Do you need to go to film school to become a professional screenwriter?
It’s one of the first and most common questions that budding screenwriters have as they first begin to explore the notion of a career in screenwriting. And it’s a question that many will answer with unwavering passion — on both ends of the spectrum.
One end of the spectrum will say, “Hell no! You don’t need to go to film school to become a screenwriter. Just write, read scripts, and study movies!”
The other end will decry, “Hell yes! You need to go to film school to learn the history of film, study the greats, and learn the many ins and outs of cinema, television, and the industry.”
Here we will cover every aspect of this subject in simple form to offer up-and-coming and young screenwriters an educated and objective perspective to consider as they make potentially life-changing choices. We also hope this provides more seasoned writers a better outlook before they offer life-changing advice to others.
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Do Screenwriters NEED a Film Degree?
The quick answer is a definite no.
No studio, production company, development executive, producer, agent, or manager cares about what film degree you have and where you got it. It certainly can apply to your networking (see below), but all they really care about are the scripts you’ve written and your ability to write the screenplays that they need to develop.
You could have been a 4.0 student at the most celebrated film school in the world, and still be a terrible screenwriter. And if you’re a terrible screenwriter that hasn’t honed your craft, learned from your mistakes, and applied that knowledge to some amazing screenplays, you’ll have no place in the film or television industry: degree or no degree.
Screenwriting education can be found in a great film school, yes. However, it can also be found in a wealth of educational material online, at writing conferences, on YouTube, on Amazon, and at your local library or bookstore. And in the purest forms of studying produced screenplays and watching movies.
So no, you don’t need a film degree to become a professional screenwriter.
Then What Does Film School Offer Screenwriters?
Beyond the obvious studies of the art and craft of screenwriting — both historical and contemporary — film school can help screenwriters in a much more productive way than a mere piece of paper saying that you’ve learned some stuff on the subject.
Make no mistake, film school is always a great place to learn about all aspects of cinema — if attending a film school is in the cards for you and your life situation.
Some people can’t afford it, and community colleges can only teach you so much. Others just don’t have the mind, focus, or passion for formal education that consists of classes, tests, papers, grades, and the grind of finals.
But if you’re lucky enough to have the ability to go, or if you have the drive to persevere through any fears and setbacks to attend, film school can serve a great purpose for your screenwriting journey.
But it really depends on the school you attend.
Most mainstream colleges do offer either a film program, creative writing courses, or multimedia studies for students. But only a few film schools have respected prestige within the ranks of the film and television industries.
The Hollywood Reporter ranked their Top 25 American Film Schools:
- University of Southern California
- New York University
- American Film Institute
- University of California, Los Angeles
- Columbia University
- Chapman University
- California Institute of the Arts
- Loyola Marymount University
- Wesleyan University
- Emerson College
- University of Texas, Austin
- Stanford University
- DePaul University
- Boston University
- Ringling College of Art & Design
- Savannah College of Art and Design
- Rhode Island School of Design
- Columbia College Chicago
- Florida State University
- ArtCenter College of Design
- San Francisco State University
- Syracuse University
- Pratt University
- University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
- University of Colorado
Of those twenty-five schools, the top five — USC, UCLA, AFI, NYU, and Columbia — are the ones that will most offer access to film and television power players through educational classes, talks, panels, screenings, and Q&As.
And the benefit of being an alumnus of those film programs offers you the advantage of name-dropping those institutes to Hollywood insiders that are alumni themselves, allowing you to use that connection to get those scripts through those coveted studio executive, production company, agency, and management company doors.
The others on the list can certainly offer you random ins, but those top five are most connected to Hollywood and those that work within studio, company, and agency walls.
So beyond the actual screenwriting education that they can offer — which, again, you can receive elsewhere to some extent — film schools serve a higher purpose of access to power players in the industry and networking connections that you can utilize to attain networking opportunities for industry jobs and possible ice-breakers to get your scripts read by those that can purchase them or get you hired for key paid assignments.
Read ScreenCraft’s Maps Screenwriters Can Use to Build Their Industry Network!
