PRIMETIME: Should I Go To College To Become a Screenwriter?

Today’s question comes from Susie, a high school senior and aspiring screenwriter from Toronto.  Susie writes…

I’m an aspiring screenwriter in my last year of high school, trying to figure out the best path for me… but I ultimately want to end up working in LA.  Do you need a degree to be a writer in Hollywood or would it be more beneficial to just move to LA and start gaining experience?  Would  schooling make it easier to get a foot in the door?  If you do have a degree, does it matter where it’s from or does it all boil down to the quality of the script?

First of all, Susie, check out my December 10th post, “Does Hollywood Have a Place For Teen Screenwriters,” where you’ll find a great list of ways to prepare yourself for your future screenwriting career… as well as a list of resources for young screenwriters like yourself.

Now, let’s look at your specific questions…

Do you need a degree to be a writer in Hollywood?…

NO—and you especially don’t need a degree in film, theater, or screenwriting.

In fact, most working writers I know do not have a degree from film school.  Most however, have gone to college, and many have graduate degrees.

Still, college isn’t for everyone, and there are other ways to become a great writer.  But whatever path you choose, what you DO need to succeed in entertainment is this…

  • Talent
  • A deep well of life experiences, personal stories to write about and explore
  • A strong vision, a specific way of seeing the world, or—as people say in Hollywood—a unique “voice”
  • An incredible work ethic, a willingness to work tirelessly and endlessly
  • Top-notch communication skills—the ability to read and think critically and articulate your thoughts
  • A network of professional contacts (which you’ll develop once you’re here, so don’t worry about this now)

    The best college filmmaking class you'll take.

    The best college filmmaking class you'll take.

Having said all this…

I still highly recommend going to college.

While a degree isn’t necessary to succeed in Hollywood, most employers have a (possibly unconscious) bias toward people who do have degrees.  They assume, rightly or wrongly, that college graduates are more mature, more professional, and have a larger base of knowledge and experience.  This may not be true all the time, but college can give you, as a young writer, several “tools” you may not find elsewhere…

  1. YOU’LL LEARN TO THINK. College will teach you to think critically—and to articulate your thoughts.  Working in Hollywood—whether you’re a writer, producer, agent, or exec—a huge part of your job will be evaluating material (scripts, movies, TV episodes, books, plays, etc.) and communicating your thoughts effectively.  Studios give “notes” to writers, agents pitch ideas to clients, assistants write “coverage” for producers.  All of these require remarkable critical thinking and communication skills that are rarely honed in high school.
  2. YOU’LL READ STORIES. In college literature classes, you’ll find books, stories, articles, poems, memoirs, and plays you’d otherwise never have a chance to read.  In fact, most schools make it easy, offering classes like “Russian Lit” or “Gay and Lesbian Short Stories” or “Religious Literature of 16th Century India.”  Seek these classes out; they’ll introduce you to writers, stories, and writings you may never again have a chance to read!  And as a storyteller, it’s your job to absorb as much literature as possible.  Not only because you may find a story you’re dying to adapt or bring to the screen, but because you’ll learn about various storytelling techniques, narrative structures, character traits, writing styles.
  3. YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT EVERYTHING ELSE. College also offers an amazing opportunity to learn about millions of non-literary things that can—and will—inform your writing: string theory, Australian history, reptilian anatomy, trickle-down economics.  Some will spark your imagination, inspiring fantastic stories or scripts… others will simply make you a smarter, more creative, more insightful writer and communicator.
  4. YOU’LL WRITE YOUR ASS OFF. As a college student, you’ll write an endless stream of papers, stories, poems, articles, essays.  And while you may not aspire to be a professional essayist, everything you write will strengthen your muscles.  You’ll learn to better organize thoughts, construct sentences, articulate complex thoughts.  You’ll learn to juggle multiple projects and meet deadlines.  You’ll even learn to write passionately and articulately about stuff you don’t care about—which, believe it or not, you’ll do a lot as a working writer.
Question #2:  Should you get a film degree?

As someone who was a film/theater/creative writing major—and loved it—I’m going to say…

NO.

There’s nothing wrong with being a film major, but I think it’s more beneficial to not be a film major.

College is the one time in your life when you can learn, try, sample, experience, and experiment with things you’ll never again be able to do.  You’ll take classes in South African music or quantum physics.  You’ll date people you’d never interact with in the “outside world.”  You’ll get drunk and make humiliating mistakes.  You’ll travel to foreign countries and taste exotic foods.  You’ll have deep conversations with people you’d never talk to elsewhere.  You’ll make stupid decisions based on love, spite, lust, loyalty, drugs.

In other words, college provides the unrepeatable opportunity to build an enormous library of life experiences that will shape you and your storytelling for as long as you live.

