Monday, 18 December 2017

Screenwriting Advice for BA Students... From a Masters Grad (Part Three: To Degree or Not Degree)

Here's the sad truth: 

Most, if not everyone, doesn't care where you studied, or how much you paid, or how high your grades were. Of course, doing well at school is an indicator of your ability and talent, but it's far from the final say. Ipsoergo, if your BA is so worthless, therefore, your Master's is as well.

Might as well just gung-ho it with a copy of Blake Snyder, right?

If the answer was that straightforward, this post wouldn't exist, would it?

Here's the thing: just like agents, you do not need a Masters to become a writer and get work. I've already shown you the resources available that can teach you all about craft and business. Indeed, the steep price tags of these more advanced degrees can be turn offs, and with an industry loaded with contradictory stories about how people broke in, many completely clear of degrees, gauging their actual worth can be very tricky.

HOWEVER, a Master's in Screenwriting is not merely just learning how to write a better movie:
  • Careers: Other skillsets and career paths can open themselves up to you, that you wouldn't be exposed to by just reading. Not merely writing for film (feature and short) and television, but radio, video games, commercials, as well as development roles like script reader, script editor and then, finally, teaching and consulting. 
  • Professional development: on the course, you'll be getting your material developed, reviewed and critiqued by veterans with whom you develop a relationship with and can turn to for help. You can even, if you ask nicely, get them to read and critique non-course work, or run a CV or cover letter passed for a check. This also covers pitching and getting comfortable talking to others.
  • Work ethic: the structure and deadlines of the course will encourage you to start working more professionally and efficiently on your material. Learning how to turn around an idea into a script in about five-six weeks is a useful skill (not to mention, close to what is expected in the business), as well as how to generate multiple ideas (more on that in a bit).
Really, it comes down to you: are you better as a lone wolf, learning as you go, or do you need a guiding hand to help? Do you do better in class, with order and structure, or do you thrive on the wiles to the tempestous muse?

Let's say yes, you do need that class environment. What do you do next in course hunting?

What have I kept saying? Be A Discerning Shopper. Some degrees are undeniably better than others: fairer prices, better modules, more variety, more content and higher quality tutors. Just like with books and websites, similar criteria applies:
  • Tutors: Just like with writing gurus, make sure the tutors are practitioners and have some experience. You likely won't be taught by a titan like Julian Fellowes or Steven Moffat, but even someone who was a producer on Casualty or a development exec at Lime will be a stronger guide and mentor than just a regular film professor. They know your pain, your anxieties, and will be able to offer you support and even advice on what to do.
  • Module content: The course should offer a nice sample platter of the industry, covering all the key mediums, as well as a fair focus on the business side. There is no point in spending thousands on a course that, yes, can make you write well, but does not prepare you for the industry or suggest career options to explore while you prepare your material. Also, how is it structured? Does it feel like one subject flows into the next, or is it just a random jumble?
  • Reputation: The more presitigious an establishment, the more difficult the entry criteria will be, and just like pricing, this can be a hurdle. The National Film and Television School are especially strict, demanding an entire portfolio of work from you (if you want to try, start working on it now). Inversely, the smaller and less well known the school, the higher the chances are that the MA is not very good, especially if it's not a school that primarily specializes in media.
So, you like the course and the school. Great, but what are some other MA benefits?

Well, one of the big downfalls of newbie writers is getting stuck on one project: that one pilot or feature that will, somehow, magically propel them to riches and fame, and as a result, never diversifying or working on anything else. This is the screenwriting equivalent of abortion: denying your career life before it's even begun. As a writer, like it or not, you have to create many stories, not just one. Going on an MA will force you to learn how to generate mutiple projects in a timely fashion, and not get tempted to be glued to one 'magic ticket'.

Another benefit? Names do, somewhat, matter here: in more developmental roles such as reading and editing, being taught by someone with a modicum of clout and respect can be handy to drop into your CV to show you've recieved quality training in said discipline. Plus, depending on who and where you pitch your project to, what your tutor worked on may also come in handy as an extra hook (want to sell a crime series? Maybe mention that you were helped in its creation by someone who worked on, say, Luther or Prime Suspect).

What's more, as you'll recall from your BA, you'll develop a little network among your peers of people who can share advice and even work, to be read and critiqued. While they may not seem like much now, someday... you never know. A script read today for a classmate could equal someone getting you a job on a hit Netflix series a few years down the line. Plus, you get free script reads, which never hurts. You may even get to write shorts, if the course crosses over or collaborates with other ones at the school, such as directing or producing, which will beef up your credits.

However, what if the propsect of more school just doesn't suit you? What are your options if you'd like some type of class, but not as expensive or long term a commitment? Well, there are no shortage of shorter writing courses, online classes and weekend workshops that you can easily search up online. Some will even tackle other roles, such as Yvonne Grace's sessions on being a script editor.

No, these aren't necessarily a replacement for what a good MA can offer, but they do offer some of the same features and, with careful selection, you can add up several in row and enjoy a variety of teachers and approaches. Like with an actual degree, the same criteria applies: make sure they're reputable, cost effective and offers a good amount of stuff.

Whatever you decide to do, degree or not, remember this: INVEST IN YOUR EDUCATION.

No, you don't have to drown in debt with expensive degrees, but learning and improving your craft, any way you can, is vital. It's slow, it's difficult and can often be maddening, but if you put in the effort and learn your inciting inicidents from your midpoints, and your elevator pitches from your series bibles, you will already be beating out a lot of your competition. The harder you work and the more you read and write, the better you'll be. Simple as: no cheat sheet or secret formula can replace that.

So, you've worked hard on writing, and are starting to get comfortable. You've got a few scripts that are coming along nicely. What can you do in the meantime? Join me in part four, where I finally talk about your job prospects. SPOILERS: your first gig likely won't be as a writer.

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