If you want to break into the film industry as a screenwriter, there are no easy answers for where to start. One popular route you're probably considering is film school, or pursuing a screenwriting degree.
But considering how expensive and time consuming a screenwriting degree program can be, you need to ask yourself if it's going to be worth it. How can you answer that question?
Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.
My name is Jason Hellerman, and I received my Masters in Screenwriting from Boston University in 2012. My screenwriting MFA helped me land my first job in Hollywood. Now I’m an occasionally working screenwriter whose screenplay, Shovel Buddies, was on the Black List in 2013 and was purchased and produced by AwesomenessTV in 2016.
In this post, I’ll take you through the pros and cons of a screenwriting degree program, and help you suss out whether or not a degree is worth the time and effort.
So you want a screenwriting degree…
Higher education costs soar every year. If you’re an undergraduate in college, chances are you’re paying tens of thousands of dollars for your education. If you have supportive parents like mine, maybe they’re okay with you chasing that masters in screenwriting.
You can also online screenwriting teaching resources like this one.
Many people focus their undergraduate years on getting a film adjacent degree to have something general and less specific when entering the job force. Lots of people I know who are writers out here majored in English, Marketing, Engineering, and I even know a few pre-law folks.
The point is, no one out here wants to see your resume. They want to read your screenplay.
Hollywood is built on a group of diverse, interesting people who have different backgrounds. But they all love film and television. I would venture to guess that most of them skipped out on film school, don't have a screenwriting MFA, and found their way here no matter what.
Whether you pursue this degree or not, there are other ways to realize your dreams of becoming a professional screenwriter.
The truth be told, no one out here has ever asked me what I majored in while at college. Most of the meetings I get are earned by being a good writer, not by the fifty-thousand-dollar piece of paper.
Also, the frame was super expensive too.
Why even consider screenwriting schools?
I know teaching yourself via books, Google, and YouTube is en vogue, but there’s something special about surrounding yourself with like-minded peers and accomplishing a goal.
Writing, at its core, is a solitary movement. Unless you’re successful enough to be in a writer’s room, the only chance you might have to be surrounded by other writers is during the pursuit of a degree.
You get the chance to break stories together, learn structure, build characters, and just make friends. My screenwriting MFA friends introduced me to new movies, new shows, new walks of life, and completely changed my perspective. They’re the people I still hand scripts to when they’re done, and they’re also who I trust when I have writer’s block and need a jump start.
The other great thing besides peers is all the professors. If you’re at a good screenwriting school, the professors will have the experience and wisdom of being there before. I know my professors at Boston University were very generous with their time and past knowledge.
Not only were their notes great, but they advised me pitching, living in Los Angeles, handling tough bosses, and how to talk to actors/directors.
Another thing getting a degree in screenwriting at the right screenwriting school opened up for me were internships in Los Angeles. When I moved out here in 2012 I interned at Scott Free and for the TV show, Mad Men. I wouldn’t have had those internships without attending a school that had successful alumni.
I was able to make connections and get a job right after graduation. That job helped me stay financially stable as I wrote on the side, and allowed me to meet amazing friends.
Getting a screenwriting MFA gave me a ton of opportunities. So those are the benefits but…
How do you pick out of all the screenwriting schools?
When I left Penn State’s Film program I knew I wanted to go somewhere to get my masters in screenwriting. At the time, PSU’s program was production focused, so I googled the best screenwriting MFA programs, made a list of screenwriting mfa programs(much like the one we'll provide you), and then...
I applied to them all!
I went with Boston University because they gave me a small scholarship. It wasn’t the only reason, but when you looked across the top schools, most averaged almost 50k a year. I wanted to make sure that I could get what I needed at a discount.
Here are some key things I looked for in a screenwriting program:
- A direct path to a job in Los Angeles
- Small class sizes and personal attention
- The ability to get teaching experience
- Successful alumni
- A diverse and engaging mix of course material
As I mentioned, I got a general undergraduate degree in Film and Communications (with a double major in English) and then went on to get my masters in screenwriting.
I didn’t do this because I loved student loans so much and wanted more, I did it because I thought it was the most logical step in getting myself to Los Angeles and succeeding.
Don’t worry, I’m going to explain the screenwriting MFA benefits next.
What can I do with a Masters in Screenwriting?
I chose to get my Masters in Screenwriting because I knew that at some point I might want to teach screenwriting to students. I currently do that with the Young Storytellers program, but that’s a volunteer position and doesn’t require the degree.