And these experiences are MUCH more valuable than learning lighting techniques are camera skills.

After all, lighting techniques and camera skills are important, but you’ll find plenty of other opportunities to learn those things.  (There are classes and workshops all over the country, especially in L.A., where you can pick them up.)

I don't know what this kid's thinking, but I promise you: he's learning more about writing great films than anyone in film school.

I promise: this kid's learning more about writing great stories than anyone in film school.

But you will NEVER have the same opportunity to simply live, learn, and experience life.  This doesn’t mean you’ll stop living and growing, but college offers a unique four-year bubble where you don’t have to worry about supporting your spouse, feeding your children, paying your mortgage.

In other words, many film majors leave college knowing how to frame a shot and format a script… yet they have nothing to actually tell stories about.  They haven’t experienced enough broken hearts or crushing defeats or fist-pumping triumphs or Victorian poetry or heated family arguments or organic chemistry or betrayals of friendship or head-splitting hangovers or romantic regrets to explore life with new vision or insight.

And vision and insight are MUCH harder to come by than classes on sound mixing.

So I recommend, Susie, rather than going to undergrad film school or becoming a film major… going to college and majoring in something that fascinates you, widens your world-view, introduces you to people and subjects you wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

This… not a screenwriting class… will make you a great writer.  (You can still take the class, but your education should be about learning life… not film.)

Having said that, if you do want to be a film major, or go to film school, rather than looking at the “quality” of the program (because again—you can learn filmmaking techniques anywhere), I’d look at something else:

The strength of the school’s alumni connections in Hollywood.

Podunk University may have an “outstanding” program, but if they don’t have an alumni network of working professionals, no one in Hollywood will care about your degree.

Unfortunately, there are few undergraduate film programs that have powerful alumni networks.  Yet over the course of my years in Hollywood, these seem to have the strongest (in America):  USC, UCLA, Emerson College, NYU, Harvard (especially in comedy-writing and TV), and Northwestern.  These schools do an unmatched job of connecting their alumni, helping them to find and capitalize on professional opportunities.

So where’s that leave us, Susie?…

Go to college… learn and live and experience as much as you can.  Take some film classes if you want.

When you graduate, maybe you come to L.A.  Or maybe you feel you need more “cooking” time, more time to percolate as a writer.  Perhaps you move to France for a year.  Or enroll in the Peace Corps.  Or volunteer in inner city schools.  Maybe you go home to tend to a dying family member.  Maybe you join a cult.  Maybe you start your own lipstick company.

Hopefully, as you’re doing these things, you’re continuing to write… bulking up your writing muscles and building that library of experiences.

Finally, when you decide you’re ready to buckle down and pursue screenwriting as a full-time professional career… you move to Los Angeles.  This may be the day after you graduate.  It may seven years after you graduate.

But whenever it is, too many young people, eager to “make it” in Hollywood, dive into the professional literary world before they’ve gorged themselves on life, before they actually have something to say.  Sadly, most of these people never make it.  They give up, blaming the Hollywood “system” or myopic agents or close-minded producers.

Don’t be one of these people.

I hope this helps, Susie… and some day, hopefully soon, I’ll see you out here!

In the mean time, keep in touch… and if you or anyone else has other questions, please feel free to post them below… or email me at chad@chadgervich.com.

10 thoughts on “PRIMETIME: Should I Go To College To Become a Screenwriter?

  1. jade

    I think going to film school can be beneficial but making contacts in film school doesn’t always work. I’m a film student and a lot of my teachers have no reliable contacts that they can give numbers to. A lot of film schools claim the teachers are working professionals but most of my teachers don’t even work in the field or have never worked in the field just majored in it in college and got a teaching license. If anything you can make better contacts attending screening of big films and going to film shoots.(I live near Chicago. There’s always screenings and big named films being shot) I even made more contacts going on a family vacation to California and I even made contacts attending a film shoot of Stars original series Boss. I’m 20 and I also have a pretty big portfolio of films and plays well before film. So film school is not just networking and gaining contacts, but its mostly to prefect your craft and thats about it. But as a film student I say go to film school, don’t go to film school. It depends on the person and how they feel about it and if there ready for the word “No”…

  2. Dani

    Thank you so much! I’m in middle school and I want to be a script writer/author. Here’s some questions for you:
    1. How do you become a script writer? Does someone come and pick you right off of the streets? No. :)
    2. Do you have to live in Hollywood or New York?
    3. Do you have to be famous?
    4. Is it hard to think of anything you didnt say to the people?
    5. Do you have other jobs?
    —————–pleaseee Email meeeeeee backkkkkkk——————-

  3. KatKat

    Good article and I agree. If you’re going to college, get a major in a profession that can earn you a living. As much as we all believe that we can ‘make’ it in Hollywood, very few actually do.

