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READER QUESTION: Film School vs. the Real World

Hey, screenwriters--

Today’s question comes from Eric, a college student who’s considering going to film school. Eric writes…

“Around last December, I applied to a number of film schools that offered an MFA degree in screenwriting. The degree itself was not the selling point of these schools but rather the time to write and connections a student will make through classes. Having no connection to Los Angeles or the television industry, I figured that programs like this offered the training and personal contacts necessary to become a television writer. Advice from this blog and other websites have since forced me to reconsider my choices. March is the time when MFA programs start sending their acceptances and rejections. And even though I decided to forego graduate school, I still have some second thoughts.

“Basically, if one of these schools accepts me, I am wondering what the best use of my time and money would be. Will the two years (and considerable amount of tuition) actually help me in my path to be staffed as a writer or is it more reasonable to start at the bottom and learn from experience as soon as possible? Of course, I am always working on spec scripts and will continue to do so whether I'm working as a student, PA, or otherwise.”

First, Eric, let me say this… this is a question near and dear to my heart, because I went to grad school and had this very same internal debate many years ago. In fact, I’ve been through grad school, and sometimes I still have this same internal debate.

So before I continue, I have to say this: I can't give you an answer to this, because there’s no black and white, no right or wrong. Only you can answer this.

I can, however, offer you some advice and insight, which you can use to chew on, digest, and come up with your own decision. So here’s my long-winded two cents worth, my yin-and-yang of it all…

I went to grad school-- UCLA’s MFAPlaywriting Program. I had been debating between applying to the Playwriting Program or the Screenwriting Program (you could only apply to one), and I chose Playwriting because the playwrights were allowed to take screenwriting classes… but the screenwriters weren’t allowed to take playwriting classes. Which, to this day, strikes me as ridiculous and inane, but whatever.

I do not regret… at all… going to grad school.

Grad school gave me a two-year bubble in which I did nothing but focus on my writing, becoming a better, stronger writer and artist. Any chance you have to do that is invaluable.

Grad school also gave me a two-year bubble in which I could get acclimated to the city. Which doesn’t sound that important, but it is, especially when you’re coming from out of town (which I was and you are). L.A. is a city, a culture, and an industry unlike any others, and it’s nearly impossible to dive right into it and understand how everything works. It takes time to figure out how to navigate this place, both geographically and emotionally… traffic patterns, business practices, what the people are like… all of it.

Many places won’t even hire you as a P.A. or an assistant until you’ve been living in L.A. for a while… they need to know they can say to you, “Hey, Eric—I need you to run a couple errands. I need you to pick up two boxes of pencils, some nails, a box of t-shirts, and six cappuccinos… and I need you back here in twenty minutes,” that you can race out the door and know exactly how to get all that done without needing to check the Internet, Mapquest it, whatever.

So grad school gives you the time to learn all that.

What grad school did NOT give me… and I will say this loud and clear, because I THINK THIS IS A TRAGIC, DISGRACEFUL FLAW OF MOST ACADEMIC PROGRAMS, BOTH UNDERGRAD AND GRAD (and I hope some college administrator somewhere reads this)… but what grad school did NOT give me was any sense of how the business of entertainment works.

I not only learned very little about the business structures and processes of the industry, I learned virtually nothing about how to navigate that world… how to get a job, how to keep a job, how to network, who to network with, who the important players are.

And at the end of the day, the entertainment industry is a business and you can’t survive or excel unless you understand how that business works.

So while there’s certainly an argument that some of that info can’t be learned, or properly internalized, until you’re actually in the real world… I think any grad school program that wants to send its students into the world to make an actual living has a responsibility to teach them those things. And they don’t.

I also don’t think you’ll find—among your fellow students and teachers—the networks, connections, and relationships that will help you get a job as soon as you enter the real world. You’ll make some amazing friends and allies, to be sure… and they’ll serve you many times over your career (I’ve produced two TV shows with friends I met in grad school)… but they’re not the relationships that will help you get that first job. (How could they be? When you’re starting out, you and your friends are all at the same low level…)

Having said all of that…

Grad school gave me one thing that I never could’ve found anywhere else, and it completely and utterly changed my life.

In my final year of the program, I applied to UCLA’s Graduate Mentor Program, which was a program for graduating grad students where UCLA would match you up with working professionals (it's since been disbanded). I applied, feeling sure I’d get some podunk playwright, living in Van Nuys, begging me to slip his script to the UCLA playwriting faculty.

Instead, I got a man named Warren Littlefield, who was—at the time—President of NBC Entertainment. Warren had been President of NBC for virtually all of the ‘90’s; while he was there, he developed and put on the air shows like Seinfeld, Friends, Will & Grace, E.R., Frasier. Years earlier, as he’d worked his way up the ladder, he worked on The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Law & Order, Cheers, etc.

To put it simply, he was the crown jewel of the mentor program… and as time would tell, by far and away the best mentor I could’ve asked for.

After reading some of my plays, Warren asked if I had ever considered television writing. I hadn’t (UCLA had no TV writing classes), so Warren got me scripts and videos and helped me write my first spec scripts (Dawson’s Creek and Buffy). He then hooked me up with a man named Geoff Harris, who ran NBC’s Story Department, and Geoff helped me get my first agent.

Shortly after I graduated, Warren left NBC and started the Littlefield Company, a television production company in partnership with NBC Studios. He hired me as the assistant to his VP of Talent, and I worked there for a year and a half. When our NBC deal expired in 2001, I left the company and bounced around for a for a couple years. In 2003, I returned to Littlefield—which now had a Paramount deal—and spent the next two and a half years there as an exec.

To this day, I still have projects with Warren and talk to everyone at the company—which is now at ABC Studios—almost daily. Wa
rren continues to be an amazing mentor and friend… and I wouldn’t have met him if I hadn’t had UCLA.

So that relationship is easily the most valuable thing I got from grad school.

Having said that… there’s no guarantee you’ll meet your Warren. You might. But you might also meet him (or her) working at an agency… or a studio… or on a film set. There’s just no telling.

So ultimately, Eric, I can’t give you a solid answer to this question.

I think it boils down to how you learn best and what you need out of life right now.

OPTION #1: If you feel like you need time to simply focus on your writing, strengthen your literary muscles, and become the best artist you possibly can… go to grad school. Think of it as an academic and artistic gymnasium, and for two years, you’ll do nothing but work out.

BUT…

OPTION #2: If you feel like you’re already a strong writer, and you’re ready to begin learning the business and practical side of the industry, skip it and try to get a job. This obviously doesn’t mean you won’t still be writing your ass off—doing screenplays, specs, pilots, etc.—but I will say this: you will not have loads of time to focus on your writing, and L.A. is an easy city to get distracted in. It’s very tough to balance a job and devote any real time to your writing… it takes an immense amount of discipline and self-sacrifice (but hey—that’s what being a writer’s about).

Only you know which is the right choice for you at this point in time. And the truth is-- neither path is more right than another. Neither is a more direct route to being a professional writer than other. It simply comes down to how you feel you'll grow best... professionally, artistically, personally.

So I hope this was helpful and you can glean something useful from it. In the mean time, good luck… lemme know what you decide… and don’t be afraid to email with more questions….

Chad

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