Still, I grew very close with a lot of my grad and undergrad professors, and I know that becoming a full-time screenwriter, even with a screenwriting degree or MFA, is about as likely as playing in the NFL. So I wanted to have a decent fallback just in case.
The Masters in Screenwriting also gives students around two years just to focus on writing. When I was in undergrad I was often getting caught up doing papers for gen-eds and trying to make sense of science labs and math classes.
The screenwriting MFA gave me time to focus on honing my craft. I had to learn a lot of hard lessons, but it also gave me the freedom to chase any idea, start, restart, and rewrite.
As I mentioned above, I picked Boston because I saw that the curriculum would give me a significant leg up on the gaps I had in film school, but also finished with a final semester in Los Angeles where I could pursue my first job and test the waters of Hollywood.
For me, that semester led to a full-time job. A job that helped me get my foot in the door as an assistant and, eventually, led me to make the contacts I needed to sell my script and get repped.
Was the screenwriting degree worth the time and money?
I go on a lot of rants about film school and what it costs versus what you get. Here’s the real deal:
If you go to film school and pursue a degree, you can expect to spend around 100K in tuition fees. If you do undergrad and then get a screenwriting MFA... welcome to the 200k club.
That’s an insane amount of money to spend on anything, let alone a piece of paper.
Sure, if you sell that million-dollar spec you’ll be sitting pretty, but that’s probably not going to happen. Spec sales have been plummeting every year, so unless you’re one of the few lucky ones, you’re going to rely on that script as a sample to get in the door and get reps.
So now that you know that part, what you have to decide is how much you’re willing to spend to educate yourself on the craft of screenwriting.
A lot has changed since I left school in 2012. First, there’s a ton of FREE podcasts you can listen to where writers far superior to I extrapolate the craft of screenwriting.
Second, there are a lot more books on the market that can take you through understanding the business and give you a taste of what it’s like to break into the biz.
Lastly, there has been a dramatic shift in the way Hollywood does business. When I was an intern, we were unpaid. Now, since the closing of a few lawsuits, many places pay their interns. That means you don’t need to be in school to get that first job.
Sure, school will help with connections, but it’s almost better to take an entry-level gig in Hollywood and then teach yourself.
Truth be told, I learned so much more about the industry, writing, and story when I got a job than I did in the two years at film school…but…film school is also where I wrote Shovel Buddies. It’s where I got the idea, chased it with friends, broke it with professors, and had it ready when someone in LA wanted to read it.
Would that script exist if I never went to chase a degree?
Who knows... And at this point, who cares? I went, I have the loans, and I have a modicum of success. I have the story that’s worth sharing, and a little bit of hindsight too.
The truth is, if you can afford it, getting a screenwriting degree is a great option. But lots of us don’t have it, and that’s okay too.
So where does that leave us?
Do your research. Figure out what screenwriting schools seem right for you.
Look into screenwriting MFA programs too. Try to get a scholarship! Or you can always stick to the free screenwriting content No Film School has to offer.
Our mission here is to be as good as that expensive screenwriting degree, so if you have topic suggestions feel free to reach out.
Let us know how film school helped/hurt you!
The Film School Check List
- What’s the cost per year?
- Can you get loans?
- A Scholarship?
- How many years?
- 4? 2?
- In which year will you be able to take film focused courses?
- Do you have a lot of general education courses?
- Do you need to take the GRE/SATs?
- What else does the application involve?
- Are the professors accomplished?
- What are their credits?
- Do they keep office hours?
- Do they have Hollywood connections?
- Are their alumni flourishing?
- Are they working inside the industry?
- Do they have a mentorship program?
- Are they working inside the industry?
- What’s the class size?
- Do you have one-on-one time with the professors?
- What courses are offered?
- Specific Genres?
- Avid / Final Cut?
- Path to professional certification?
- What do you make and when?
- What kind of equipment is available to students?
- Do they continue to update their filmmaking equipment?
- What are their plans for the years you attend?
- Do they have an internship program?
- Are they in Los Angeles? Or an International equivalent where production happens?
- Do they have a way of getting there like a study abroad?
- How do they place alumni in jobs?
- Do you make a Graduate Film / Senior film?
- What’s the average budget?
- Do they give grants?
- Do you have to raise your own money?
- Where will you live?
- On camus?
- Apartments close by?
- Do you need a car?
- Is there public transport?
- Will you need a job while you’re a student?
- Do they offer grants for that?
- Teacher Assistant Positions?
- How will this school get you where you want to be?
- Will this degree get you connections?
- Will you be able to get a job?
- Can you turn it into a teaching position?