Everyone’s always talking about the pros and cons of film school, but is it true? Can you become a screenwriter without a degree? Or do you need a formal screenwriting education to be a screenwriter?
The answer is quite simple: You do not in any way need a degree to be a screenwriter. All you need to be a screenwriter is a series of screenplays that can attract a manager or agent who can represent you and submit you for work.
However, going to film school to pursue your interest in screenwriting can be a helpful tool for honing your craft with writing deadlines and film studies courses and an excellent opportunity for meeting future contacts through networking with like-minded individuals.
Pretty straightforward answer, but there’s a lot to dig into there, especially if you’re just getting acclimated to how the film industry works for the first time.
Let’s dive in!
Why don’t you need a degree to be a screenwriter?
You don’t need a degree to be a screenwriter because, unlike when applying for a regular job, no one will ever ask you to see one in the middle of a pitch meeting. If you can write a powerful and impressive script, it doesn’t matter how you got there – only that you can write another one.
Fortunately for writers wanting to skip the high tuition cost of going to college, you can get the most out of your formal education in writing from simply reading and writing scripts.
Screenplay format is fairly standard across the industry, and there are so many resources online (like the FilmDaft screenwriting archives), that you should be able to find plenty of information to help you without needing to be locked into a classroom setting.
Now, that’s not to say that going to film school to get a degree in screenwriting is a waste of time.
This article’s writer got his Bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting from Chapman University, a great film school and a solid program for up and coming writers.
Later in this article, I’ll share a few tips at the end of this article on how to get the most out of a formal screenwriting education from a film school.
Take it from me: you have to be extremely self-motivated to maximize your money’s worth!
What do you need to be a screenwriter, then?
Technically speaking, the only thing you really need to be a screenwriter is a script.
Now, there’s a lot more to it than that, but as a screenwriter, screenplays (and screenplay ideas) are the currency you use to buy yourself a career.
What do you need to write a script?
You can write screenplays in a good ole fashioned word processor like Word or Pages.
It’s not something I can recommend, though, as the formatting may end up looking a little different than the industry standard (that screenwriting programs formalize), which could turn off some managers, executives, and readers as they review your script.
Don’t expect upper management to read your script… at first.
A note about readers: many times, the managers and executives you want to read your script will actually never see it.
That’s because they hire readers to provide detailed but brief write-ups about the scripts they read, called coverage. The goal? Decide whether the script is a Pass, Consider, or Must Read.
Coverage helps upper management focus on scripts they are interested in and avoid scripts they aren’t interested in, whether based on substance, genre, tone, potential cast, or any other metric of measuring interest in a story.
If your script isn’t formatted correctly, for instance, the coverage will call your script a pass to save everyone from what they assume is an amateur quality script.
This isn’t necessarily the case – but in a world where a “no” saves everyone (except you) time and money, you need to give the executives every possible reason to say yes – including proper formatting.
How do you know your script works without a degree?
Funny you should ask – we actually wrote an article on this subject titled “How to write a screenplay that works.” Check it out!
What else do you need to be a screenwriter?
Besides a screenwriting program and a finished script, there are a few more things you will need to be a screenwriter.
Representation is the key ingredient to becoming a professional screenwriter.
When you have a manager and/or agent representing you, they can submit you to pitch on a project and set up general meetings for you to meet other development executives, producers, and directors.
This is the main way screenwriters get work.
What’s the difference between a manager and an agent?
A manager takes on a more custodial and managerial role in helping you develop your writing with the idea of launching a career.
An agent will specifically get involved when it comes time to make a sale and will represent you in initial negotiations with the studio or buyer.
While a manager can set up the meeting, the agent typically gets involved to start the negotiating on your behalf.
At the same time, your entertainment lawyer will handle the fine print (though these days, the Writer’s Guild and the big Agencies have a tumultuous relationship, leading some writers to conclude they only need a manager and lawyer after all).
To attract a manager or agent’s attention, you will need to have multiple samples, known in the industry as spec scripts.
You use these to give your reps (and anyone you meet) a multi-dimensional sense of who you are as a writer, and so they know you aren’t a fluke.
Ideally, you should have about three spec scripts in the same genre, style, or format you plan on writing as part of your portfolio of samples.
While this isn’t required, any manager or executive interested in you will make sure you have more than one script at the ready to confirm you aren’t just wasting their time.
If you are interested in writing for TV, it would be good to have two original pilot scripts – for example, two 60 minutes scripts, two 30 minutes scripts, or one of each.
Regardless of which option you choose, but especially if you are writing one half hour and one hour long pilot, these scripts should be tonally and stylistically similar so you can show your “voice” as a writer.
If you are interested in writing features, it would be wise to have at least two of your spec scripts in the same genre, but all should show some type of consistency of voice and theme.
At least one of your spec scripts will need to be good enough to break through the noise to attract the reps in question.
This could happen through the script being recommended to the rep by a colleague, having placed highly in a contest the rep follows or becoming talked about by readers and execs as the buzz of the town.
A personal brand.
The industry likes to pigeonhole writers by putting us into neat little categories, like “action writer” or “rom-com buff,” as it makes it easier to pitch and sell us as experts in a specific area.
Suppose you want to and can write in multiple genres. In that case, you will make it easier for managers or executives to understand your interests as a writer by tying them together by thematic elements.
For instance, if you write bubbly rom-coms, grounded action adventures, and dark and gritty dramas, you might want to brand yourself as someone who writes “genre-driven stories about wide-eyed idealists crashing against a cold and bitter world, but overcoming at all odds.”
Pretty generic as far as story specificity, but you get the idea.
Your ‘personal logline’ ties together all your films in a way that tells the listener more about you and what excites you.
Nail this logline in the meeting, and the next time a project that fits your style comes across an executive’s desk, you should be top of mind as the writer that’s perfect for the job.
One of the most recommended reasons to go to film school is to expand your network and meet like-minded individuals who can eventually become professional contacts.
It’s through your network that you can meet new people working in the business, many of whom you will need to connect to someone six degrees of Kevin Bacon away from a manager (or someone on the manager track) to begin fostering you as a potential client.
Better yet, many fellow screenwriter contacts you meet could end up hiring you onto a TV show in the future.
If you get a job as a writer’s assistant on a popular show, for instance, you can oftentimes work your way up to becoming a staff writer on that same show if you do a good job!
Do you have to have a screenplay to sell an idea?
No, you don’t. Ideas are sold with treatments, lookbooks, and pitch decks all the time.
Granted, it is always better to have a spec script to go along with your pitch deck or treatment.
But even providing a two-page synopsis to pitch your idea can get the interest of executives or managers who want to read more – which could be a positive incentive to stop dragging your feet and write the damn thing!
Keep in mind – if you are trying to sell an idea without a script, or even if you are a first time writer with a script, a studio or production company may want to option a script or idea from you first.
In this instance, you will receive an agreement detailing payment at a later date should the script get packaged and sold.
Either way, if you don’t have a script or any credits, they will also likely attach a well-known working writer to the project to help get it greenlight.
Just because you sell your idea doesn’t mean you are qualified to write it, which is why it’s always good to have a script for any idea you are trying to sell (and two more samples!)
Last question: if you’re going to get a degree to be a screenwriter, what degree do you get?
The most obvious answer is a degree in screenwriting, which is what I got from Chapman University.
But not every film school offers such a specialized degree, nor do you necessarily need it. More important than what the degree is in is what you do with your time at film school.
How do I make the most out of film school?
Here are a few suggestions I gleaned about how to get the most out of your degree after going to film school as a transfer student and graduating in under two years:
Take every writing class you can.
You only get as much out of a writing class as you put in, so make sure you bring your A-game. Always do the writing and bring pages to class to read. And take as many classes as you can.
Because I loved writing so much in school, I tried to take as many screenwriting classes as I possibly could.
