Tuesday, May 06, 2014

What's the best way to break into the business?

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that warrants an entire post.

It’s from A. Wayne Carter:

As a fellow alumni of your partner David Isaac's University of Miami, I was curious on your thoughts of the value of a four-year college degree if you want to be a scriptwriter in Hollywood. Or is it better to just write and get in on a low-level industry job as soon as you can. My ship already sailed on that front (I got the B.A. and started later) but for the benefit of the next gen, what are your thoughts?

School is great, but it’s not mandatory. If you want to become a doctor you can’t just watch a lot of videos and take notes. You kinda have to go to medical school, even if that means Mexico.  That’s not necessarily true when it comes to learning how to write for television.

That said, there’s a lot to be said for getting a great education. You save a lot of steps when you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. A good professor can save you years of making rookie mistakes. And more importantly, can inspire you.  As someone who teaches a course at USC (the above picture shows some of my kids) I certainly believe in the value of an advanced degree. 

Other advantages are being able to immerse yourself in the world of writing surrounded by a built-in support group of fellow students. Writing is a lonely endeavor. It sure helps to have friends who understand. Just having people you can hang out with late at night discussing the structure of this week’s MAD MEN is a God send.

But here’s the thing: to make the college experience really worthwhile, you have to go to the right university and have the right professors. And that can depend on your sensibilities. NYU might be great for some but not you. USC, UCLA, Emerson, Northwestern, Chapman, and Michigan I know offer great programs. I’m sure a lot of others do as well. The great thing about those colleges is that they’ve dumped a lot of graduates into the industry, which is great for networking. Sometimes contacts are more important than degrees.

But remember, just because you’ve graduated with honors at a prestigious feeder university, doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed entry. At the end of the day, it’s talent, desire, preparation, opportunity, and luck that propels someone through the door. It’s quite possible to attain all of those while skirting academia.

Watch thousands of hours of television and analyze it yourself. Write outlines based on what you see. Compare them and start to discover patterns. Read books. Even idiot bloggers.  Write spec after spec. Learn from your mistakes. Your fourth spec will be better than your third.

If you can break in by being a PA or writers’ assistant, jump at it. Again, it’s all about contacts and learning. Being on the inside, watching how a show is produced every week is invaluable.

Obviously, it’s easier to break in if you’re in Los Angeles. You can take extension courses at UCLA, meet industry types, create your own network of fellow aspiring scribes. It’s always better to be where the action is. You wanna build airplanes?  Move to Seattle.  You wanna write scripts for Mindy Kalin?   Head out West. 

But then again, even that’s not mandatory. People from Wisconsin and Tennessee break in by writing plays that get noticed. Or they make YouTube videos that go viral. Or win screenwriting or playwriting competitions. Or winning contests like the one NBC is having

If you ask 100 writers how they broke in you’ll get 85 different answers. So you have to decide what’s best for YOU. The good news is, if you don’t get into USC or NYU you don’t have to go to school in Mexico.

As always, best of luck to everyone. Make me proud.


Dan Ball said...

From my perspective, both as an undergrad and post-grad studying media, the BIGGEST advantage to going to school is having access to the other disciplines. I would hazard a guess that most film schools offer the chance for students to take classes not just in writing, but directing, producing, cinematography, editing, film composing, etc.

I have a friend who always quotes Scorsese as saying you go to film school for the equipment.

When I went back to grad school, it was a great opportunity to discipline myself again and start writing habitually again. Not to mention I learned a few new tricks. I know you pay several thousand bucks for that, but it's great to be in a situation where you MUST write daily as opposed to scrounging for time like all the other times.

The sound designer of the Star Wars films, Ben Burtt, always credits his liberal arts education to his creativity. Originally, he was a science major and a lot of that influences where he finds the sounds that he uses for his movies. I'm a fan of that perspective. I feel like you can go to film school and learn HOW to film a movie, but there should really be more of a literary component to it.

Wayne said...

Why not do both?
Graduate with honors from top school and then fetch coffee as gopher!

Brian said...

My advice would be to also live a life outside of wanting to be in show business. You need experiences to have something to write about. Take some good and crummy jobs, make friends and enemies, fall in love, get your heart broken, spend your rent money on something stupid, get into a bit of trouble once in awhile... and then you will have something to write about someday. You don't want to be the person who is always just pitching a parody of something he saw on some TV show or movie. You want to be the person who pitches a character or story that no one has ever heard of because they didn't live YOUR life... but you did. I don't know if that'll get you into show business, but if you do get in, at least you'll have some unique things to write about. P.S. It's also very helpful to have a nice brother who gets successful in TV way before you do.

emily said...

Looks like my church -- so many hiding in the back rows...

I'd fail the yawning kid in the second row.

Johnny Walker said...

Oh to have people around me who even have the slightest interest in discussing the nuts and bolts of TV writing...

I've written countless outlines from watching shows. It's amazing what you can learn just from doing that. I've spotted several little tricks that seem to crop up.

I'm now having fun re-watching Cheers and distilling the A and B stories down to their bare essences. It's interesting to imagine what was originally pitched as a story idea.

Unfortunately, despite this, my only outlet for my thoughts on writing is this blog.

It'd be great to meet my David Isaacs (or Ken Levine -- depending on how you look at it).

BigTed said...

Just write for the Harvard Lampoon; on graduation day, a magic transporter beam will instantly whisk you to the writers' room at "The Simpsons."

Charles H. Bryan said...

I don't know how many people listen to the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast, but there are dozens of interviews and discussions with working writers who describe how they broke into the business. It's fascinating stuff, even if you're not looking at becoming a writer. It's free on iTunes.

Mitchell McLean said...

Try to find a local screenwriter group. Hearing your script read aloud is very revealing.

And, while you occasionally get spat on and punched as members let you know just how much both you AND your script suck... at least it isn't impersonal.

Pat Reeder said...

I'd second what Brian said. I was just reading an article about ratings for "Saturday Night Live" being down. Several of the comments complained that the cast and writers are too young and obviously have no life experiences outside of taking comedy writing and improv classes in college. Consequently, we get lots of rap video parodies, sketches about white teenagers who talk like black rappers or characters that are just weird for weirdness' sake, and sex and fart jokes. Not much original or based on real life outside of a classroom, kegger or TV studio.

Can't tell you how great it felt to see one of the commenters beg Lorne Michaels, "Hire some OLDER writers!!"

chuckcd said...

I found that my Communications degree in Radio/TV/Film did not help me as much as being an Intern on a TV show.

I did not have any contacts, which would have helped even more.

Johnny Walker said...

Got to agree with Pat, Brian seems to have some great advice there.

Anonymous said...

I hear a bump key is pretty good way.

Greg Ehrbar said...

I might add "tenacity" to the list of things that help you succeed. There are thousands of people I have met in my life who "could have, IF" or "should have, IF" and gave up long before they could have or should have. But the "IF's" shut them down.

Several comments have wisely mentioned getting other jobs and pursuing other things while you struggle toward your goals. Honestly, working my way through college at Burger King and various retail stores was not wasted time, as I learned about people, organizational issues, patience, and so much more.

(Psst! The swaggering general manager at the Woolco department store I worked at was having a torrid extramarital affair with the prim, proper personnel manager, who by the way forbids any employee to date another employee. All true, and pure gold for a writer.)

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Yeah, none of the YouTube videos I've produced since 2007 have gone viral, irregardless of how topical I may have gotten at times... but then again, in order to go viral on YouTube, anymore, requires you to fork over money to Google to put you out there to go viral.