Tuesday, June 1, 2010

College degree to write?

There was an ad in Mandy, the website that posts jobs for film crews, including writers. A small company wants writers, but only writers with college degrees.

And they must have a degree in screenwriting.

The reaction from all 0f my close friends which includes writers, directors and actors with a DP or two thrown in for good measure, was the same.

That's idiotic.

Needless to say, only one of my friends ever came close to a degree and it was at AFI, the film school here in L.A. A director friend of mine has a list of credits 3 pages long and he dropped out of school in Grade 10. I went to college for 2 years, majored in Psych and English and dropped out when I got a job at a local TV station and never looked back.

So the question is; will a writer with a degree in screenwriting necessarily be better than one who is not?

The answer of course is maybe or maybe not. Does the degree mean anything. Same answer, maybe or maybe not.

I have some experience in that I taught screenwriting at UCLA Extension for 2 years. It was an online course where I had 15 students each semester. At the same time I was working on scripts of my own.

Out of the 200 or so students I figured that there were probably 4 who, if they moved to LA, knew some contacts, networked and were lucky, could possibly make a living writing.

Why so few?

Because not everyone is a writer.

As someone once said "most people would like to have written, rather than write."

There are too many "aspiring writers" who think that buying Screenwriter or Final Draft software which are the top softwares used by screenwriters, is all you need to call yourself a writer. They also think that Hollywood is just hungry for scripts by unknown writers.

All of that is a myth. But they refuse to believe it.

For those who don't know this, there is a small chain of bookstores called Samuel French, catering primarily to stage and theater but also to the movie industry. Simply put they are the complete source of books on film. There's two stores in LA, one in Hollywood and one in Studio City.

What always comes to mind when I drop in, are the books on screenwriting. They range from how-to to how-not-to and everything in between. There are at least a hundred books on the subject of screenwriting and I always wondered how an aspiring writer could select one.

Originally there was one. And it wasn't even on screenwriting. It's called The Art of Dramatic Writing and was written in 1946 by Lajos Egri.It was the only book I had and still recommend. You can still find it at Sam French's.

It can be argued that most writers went to college primarily so that they could get jobs teaching at colleges while they wrote their epics. Writers are mostly born, not created. This doesn't mean all of them write great books, but true writers have a curiosity almost from the day they were born.

They want to know stuff.

And the film industry was and remains to an extent, the haven for talent and those things that are undefinable. I always told my students I could show them how I write and how to write a screenplay.

But I could not show them how to write it well.

Because that changes with every one of us. Nobody writes the same, for the most part. One of my students took my class for 5 semesters and at the end, was no better than the first script he wrote. Two others really were inspired and created work far better than what they began in a semester or two.

Most of the students were very ordinary, nothing awful but nothing good either. Many took one semester and realized how hard it was to "fill in the blank page" as we say. Some quit after a few weeks. Only those four excelled.

And only two continue to write, one had a screenplay optioned. And they're still out there writing. One works at a day job and gets up at 5am to write for an hour before she goes to work.

Even I couldn't do that on a good day.

For the record, I never had formal training in writing. I learned the hard way, by writing and writing until people said it was good. I once retyped the entire screenplay of the Oscar winning film The Deerhunter. Somehow it made me feel like I had written a professional screenplay. And I retyped a few others.

It took me around 3 years to become reasonably good while I worked as director, producer and sometimes writer for commercials and corporate films. For some it comes natural, for the rest of us it takes discipline and craft.

(Fri: Projects at hand)

1 comment:

  1. You're absolutely right Jim; it's the same with acting. I went to drama school full time for three years as opposed to taking a degree; we worked on the physical and psychological aspects of acting and drama, which is the reason we don't lose our voices when performing every night, and we picked up techniques to help others with speech therapy on the way.
    In our year, which was probably the most successful year at our college, maybe ten of us, out of about sixty even started as actors; the rest went on to be speech therapists and teachers.
    Then when we went into the theatre the people with degrees were making the coffee – of course a lot of them went on to be movie directors but that's another story.