Arguably the most important job in film and television is that of the screenwriter.
The industry simply can’t run without them. But just because screenwriters are needed doesn’t mean that it’s easy to become one. Writing a screenplay is difficult, and subsequently breaking into the film industry is often even more challenging. So if you want to make screenwriting your full or even part-time job, here are some things you need to know.
What to consider first.
The first thing you should consider when contemplating becoming a screenwriter is how much you really want to do it. As has been aforementioned, becoming a screenwriter is an arduous undertaking. In fact, it’s so difficult that in an advertisement for her MasterClass on Writing for Television, Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” and more) says:
“If you can think of any other thing you want to be almost as much as a [screenwriter], anything, go be it.”
That being said, it’s a far better use of your time to embark on other projects or careers if you’re unsure as to whether or not you really want to be a screenwriter.
If, on the other hand, you are unwavering in your desire to become a screenwriter, there is another thing you should consider: what kind of pieces do you want to write?
On a broad scale, the easiest way to figure this out is to first decide whether you want to write feature films or television scripts, and to then determine what genre(s) you want to work within. If you’re having trouble deciding about this, reflect on the films and television shows that you watch and/or enjoy the most and use these to guide you. For example, if you predominantly watch films like “The Bourne Identity,” “Black Swan” and “The Dark Knight,” you’re likely to be more interested in writing feature-length thrillers than comedic sitcoms.
Once you’ve determined what type of screenwriting you want to pursue, you can then seek out the relevant educational sources that will best help you reach your screenwriting goals.
The avenues through which one can learn to write screenplays as well as gain the industry knowledge and terminology necessary to become a screenwriter are as many as there are screenwriters. That being said, most screenwriters pursue their industry education through school, programs and workshops, internships or a more DIY method.
The following information may help you decipher which general route is best for you.
Top screenwriting schools.
- University of Southern California: USC's film program is one of the best there is, boasting alumni such as George Lucas, Judd Apatow and Ron Howard. Only accepting 26 undergraduates and 32 graduates per year, the screenwriting side of the cinematic school provides an intimate setting in which students can learn the ins and outs of both screenwriting and the film industry at large.
- University of California, Los Angeles: Joining USC as one of arguably the two best film schools in America, UCLA also boasts an extremely selective and highly prestigious MFA screenwriting program within their School of Film, Theater and Television. Notable alumni of the program include Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather”), Michael Miner (“RoboCop”) and Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”).
- University of Texas at Austin: Moving further East, UT’s MFA in Screenwriting another prestigious and highly selective program — accepting just seven students per year. And with an in-state tuition under $12,000 per year and an out-of-state tuition almost half that of other programs throughout the nation, UT’s program is much kinder to the wallet.
- Loyola Marymount College: LMU’s Writing for the Screen MFA is yet another prestigious program. But what sets it apart is the programs third year, which focuses on individual professional development and a full-fledged launch into the industry.
- American Film Institute: One of the most selective film programs in America, the AFI’s MFA in Screenwriting is a two-year conservatory program designed to simulate the world of professional screenwriters. Notable alumni include Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”) and Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”).
- Chapman University: A two as opposed to three-year program, Chapman’s MFA in Screenwriting is excellent within the classroom and provides guidance in the form of screenwriting mentors outside of it. Notable alumni include Matt Duffer and Ross Duffe, the creators of “Stranger Things.”
Certificate programs and workshops.
- New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts — Certificate in Dramatic Writing: Screenwriting: NYU’s certificate program introduces students to playwriting, feature film writing, and television writing over the course of one-year or two successive summers. Notable alumni include Donald Glover (“30 Rock,” “Atlanta”), Suzanne Collins (“The Hunger Games”) and Alexa Junge (“The West Wing”).
- Emerson College — Screenwriting Certificate Program: Costing $3,600 at most, dependent on your elective workshop selection, this Boston-based program is one of the most affordable around. Notable alumni of the well-regarded program include Kate Boutilier (“Rugrats”) and Alex Tse (“Watchmen”).
- University of California, Los Angeles — Professional Program in Screenwriting: This certificate-awarding screenwriting program is the only graduate-level non-degree screenwriting program that has oversight by UCLA’s renowned School of Theater, Film and Television. The three-quarter program is taught by faculty of the school’s MFA screenwriting program and features an intimate classroom environment with no more than ten students per workshop.
