, though, Hickman noticed that all his fellow students were going to be the next Spielberg. A year later he got married. He still wanted to direct. But what he really needed to do was pay the rent. "I was going to be a starving artist or I was going to make a living," he concluded.

Now, thanks to his film-editing degree, Hickman, 33, works as an assistant editor on such major Hollywood productions as "Seabiscuit." It's not glamorous work: he spends most of his long days in a very dark room. But he loves it. Also, the pay's good and his name is always in the credits. Even people who run film schools will tell you attending one isn't a prerequisite for a movie career. "If you're talented, you don't need four years," says Jerry Sherlock, founder of the New York Film Academy. "If you're not, 10 years isn't going to do it." Hollywood is filled with people who never spent a day studying their craft. (It shows, doesn't it?)

But in an industry built on ideas and access, it helps to have an edge. Even Steven Spielberg's 19-year-old son Max, who surely won't have any trouble finding work, went to NYFA. The harsh reality is that for most aspiring auteurs, the only chance they may ever get to direct a film is... in film school. At NCSA, each team gets handed a $5,000 budget for a senior-thesis film; more than 300 are made annually. But the incomparable part of film school, says Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, who graduated from USC in 1973, is being immersed in "the pressure cooker of film fanatics. You're surrounded by people just like you--eating, sleeping, living films."

For kids with Spielbergian dreams, though, school offers no guarantees. It doesn't matter if they attend acclaimed programs like USC's in Los Angeles or NYU's in Manhattan, or all the others that have flourished between the coasts. "This isn't like Yale, where if you happen to know somebody in Skull and Bones, you wind up running an office in the State Department," says Zemeckis. Film school is for people who don't want to sit back and wait for their lottery number to come up. "The fact is, you don't have to go to school to do what I want to do," says Alison Peck, a USC student. But school has hooked her up with solid internships. The jobs are unpaid and she's schlepping a lot of coffee, but she's also meeting people--and reading scripts, which makes her think, "Hey, I could do better than that." Someday, maybe she will.