by Greg DePaul (@GregDePaul)
This fall thousands, or I dunno, maybe tens or even hundreds of thousands of aspiring filmmakers will go to film schools across America. Why do they do it? Because they think it’s the path to success in the entertainment industry. And, according to statistics I’ve painstakingly compiled, two of them will be right.
But since this is LA-Screenwriter.com, it behooves us to focus on our fellow scribes and ask – Should aspiring screenwriters go to film school? In fact, should they study screenwriting in college at all? Or would they be better served by majoring in something practical and writing on the side? Or becoming pole vaulters? Or anything else that affords one a greater chance to feed their family?
The answer depends on what exactly an aspiring screenwriter actually gains from a particular institution. I should admit right now that while I didn’t go to film school (I got an MFA in Playwriting from Catholic University before moving to L.A. and breaking into the biz), I know from experience that, to make it as a screenwriter, you need serious talent and a rock hard work ethic. Neither of those can be found in a classroom. But if you have those two prerequisites and you’re considering film school (or a screenwriting program at the college or graduate level), here’s three questions to ask about a school before you apply:
1. Where do they spend their money?
Schools with big endowments love to show prospective students their brand-spanking-new next-generation digital cameras, sound stages, blue screens, and editing bays. But they’re kidding themselves – and prospective screenwriting students – if they’re implying that all that bling will help a writer tell a story. It won’t. Aspiring screenwriters need good coffee (or tea) and access to experienced writers who can mentor them as they slowly hone their craft.
For instance, at otherwise humble and unheralded Long Island University in Brooklyn you can get an M.F.A. in Television Writing and work in a mock TV staff writers’ room while getting notes on your latest script from Norman Steinberg, veteran TV writer and, wait – Did I mention? – co-writer of Blazing Saddles! Is that writers’ room made of gold? It may as well be. Does L.I.U. have the most up-to-date equipment for its filmmakers or a five-star gourmet eatery on campus? Actually, I don’t know. But who cares? To repeat – you will be taught by the guy who wrote one of the great screen comedies of all time. End of discussion. Apply now.
Oh, and by the way, another good way to tell if a school is really, really good is if they have copies of my book, Bring the Funny, The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter, in their bookstore. If so, buy it. But on to my second question…
2. What is their vision for screenwriters?
Everybody knows the landscape is changing for scribes. There are fewer opportunities to write traditional feature flicks and more hyphenates out there trying – and sometimes succeeding – to become the next Sorkin. The old model, still adhered to by most film schools and universities with screenwriting programs, makes the screenwriter a servant of the director. It’s auteur theory all over again. Like the business hasn’t evolved since the sixties. Or maybe the professors just haven’t.
But the new, improved, 21st Century Screenwriter is a 365-degree, all-around dramatic writer – able to write sitcoms, webisodes, drama TV pilots, stage plays, and yes, feature screenplays. The new, dramatic writer does all that and more. Heck, did I mention video games? How about little two-minute comedy videos that can be watched on your phone, or on that screen you now see in the back of every New York taxi? Yup, screenwriters write that stuff. We do it all.
A school that doesn’t recognize the crossover potential of each of its students is denying them a fighting chance in the new marketplace and failing to serve their needs. An example of a school that totally gets this and has The Vision is N.Y.U. Tisch’s Dramatic Writing Program. Students there leave with a full tool kit – having taken classes in most, if not all, of the formats I mentioned earlier. Their grads are ready to face the future as screenwriters in the grand sense. The more-likely-to-be-employed sense. Tuition-paying parents take notice.
Meanwhile… faculty at DePaul University in Chicago (no relation, just pure coincidence) tell me that playwriting students in their vaunted theater program and screenwriters in their film school rarely take classes together. What’s that about? Explain that to John Patrick Shanley, Kenneth Lonergan, David Mamet, or any number of crossover A-list writers working in Hollywood today. Trust me: they’ve all re-paid their college loans.
3. Who the hell is teaching?
Does their screenwriting faculty have anybody who’s ever sold a script or made a movie you’ve heard of? I’m not talking about the glamorous guest speakers they occasionally fly in to impress the student body en masse. I mean real, veteran screenwriters who actually roll up their sleeves and teach from experience on a day-to-day basis.
Hard to believe, but there are whole screenwriting and film departments out there without a single screenwriter who’s ever broken through the paper ceiling (Yes, that’s my new term for the big, white wall that separates aspiring from working screenwriters. Like it?) I won’t mention which schools I’m talking about because it might shame them, and because you should do the research yourself. It’s easy to do: just point and click your way through their faculty profiles.
USC, UCLA, Chapman University, Boston University, Emerson College, NYU… all have real, working writers teaching you how to become a real, working writer. Kudos to them. So do a handful of other film schools and universities that teach screenwriting. Go to those schools if at all possible.
The other option, of course, is not to formally study screenwriting at all. Instead, get in your car and go to Los Angeles and get a head start on a career that’s mind-blowingly difficult and wildly time-consuming to break into. You’ll cut four years off your learning curve and save mom and dad (and maybe yourself) a buttload of money. And by the way, if you do that and you wanna write comedy, I have a killer new book you should take with you. It’s called Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter.
Screenwriter Greg DePaul wrote Bride Wars and Saving Silverman. He has sold screenplays to Miramax, New Line, Sony, MGM, Disney, and Village Roadshow studios. He teaches screenwriting at NYU and The New School, and his book Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter comes out this summer on Focal Press. You can learn more about him and his book at gregdepaul.com and bringthefunny.com. And Yes, he is available for script consultations.