Monday, June 23, 2014

I audited James Franco's Screenwriting class.

A couple weeks ago, I received a press release touting an online screenwriting class that actor/writer/director/producer James Franco had launched on Skillshare.  I get a lot of press releases and requests like this, and to be honest, I rarely republish them because I'm leery of publicizing a service or product I don't really understand.  I told Franco's people as much, and they offered me free access to his class.  I'm always impressed when people put their money where their mouth is and I figured I couldn't turn down the opportunity to evaluate Franco's lessons.

I like Franco.  He gets teased often for having his hand in a lot of different projects, but the longer I'm in Hollywood, the more I appreciate someone with a work ethic like that. This also isn't his first foray into teaching, as he's taught in the film and english departments at USC, UCLA, CalArts and NYU.

The class is a series of 15 video lessons (more like lectures, really) that total about 90 minutes of running time.  The videos are split between Franco and his Rabbit Bandini Productions co-founder Vince Jolivette as they tackle different aspects of the course.  Franco's segments are more weighted towards the storytelling end of the instruction.

An Online Skillshare Class by James Franco

Some of this is useful, as in the first segment when Franco discusses how a script is a tool to "make it clear to all the people working there, what you have in your mind, but in a way that allows these other departments to do their jobs."   He pushes the idea of simplified focus - one main character, one main storyline, etc, instead of many storylines.  This is a good basic introduction to crafting in narrative as well as the opportunities that short films allow, such as more experimental work and unlikable characters.

Here's the thing - most of you probably read that and thought, "That's spot-on, but I already know this already!" It's probably not an off-base assumption to guess that anyone who's already made a short film or has taken at least one or two film classes will have that reaction.  This is a video series targeted largely at people who have had little or no film education or practical experience. That is the audience that will get the most out of this.

If this was a series available for free on YouTube, I'd probably have already written a post touting all the solid advice contained within and linked to it.  I don't really take any exception to the ideas that Franco and Jolivette express here, but I also don't know if I can honestly advise you to spend $25 for it.  This is very basic 101-level stuff, and I feel like most of my readers have either already grown beyond it or can get much of the same advice for free elsewhere.

So that means the price tag comes down to the value of entering in the competition.  The videos lay out the class assignment - write a short screenplay based on a short story of one of three works. As their release notes, "In every Skillshare class, students create a project to learn by doing. Franco and Jolivette are challenging their students to write and share an 8-minute short screenplay adapted from one of three selected works: The Spoon River Anthology; Winesburg, Ohio; or Pastures of Heaven. Franco and Jolivette will read the 10 student screenplays with the most likes and offer one-on-one feedback to their favorite. The deadline to submit screenplays for consideration is July 24."

This is where I have my biggest disagreement.  I don't necessarily like the idea of adapting another story as a learning experience for writing a story.  Franco makes a decent case of why he chose this method, as it forces the writers to think how to translate the narrative from one medium to the other.  I think it's more important to learn how to find your own voice with your own material.  But that's mostly my thing. Franco defends his opinion pretty well.

Jolivette's videos in the course cover a lot of the more practical matters such as budgeting, working with the crew, pitching, writing loglines and treatments.  Again, it's all useful information, if a bit basic for anyone who's already made a short film.

The series would be a wonderful companion with my own 12-Step Screenwriting videos.  At $25, the price is a little steep for the information contained therein.  I suppose one could look at the $25 as an entry fee in a short film script contest, though it's somewhat vague what the benefits are of Franco and Jolivette reading your script and deciding they like it.

If it was $25 to enter a short film contest, that might be more understandable. Then I might at least feel like you'd come out of this with a calling card that could do you some good in the industry.  Or if the prize involved Franco deciding to direct and or act in at least one of the short films, that too might add enough value to the class that I'd consider it worthwhile.

Hell, throw everything else I said out.  If the videos (or even half of the videos) were free and public, and then you could make your own choices about if you wanted to pay to see the rest and enter the class, I'd probably still say, "Hey, check this out. Some of you might get something from this."

As it stands right now, I'm sure many of you feel you have better ways to spend $25.  Hopefully I've given enough information so you can make a judgement about if this class is something you'd find valuable.  Those of you who are interested in checking out Franco's class can find it here.

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