- New York Film Academy — Screenwriting Workshop: This eight-week workshop is “designed for individuals with little or no screenwriting experience who are ready, willing, and able to work and learn within a fast-paced, high pressure, focused environment.” By the end of the workshop, each student has developed their own feature-length screenplay.
In addition to and sometimes in place of the classroom, you can also learn the ins and outs of screenwriting and the film industry at large through internships. This internship does not have to be at a large studio, nor does it have to necessarily be a writing internship.
At smaller studios, you will have the opportunity to be more involved with scripts — even though you likely wouldn’t be writing them yourself. Development interns have the opportunity to get hands onand work on the development of scripts. As a reading intern, you’d be reading scripts for a studio and advising whether or not they should seek to further develop and produce them, another good chance to get close to scripts.
As with most anything, there is a do-it-yourself approach to learning the information necessary to be a screenwriter. Though, unlike the prior methods, you won’t be able to add it to your resume, here are some ideas for learning the craft of screenwriting on your own:
- Find, purchase and read the books required by the aforementioned degree and certificate programs.
- Find and read screenplays. Many screenplays, and all that are nominated for Academy Awards, are available to the public for free.
- Reach out to screenwriters, directors, producers and other film professionals whose work you enjoy and are interested in. See if you can sit down for coffee and simply pick their brain. You probably won’t be able to meet with Quentin Tarantino this way, but an up and coming professional may be willing to assist you.
- Take a MasterClass. Many of the most renowned screenwriters now have a course that they teach on the platform.
Career paths into screenwriting.
As has been aforementioned, there are multiple routes one can take to become a screenwriter. Here are just a few examples.
- Shonda Rhimes: Shonda Rhimes took the film school route. After receiving her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Dartmouth College, the Illinois-native went on to earn her MFA at USC. Soon after, she sold her first screenplay. And though it never got made, it led to her being hired to write other feature films, launching a career she would eventually center around television and her Shondaland empire.
- Aaron Sorkin: This theater-actor turned screenwriter extraordinaire started by simply transcribing his thoughts for a military courtroom drama series on cocktail napkins. “A Few Good Men” proceeded to make it big on Broadway in 1989 and hit the big screens in 1992, immediately catapulting the NYC-native’s now illustrious career.
- Quentin Tarantino: This eclectic creative hated school and loved film so much that he dropped out of high school to work at an usher at a movie theater while he took acting classes on the side. Eventually, he landed a job with a video store. While there he wrote multiple screenplays, which helped him land a job at a small production company. Utilizing connections he made at and through this company, Tarantino proceeded to launch his directorial and writing careers with the likes of “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) and “Pulp Fiction”(1994).
Screenwriters pay varies tremendously.
A non-union writer may write for free or a specified fee for a client. Union writers, on the other hand, typically exact a certain, higher fee along with higher-paid projects. Particularly for the latter group, it’s not uncommon for low-budget films to pay $60,000 and high-budget films to pay in the millions.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA), both the East and West branches, is the predominant union representing thousands of members. They help screenwriters get the best deals possible, and aren’t afraid to take drastic measures if they believe their members are being cheated. (For example, at the time of this writing, the WGA has gone on strike against screenwriting agents.)
Resources for aspiring screenwriters.
As you embark on your journey to being a vital member of the film industry, here are some resources that may help you along your way.
1. Film Courage
A hub for all things pertaining to filmmaking, Film Courage’s YouTube channel, podcasts and website are a prime resource.
This media company’s Writer’s Roundtable videos, featuring group interviews of some of the industry’s best screenwriters, help answer questions you may never think to ask.
3. "Story" by Robert McKee
Considered the “screenwriter’s bible,” this book is a vital resource for even the most seasoned screenwriters.
4. "Save the Cat!" by Blake Snyder
A core book of most collegiate screenwriting programs, you will be hard pressed to find a screenwriter who has not read this entry-level book.
A prime screenwriting software used by many industry professionals. The most basic version, which features online access, is free.
6. Script Reader Pro
This website is a prime resource for every screenwriting related “how to.”
Another great “how to” source complete with podcasts and a website that keeps you up to date with the best screenplay competitions to join.
J.P. Pressley is a writer, entrepreneur, and an asthmatic former two-sport college athlete (basketball and track). Is he a jockey-nerd or a nerdy-jock? The world may never know. You can learn more about him at his personal website.