Monday, January 16, 2012

Film School Confidential, Part 2: It’s Worse than Nothing

Doctors frame their degrees and put them on their office walls. They want you to know where they went to school, because then you’ll assume that they know what they’re doing. Same thing with academics. They know that every time they publish their research, the reader is going to flip to the end and check out their credentials first.
But with fiction writers, it’s just the opposite. The last thing you want to do is brag about where you went to school. Writers are selling their authenticity, and a writing degree is the opposite of authenticity. Producers would much rather hear about your time in prison, or on a shrimp boat, or in the army. Anything but graduate school.
When was the last time you saw a movie poster like the one above? If you did, would that make you more likely to go? This brings us to the real truth: Not only does an MFA degree not help your career, it actually hurts your career. Producers don’t trust film schools. And with good reason.

When a producer sees that you’ve gone to film school, here’s what they think: “Uh oh. This guy’s just paid a hundred thousand dollars to be coddled for four years. He’s been told that his shit doesn’t stink because that’s what he wanted to hear, and he foolishly believed it all.” 

Even worse: They know that you’ve spent four years in a hermetically-sealed environment. You haven’t been listening to how real people actually talk. Just the opposite: you’ve been listening to other students’ fumbling attempts to write dialogue all that time. Film school is a bad dialogue echo-chamber, and nobody comes out unscathed.
So who would they rather hire? The top job in the screenwriting world is that of TV showrunner, and most showrunners started out in one of three professions: they were journalists, playwrights, or stand-up comedians. If you want to become a screenwriter, then you should be pursuing one of those three professions first, not going to film school.
What do these professions have in common? Three things:
  1. You submit your material to a paying audience on a daily basis.
  2. There’s low overhead, so you can pay your dues for years without going into debt.
  3. You have to LISTEN to a lot of people.
Playwrights and stand-up comics have to listen to live audiences, and constantly revise to entertain them more. Journalists have to listen to the people they’re reporting on, transcribe every word they say, and then boil that down to a few quotable lines that convey what’s unique and interesting about this person. Film school, on the other hand, specifically encourages you not to listen to others, which we’ll get to tomorrow…


tanita✿davis said...

Oh-HO, this would SO mean war if you bandied this about in my grad school!

It was only AFTER I got my MFA that I realized that this is kind of the same truth for fiction writers as well - when getting an agent you can say you have your MFA, but it's not all that impressive most of the time to editors and publishers, and tends to simply mean that you write the same kind of crap Raymond Carver does, repeatedly, and that's it. (If you like Raymond Carver, that's fine - he's technically brilliant, but it doesn't serve every kind of fictional taste.)

I think my MFA did a lot for me... but if I couldn't write already going in, it would have done bupkes... as always, the similarities and differences between fiction and screenwriting continue to intrigue me.

Jonathan Auxier said...

Ha! While reading this and your previous post, I found myself thinking: "Gee, I'm not saying my MFA playwriting program was perfect, but it prepared me surprisingly well for a career in both screenwriting and fiction." Then I got to the end of your piece.

odocoileus said...

Way late, but hey, it's new to me.

I'd add one more category to the How Most Showrunners started category:


Now, there's plenty of overlap there with playwrights and stand up comics, but acting by itself, and the culture that surrounds it, teaches you so much. Years spent up on the boards in front of an audience, and in rehearsal, working out the nuances of a script, are quite valuable.

Great blog.

odocoileus said...
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