  4. Write a Essay

    Chad – I don’t think it’s about how much you know, it’s about what you know that makes a person’s intellectual knowledge valuable. I know a number of less educated people than myself that are better off. I do agree that a formal education is the best investment you can may for yourself, so if your have the time and motivation, do it!

    Best of luck!

  5. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    Chad,
    I totally agree with everything you said in your post and in your response. No one gives a shit if you went to film school or not, they care if you can do the work. I think because of where I went to school, the entire program was built to work exactly like the studio system from day one, so I was surrounded by people who had the drive to make it in the film business. As a consequence, that particular undergrad program was just as good if not better than grad programs at being beneficial to me. We actually don’t disagree on much, I’m just trying to point out that there are undergrad programs out there that can be just as beneficial to networking and contacts as graduate programs.

  6. Chad GervichChad Gervich Post author

    Hey, Michael–

    Thanks for the great response, and I wanted to respond… because this is something I should’ve addressed in the post itself.

    First of all, I have written EXTENSIVELY on this blog about how it’s imperative to have a strong network of professional contacts. This is why it’s necessary for aspiring writers to live in Los Angeles (especially TV writers), where they can meet and form relationships with the producers, execs, showrunners, and agents they need in order to build a career. This is why it’s nearly impossible to break in OUTSIDE of L.A.

    So you are absolutely, 100% correct. That is a GREAT reason for going to film school.

    However– and I don’t know if this is what you meant in your post or not…

    I think there’s a difference between UNDERGRAD film schools and GRADUATE film schools.

    I’ll address this more in another post, because I have a question from another reader, Rebecca, about it… but I think going to GRADUATE film school is a very different thing than simply MAJORING, as an undergrad, in film or writing.

    Many undergrad film programs are little more than a collection of “introductory” classes, they’re not an intensive training program… and frankly, most undergrads aren’t yet 100% sure what they want to be “when they grow up.” Which is fine… but most undergraduate programs are designed for these students; they’re meant to give a liberal arts education with a “focus” on filmmaking– a focus that isn’t particularly helpful as real-world training. Or, rather, it may be “helpful,” but it is also knowledge that can be picked up in other workshops or classes outside the university system… or even by working for a short time in the industry itself.

    (There are a handful of schools that are an exception– like Emerson College, for example, which has an incredibly intensive and thorough undergrad program.)

    Besides, NO EMPLOYER gives a shit what your undergrad major was. NO ONE will care if you were a film major or an organic chemistry major, so majoring in film doesn’t give you any kind of employable edge– even as a writer. (I promise, no showrunner ever said, “I have two talented writers qualified for this job… but one majored in film and the other majored in Russian lit– I’ll take the film major.”)

    So since undergraduate film school rarely gives you an employable edge… and rarely gives any deep, thorough training or education… I think most UNDERGRADS are better off going to college to become great “livers” rather than great “filmmakers.”

    But like I said– grad school’s a different story, a different post.

    Chad

  7. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    Chad,
    While I think you make some excellent points – ones I wholeheartedly agree with and have written about before, the positives for going to film school has some very good points as well. You dismiss some of the best reasons to go to film school, and completely ignore the number one reason: contacts.
    Yes, while the experiences and people you meet in LA will be FAR more educational than what you learn in film school (I’m a former film school grad as well), one of the biggest reasons to go is that some of the most successful people in the industry got that way because their classmates helped them out – with a job, or selling a script, or getting staffed on s ahow, etc. etc. etc. While it’s great to go to a regular college if you don’t have 110% commitment to making it as a writer (it’s a great fall back in case you don’t make it), if you have that commitment, you’re doing yourself a disservice by going to college with a bunch of other people who won’t be going to LA or NY or getting into the business, and thus unable to help you out in the future. The network you make with your classmates, and the opportunities they can provide, FAR outweighs the benefits of anything else. Yes, you can make it on your own, making your own contacts, and without anyone else’s help (I wrote an article on that coming out soon). But if you are 1000% committed to being a screenwriter, think about the benefits of going to school with a talented director who shoots a short film you write, and it gets into festivals. Or going to school with a producing major who takes your script with them to their first intern job for Joel Silver and it gets optioned and/or bought. Etc. etc. etc.
    There are many, MANY more reasons why it is beneficial to go to film school, and I’ll be writing an article on that soon.
    As always, thank you Chad for your strong opinions and good points.

  8. quade

    “…too many young people, eager to “make it” in Hollywood, dive into the professional literary world before they’ve gorged themselves on life, before they actually have something to say.”

    Yet, it’s incredibly difficult for a person with a lifetime of experiences to fight the age bias inherent in the system.

    Starting a bit too early is far better than starting too late.

COMMENT