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 on how to become a screenwriter.
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:
- 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)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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...
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.)
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 meantime, keep in touch, and if you or anyone else has other questions, please feel free to post them below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.