Glad You Asked Department, 4/29/13
Yep, my latest attempt to answer your questions so you can be as Enlightened as I am. Oh, wait…
Ah, well, once again into the fray:
From Lauren F:
Not to put pressure on you, but this is probably the most important question I’ve ever asked anybody. I’ve graduated college with a big, fat screenwriting degree that I know will get me nowhere in the TV writing job market.
My parents are happy to spring for grad school so I can get an MFA in screenwriting, but I keep reading about how you’ve got to be in L.A. to get the ball rolling and the plan is to go to school on the East Coast. What I want more than anything is to write for television, not films (long story), so it’s school versus Los Angeles pavement-pounding. I know you’ve been in this situation. What do you recommend?
I love this question. It brings out all my passion. It’s also likely to bring out a ton of angry e-mail from visitors who won’t like my answer . But here it is:
Are you fucking crazy?Don’t just sit there, book a flight west. And then start packing ASAP!
In other words, sorry, kids, but I’m not a big believer in college and post-college film and/or TV screenwriting departments because:
- In my zillion and a half years of showbiz experience I’ve never worked with 1 single human being (or dog or goldfish, although there was this horse…) who ever learned how to write in any school. Never.
- Television writing is a young person’s game, and regardless of the inherent injustice of this, it behooves anyone who wants to play to get out there on the field as early as s/he can. Why waste more time than you have to sucking up to teachers when you can suck up to producers and agents and stars who can really help you instead?
I’ll break it down another way.
Going to Grad School – the Good:
- If you’ve spent a ton of years in school already, it’s a comfortable situation.
- You’ll interact with a lot of other people who share your interest/desire to succeed in showbiz and establish contacts who can help you throughout your career.
- If you go to one of the Big 3 graduate film schools – UCLA, USC, NYU – you’ll emerge as part of a good ole boy network which, if you use it wisely, will speed up your entrance into a TV (or film) career.
Going to Grad School – the Not So Good:
- If you’re going because you actually want to learn something about writing – or just plain about the business – what you’re really going to learn is that you made a big mistake. Unless you get very, very lucky, you’re extremely unlikely to find a teacher who knows much about what works and doesn’t work in a teleplay/screenplay, let alone what makes a teleplay/screenplay sell or gets a writer hired for a staff gig.
Going to L.A. & Actively Trying to Get into the Biz – the Good:
- You’re in L.A. You’re surrounded by people who are already working in the field you’ve hungered to be in for so long. They’re there for you to learn from/work with/and as I mentioned earlier, suck up to.
- It’s L.A. The showbiz lifestyle. The sun. Really cool cars. Even if you don’t make it, you’ll have a great time trying, and a lifetime of stories to tell if/when you go back home.
Going to L.A. & Actively Trying to Get into the Biz – the Not So Good:
- You’re in L.A. You’re surrounded by people who are working in the Biz and feel threatened as hell by you and your talent and excitement. No way are they going to teach you anything. And the phonies whose whole purpose in life is to take advantage of showbiz noobs, yeah, they’re everywhere.
- The L.A./showbiz lifestyle can be intimidating as hell. And if you don’t put every ounce of energy you have into making it in the business from Day One you’ll have a miserable time in your apartment in the Valley and no stories at all to tell to the folks back home.
Grad school is school. Taught for the most part by people whose whole lives have been spent in school. People with showbiz dreams that haven’t come true and school teacher values (which, sorry again, kids, are a big reason why those dreams haven’t come true). Succeeding in grad school means demonstrating that you’re prepared for a teaching career. But you don’t want a damn teaching career, do you?
L.A. is the real world. Going to L.A. is the first step toward immersing yourself in the showbiz cult…and it is a cult, insular and arrogant and demanding. The trick to joining this cult is to live in an area with a large concentration of showbiz peeps, get a showbiz job – at any level but being an assistant on a series that’s on the air is the best, especially if you’re a writers assistant – and hang, hang, and hang with other showbizzers whenever you can.
If you naturally fit in with the pack – I mean cult – I mean those you’re spending your time with, you’ll enjoy your experience and work around feeling proud and well-laid, and have a great chance to move up the ladder.
If you don’t fit in with the pack and end up feeling stressed and terrified and insignificant, well, odds are you won’t be moving up. Which is a plus because the higher you get the more stress and terror you’ll feel.
Not being able to sell yourself/your work isn’t a sign that you and your work aren’t of great value. It’s merely a sign that continuing on this course is going to be destructive to you, that your dreams have been about the fantasy showbiz (constructed by the expert fantasists who are already there) and that the real showbiz isn’t what you need.
And if you go through all this at a young enough age, you’ll be able to leave with a smile and continue on the road toward an existence that’s truly meaningful and rewarding.
To sum up:
Going to grad school probably won’t help you learn all that much about the multitude of tasks you need to be able to perform as a writer. It especially won’t help you as a writer-salesperson. Which is a big problem because in showbiz we’re all salespeople. The selling comes first. The talent – in our case writing – only has value after the sales job has been done.
But going to L.A. can be a genuine education. You’ll learn about every aspect of the business you can worm yourself into. And you’ll learn how to worm yourself in by selling your personality and potential. And you’ll even learn about writing if you do this right because you’ll be living and working and constantly interacting with people who know what works on the page and, maybe more importantly, what doesn’t.
I do have to admit that I could be wrong. My life has been based on the theory that total immersion into whatever I’m doing is the only way to do it, and it’s worked for me, increasing my chances of success and also giving me glorious failures that have been every bit as exciting and fulfilling as the successes. I’m a learn by doing/live by doing kind of guy, and I’m naturally inclined toward hoping you’ll be one too.
For The Record, I do teach TV and film writing here on TVWriter™, and I think that what I do is valuable. Because I’m not in this to set down rules and create cookie-cutter scenarists. I’m in this to make my students want to learn for themselves.
Mostly, I tell students what’s right about their work and what’s wrong about it and then lead them through a process by which they come up with their own fixes for what’s wrong. That way they’re not trying to emulate me. Instead, they’re discovering their own way to solve problems.
I do it this way because I learned all I know over a period of years on the job. When I started out I’d write a draft and my bosses would need me to make changes. Most of the time – and this is when I actually learned something – they’d tell me why they wanted the changes. Sometimes the reasons were “creative.” Sometimes they were pragmatic. Sometimes we were looking for ways to make the story more satisfying and the dialog more interesting. Other times we were looking for ways to bring the show down to budget and make it easier to shoot, or to please either the star, or the network, or the producer’s spouse. (Or all of them, although I don’t think we ever succeeded in that.)
About half the time – in the early years – I’d be able to satisfy my bosses’ needs. The other half of the time one of them would take over and rewrite me. Armed with the knowledge of why the rewrite was needed, I’d look at what s/he had written, and file the information away so that the next time similar problems arose I’d be able to do the final fix.
This is what I try to teach. You can’t get this in very many college programs. I find that very sad.
There’s way more I could say about this particular topic, but we’re definitely out of space. Follow-up questions are warmly – passionately – welcomed. Send me those questions and make everyone’s day!