Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tuesday Talkback: Does an MFA in Screenwriting mean anything?

As some of you may have discovered, I've been pretty terrible about keeping up with emails the last few months.  Part of this is due to me being over-extended and part of it is the result of me putting an email aside if I don't think I have enough experience to answer it effectively.  But a few of these are good questions that I imagine others would be interested in, so for now, I think I'll feature some of these questions on Tuesday Talkback.

Today's question comes from Malcolm:

I'm a 20-something, inexperienced, aspiring writer, and I'm hoping you can shed some light on MFA screenwriting programs. Specifically, do you think there's much value in the opportunities presented by these programs, in terms of getting a "foot in the door" upon graduation? 

When someone tells you "I got my MFA in screenwriting from AFI," does that really mean anything to you or anyone you know? Any insight on the topic of film schools would be much appreciated. 

For me personally, hearing someone got an MFA in Screenwriting doesn't impress me.  There are great screenwriters who are self-taught, plenty who didn't go to grad school, and some who didn't even study writing in college.  

Having said that, I have no direct experience with MFA writing programs.  I can see the value in going to a graduate-level film school if you're looking to be a director or a producer, but I think it's less essential if you're aiming just to be a screenwriter.  I don't doubt that those programs offer some great insight into the writing process and probably offer a structure that many aspirings find valuable.  And if that works for you?  Great!

But would it be necessary?  Would the mere credential open doors for you?  My gut says no.  (Well, unless your goal is to teach screenwriting.)

But as someone who hasn't gotten his MFA, I'm willing to entertain the notion that I'm way off base here.  So if you've got something to add to the conversation, please do so.


  1. Getting an MFA is definitely not necessary. Besides being extremely expensive and keeping you out of the game for two years, it doesn't really open up any additional doors for you. What opens doors is great writing and great scripts. If someone is looking to hone their writing skills, take a screenwriting course like you would find at UCLA Extension or sign up for one of those 3-Day week screenwriting seminars when they hit your town. Now if you are debating whether or not you should go to college (undergraduate) and study writing in college, I say "yes." THAT'S not a waste of time. Besides giving you time to "grow up" and gain life experiences, college writing classes, while usually not great, will at the very least teach you how to write under a deadline (having a due date for your writing assignment) plus it will teach you disciple because you will HAVE to write and you'll get the chance to workshop some of your ideas. But even if you've gone to college and not majored in writing, don't get an MFA. Instead read scripts (as many as you can), read screenwriting how-to books like Save the Cat and The Writer's Journey, and most importantly just write.

  2. Funny. I had a similar conversation with my 8th grade daughter last night. I agree with what Rick said up top with a couple of caveats. But first, a few data points, take from them what you will:

    - I know more people with screenwriting MFAs that never worked professionally as writers than the couple who do.

    - I don't know any pro writers with undergrad film degrees.

    - I know a lot of undergrad and grad Theatre majors who are running shows, writing and directing movies.

    - English majors tend to do well inside the business.

    - I know a bunch of UCLA, USC, AFI and even CSUN grads who are working writers, directors and producers. I don't know any Tisch (NYU) grads.

    There are bunch of other data points I could throw out, but these are the most salient. Are there exceptions, of course. I'm just relating my experience working in this business, graduating UCLA and living in and around Hollywoodland. So what are the takeaways?

    1) Do you have to go to school in LA to be a success. Of course not, but it sure helps to get out here as soon as possible. The students at local schools have an advantage because of the access and the internships. If you want to get into the fashion business, then you move to NYC, Paris, or Milan. You don't stay in Bismark ND and contend that you can email your designs anywhere. You have to meet people, make connections and get the vibe of the business where the business is happening.

    2) Does a graduate degree help? Not in my experience, but it doesn't hurt you in most cases. It possibly delays your entry into the milieu of the biz, as Rick points out. Personally, I think that if you want to break into this business you would be better served by taking the money that you would spend on an advanced degree and move out here for two years, do internships, join writers groups, meet people and work in the biz at any and every level you can. Two years of that will put you way ahead of anyone with an extra tassel and fancy ribbing on their graduation gown.

  3. I actually did go to AFI and have an MFA in screenwriting. I am, for the most part, pleased with opportunities and learning experience it afforded me. I met a director and producer I worked well with, and we are currently developing two feature projects.

    The experience of my cohorts run the gamut from people who just signed with major agencies, were on the Blacklist, to folks who are still struggling but have managers, to others who are working in restaurants. I graduated in September.

    The program truly DOES give you access. At the end of the program there is an "industry" pitchfest, at which I pitched to the following:
    Anonymous Content
    Circle of Confusion
    Amongst other, smaller companies. I actually heard from a good number of them wanting to read my scripts.

    In my opinion, I would ONLY go to a program that has this aspect built in, which would be USC, UCLA or AFI. I believe NYU has a similar event for their directors, but I am not sure.

    Whatever you decide, people succeed with both paths.
    Best of luck.

    1. The people I've met who have come out of AFI tend to be very happy with their education.

  4. i have my mfa in screenwriting from loyola marymount, and i can honestly say it did absolutely nothing for me. if i had it to do all over again, i wouldn't have even gone to undergrad, i would've just started working in the biz.

  5. Yes, I really am quite pleased with my AFI education. It has opened a number of doors for me as well in the industry. That said though, AFI is like many programs, it IS ONLY AS GOOD as you are in how hard you work. The most successful people out of my class were those who really put in a lot of hours and work...

    Writing is rewriting...

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  7. In the aughts (00's) of this century, I was briefly flirting with the idea of film school, and was accepted and ready to attend Columbia Film School in Chicago. However, a short discussion with one of their professors (a sound specialist), convinced me that my time would be better spent watching film, reading scripts, and writing, than getting another degree, with a focus in screenwriting.

    I still haven't sold anything. I have 6.5 scripts "under my belt", one a Second Rounder at last year's Austin ( which is on the Blacklist 3.0 here https://www.blcklst.com/members/script/4216). I don't regret the decision to forgo that degree.

    However, there are some film schools, and MFA programs that probably could help start a career, just because of the quality of teaching, and the contacts to be made. If I was in LA or NY I would be tempted to apply to their highly thought of MFA programs in Screenwriting.

    1. Sorry about the two deleted posts - clerical error (mine!).

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    1. The idea of pursuing an MFA would be a lot more tempting if there was the opportunity for a living stipend, and (at least a partial) tuition waiver.

      What concerns me is the lack of financial aid for MFA Screenwriting programs, compared to most other graduate-level programs.

  9. No one under 30 should go to film school unless they're getting a full scholarship. If you have the time and energy to work your way into the industry from an assistant job, there's really no better way, because every person you meet on your way up is a potential mentor/advocate/boss down the road.

    I have an MFA from one of the well-known schools, and I too met a lot of writers, directors and producers while I was going through classes. I learned about ten really invaluable things that have served me well as a writer, but I could have gleaned those from the books written by my professors. But the people you meet as a student don't feel invested in your success the way the people you meet as an assistant, and they're generally not as helpful.

    Now, if you're over 30, and you want to work in television, going to film school can speed up your trajectory in some important ways -- you'll get better as a writer much, much faster than if you were working on your own, and your student status will let you grab internships, which are the single best way to get into working as an assistant in TV. But no matter what, do NOT take out private student loans -- they will leave you in a hole that you have a 1 in 1000 chance of digging yourself out of.

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  12. Here's my experience with an MFA program:

    The benefits:
    1) A mentor. Someone to educate on the craft and guide you along to finished draft. They teach you the basics and you'll have something to show when you're done. I've learned a lot more since graduation by reading specs, blogs, and writing everyday.

    2) Friends. You'll meet people with similar interests. These are the people who you could share your work and receive feedback. You'll also read their work and provide constructive criticism.

    3) Industry access. Depends on the program. Do your homework. If the MFA program is highlighting writers who haven't sold anything in 30 years, then find one who has. Learn all the perks before apply.

    The cons:
    1) Cost. It's about 30 grand to complete. You need to judge if that's the best use of your money. For me, it was because I taught as an adjunct professor, earning $2,500 per course. So, it paid for itself. Plan accordingly. If you don't plan to teach, how will you cover this expense?

    2) You have a very slim chance of getting a full-time teaching position with an MFA. You can work as an adjunct at the college-level, but colleges and universities want faculty to earn a doctorate. If you're goal is to teach in college, skip the MFA and apply to doctoral programs.

    3) You. You need to ask yourself if you're a writer or want to be a writer. Be honest. If you wrote one spec and you hope enrolling in an MFA program will help you sell it, you're screwed. There was about 30 people who graduated in my cohort and the few before me. Most have not written anything since they graduated. That, my friend, is a complete waste of money.

    Hope this helps.


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    (Who knew writers were so shy)

  14. It certainly isn't for everyone, but I owe every opportunity I've had to my MFA in screenwriting from UCLA. Their annual Showcase competition is what got me represented my first year and, before graduating, I had a feature in development with a major producer attached and a drama series packaged through CAA.

    More importantly, without the program I also never would have had the balls to move out here in the first place. It was like a two year safety bubble, during which I learned a helluva lot that and got to develop and polish scripts that are still serving me well today. The workshops there were invaluable.

    Are their cheaper approaches? Yes. Does the degree itself impress anyone? If so, only marginally. The majority of my classmates are not working writers, though many have gone on to successful careers in peripheral fields like development, producing and yes, teaching.

    The cost is definitely prohibitive. I was fortunate to pay mine off quickly while I know others still struggle. For me, I still feel like getting the MFA was the best decision I ever made.

    To anyone considering an MFA program, just know this. The people in my program who deluded themselves that the degree itself would open doors were the first to get a kick in the ass by reality. Degree or no degree, people in this town only care about the work.

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