And don’t forget about the peers that film school students are surrounded by, many of which are likely going to be moving on into the film industry after graduation. They are key connections that you can utilize in your own film or television industry journey.
Regardless, Young Students Should Get a College Degree
Some of the most misleading and potentially harmful life-changing advice is, “You don’t need a college degree.”
Here’s the hard truth. Screenwriting is a tough trade. Perhaps only the Top 1% that attempt to pursue the career actually achieve that goal, as far as making a good living working as a screenwriter for film or television (including online content). And only the top 1% of that makes extremely good livings doing so.
To this day, a college degree matters. It’s easy to say, “You need to go all-in and follow your dreams. So if you don’t need a film degree to be a screenwriter or filmmaker, just do what Quentin Tarantino suggests and go make movies, write scripts, and study cinema.”
When you’re already a success and looking back with 20/20 vision hindsight, that’s very easy to say. But most that attempt this dream will sadly fall short.
So, for you young people out there, do your best to get that college degree. Having a backup plan is smart. It doesn’t mean you aren’t fully invested in the pursuit of your screenwriting or filmmaking dream. It means that you’re thinking like an adult and realizing that life changes as you go.
You may even discover that screenwriting isn’t your thing or your true passion.
Get that college degree. When you graduate, you’re still young. You still have plenty of time to pursue those dreams. And if you find yourself in a different place with a different perspective after pursuing that initial dream, you’ll have a college degree that most other industries require.
You don’t even have to go to one of the top film schools. In fact, you don’t even have to go to film school at all. Choose another interest that you may want to fall back on — something in another field. Something that you have a knack for.
While there are industries that don’t require an actual college degree, you’ll often find that candidates for a job that have one are often put on top of the list. Whether or not that is fair isn’t a decision that we have a say in. That’s just life.
Get your degree. There will be plenty of time in life to pursue those dreams.
But If College Is Not in Your Cards…
The best alternative is to do what you need to do to make a living, and then put your efforts into self-education to prepare you for this screenwriting journey.
As mentioned above, your film school can be found in a wealth of educational material online, at writing conferences, on YouTube, on Amazon, and at your local library or bookstore. And in the purest forms of studying movies and produced screenplays.
But make no mistake, you need some form of education before you can become a professional screenwriter. Feed your brain with some good screenwriting books, interviews with professionals, and even some visits to writing conferences and film festival panels. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) hold any specific guru book higher than the other as the be all, end all example of how to write a successful screenplay. But it’s good to feed your brain with options as you adapt your own process.
Watch movies and read produced scripts. Study them. Analyze them. And then apply what you’ve learned to the types of cinematic stories that you want to write — with the added spin of your own style and voice.
Then start writing. Your first and second scripts will be your worst when all is said and done. Those are the learning parameters. That’s where you make the necessary mistakes to learn from them and hone your craft. You can certainly go back and rewrite them when you’ve learned those necessary lessons, but you want to get to a stage where you have three to five excellent scripts beyond those first attempts.
That’ll be your film school degree right there. And you just may be ahead of the pack once those film students graduate with just a script or two.
As a screenwriter, you don’t need a film degree. You don’t need to go to film school. But if you have the option to attend those top five well-connected schools, you can parlay that into additional benefits for your screenwriting career. And even if you can only attend one of the six through twenty-five on that list, there are still opportunities to leverage some connections or just enjoy the education that they offer.
Don’t be afraid to have a backup plan either, with a solid college degree in your pocket if plans change. There’s no shame in that. In fact, it’s the smart thing to do.
And if college isn’t in your cards, create your own screenwriting education to prepare yourself.
For you screenwriters that are well into your journey, remember that there’s always a chance to go back to school for any of the reasons mentioned above. And if you’re a mentor or if you’ve been asked the question of, “Should I go to film school for screenwriting?” or “Does my soon-to-be college student need to go to film school?” — consider sharing this post or relaying this objective overview instead of advice from one end of the spectrum or the other.
Good luck and keep writing.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies