Whilst it’s a given that talent can’t be taught – you have it or you don’t – a scriptwriting degree seems to be the latest “must have” if you’re going to get *anywhere* in this biz. This of course is total pants – some of the most successful writers I know of or have met have no piece of paper that SAYS they’re “trained”, yet still people sign up in their droves:
I have a BA (Hons) Scriptwriting for Film and TV from Bournemouth University for example, as does Dom and Lianne. I believe Pillock is going for the MA version of the same course and plenty of other bloggers have MAs in Scriptwriting: Elinor originally went to Birbeck; David Bishop, MJ and Miss Read to Napier; Mr. Jon Peacey went to Leeds Met. You’ll find Bloggers teaching on University courses too: I can be found at London Met on its Metlab course, where Elinor, Chip and Martin are currently enrolled. Danny Stack used to work at Leeds Met. I’m sure there are loads of others I’ve forgotten too.
In short, university scriptwriting courses are big business. The question I have for you is should they be?
I enjoy working on Metlab for one reason: it’s all about the market, making that script as “saleable” as possible, not only in terms of story but commercial viability with a specific business model. Elinor, Chip and Martin had to compete to get on this course (as well as the blogless Grant btw) and they are creating a genre film they will actively pitch to some big industry players at the end of their course. It gives them a focus and thus there is a very tangible “point” (for want of a better word) to the course.
As a reader for private clients, I get MANY students and graduates of MAs through my doors. Almost all have something bad to say about their course if the subject comes up. Some say they get too many guest speakers, they don’t get enough time on the “basics” of story, structure, character, dialogue, arena. Some say all they do is the basics – when are they going to get some guest speakers? Others complain of power play between their lecturers or say their lecturers’ information is “out of date” – especially when it comes to stuff like format and how to write good scene description. Others say they devote too much time to features and not enough to television or vice versa.
Bournemouth was a good course I think in that it struck the right balance between the basics and other stuff (like guest speakers). It was also exactly what I needed at the time: a safe environment to practice and find stuff out. There were no blogs then and information was scarce. There was a few books, but most were American and I didn’t know script reading existed. I don’t think I even had an email account. This was only 1999. I wonder now how writers “back in the day” started with so little information, but I suppose they learned on the job, quite literally. A baptism of fire, if you like. Did it make them better at their jobs? It’s hard to tell. Just as there is crap TV now and brilliant TV twenty-thirty years ago, the same is true in reverse. Same goes for film.
So do you NEED a university course to become a successful writer? Especially nowadays, when there is such a plethora of information ready at your fingertips?
Certainly I’ve heard producers and agents say stuff along the lines of, “Well s/he must be serious, they’ve gone to ________” when looking at CVs. You definitely get the practice – but if they teach you the “wrong” stuff, is it useless? And most of all – if three billion other people sign up, pay the money and do the same course as you, are you REALLY differentiating yourself enough anyway?
I learned a lot about myself when I was at university and I learned a lot about script reading thanks to several work placements I garnered as a student. I learned that scripts are not the same as plays and that 22 espressos and 27 cigarettes with no food in the space of fourteen hours is a very, very BAD idea.
But what I did I learn about the reality of writing?
I came out of university with the same mistaken belief as hundreds of other scriptwriting stuidents every year, possibly even thousands: now I can sell a script! And it will be made! And it will make money! And everything’s great!
Five years after graduating, I’m still plugging away. I’ve had commissions so I’ve been paid to write, but on my tax return it reads SCRIPT READER, not writer (actually weirdly my accountant wrote “Reviewer and Critic” on my last one and I had to cross it out.) It feels good to be in a job I don’t hate, where I can set my own hours, do my own thing and get a certain amount of my own writing done too. I also love the people for the most part and I get to be nosy (always a bonus!) since I know or hear about what a decent proportion of writers are up to, since it’s funny how all the same names come up, even non-famous ones.
I’ve actually learned way more outside my university degree. That’s not to say I regret doing it, I’m very glad I did. But a piece of paper does not equal success, any more than getting an agent does as we covered last week.
What do you think?
For those wanting to see some opinions and a conversation thread on specific university courses, check out this post from the old blog.