Because of that, I left school with four finished features and two pilots when you’re only ‘supposed to’ leave with two. They weren’t very good, but still – they were done!
Take every film class you can.
Meet as many film students as you can. At my film school, the screenwriting program was designed to prepare you for a solo career as a feature development writer, which kept us siloed off and separated from the rest of the film school kids.
Try to take as many extra film classes as you can to meet students with similar taste who are looking to become directors, cinematographers, actors, and even sound design and editors.
Those last two are the most clutch contacts to have, as you’ll need friends who can fill these roles if you want to film your own projects; those for school and those outside of school.
Sound designers and editors get hit up again and again and are often super busy with backlogged projects, so try to make close friends with people interested in those fields, or learn the skills on your own to do those jobs yourself.
Be on set as much as you can and learn a skill outside of screenwriting
One other good idea would be to learn a skill or two outside of screenwriting that you could get hired to do after school.
Unfortunately, writers are not in high demand when we leave film school because no one wants to buy a script from a first-time writer unless they’re already exceptional.
Chances are, and no offense meant here, you will not be ready to begin writing professionally right out of college.
As a writer, you can get jobs that don’t require another technical skill, like a screenplay reader (mentioned above) or a writer’s assistant/production assistant.
However, to get these jobs, the people hiring usually want to hire someone who has done the job before at another known company.
A note about internships
This is why internships are important, but since plenty has been written about internships, we won’t get into that in this article.
I would say do an internship if you can, but we also need to normalize hiring people interested in the film industry who don’t have the means to take an unpaid internship first, so I won’t promote doing internships in this article.
Learn a second craft that is in high demand
This means it would be a good idea to learn a craft that is in high demand, like sound design, editing, script supervising, G&E, or one of the other more technical production or post-production roles.
In particular, it would be wise to learn two of these additional skills: one on-set job, like sound mixing or script supervising, and one pre or post-production job, like location scouting or editing.
These will help you get jobs where you work on professional level productions to learn what it’s like to work in the industry and meet contacts who can get you more professional work and build your resume.
In order to learn these skills, you can take a class on a particular subject, or better yet, spend your time at film school on set as much as you can!
Get out of your comfort zone
At Chapman University, the system was set up so students would be in production nearly every weekend. Students were assigned cycles where your production was slated to be filmed.
This meant if you were a social person who knew a lot of other students (and were good at learning new jobs), you could be on set nearly every week if you wanted to.
As writers, this doesn’t sound very appealing, but try to put yourself out of your comfort zone and learn skills that can help you meet the people you need to meet to get the job you really want later down the line.
Keep in mind, though: don’t expect the person who hires you to work their sets to give you a job as a writer.
When someone hires you for a specific job, particularly in a professional setting, they are only going to see you as that role (at least initially).
You will need to meet people who can introduce you to other people who don’t know you as the P.A. getting the coffee or the sound mixer who works for cheap but will meet you and know you as a writer foremost.
Film your own projects, and host table reads.
If you are lucky enough to connect with some potential collaborators from your extra film classes, try to get a crew together to shoot your short films. Keep the premises simple and the budgets low. This is school – the goal is to learn.
My friends and I created a lot of projects by participating in a local film club called the Underground Showdown that hosted film screenings every two weeks for the participating students to share work they made based on a three word prompt.
The bi-weekly deadlines and venue to screen material made participating in the club rewarding and a great way to learn.
Ask the professors for help – even after class is over.
Many film schools make it a priority to hire professors who have either worked in the film industry, are currently working writers, or have sold projects in the past and now are teaching full time.
Some film schools even tout their alumni and faculty connections as a selling point.
There should always be one teacher who you really click with. It could be their teaching style, their taste in movies, or their overall knowledge of the craft.
Make it a mission to ask this teacher for help after class, and take advantage of any and all notes they can give you on your projects!
Remember to be grateful for their time – screenwriting professors are very busy with tons of scripts to read, so give them some grace.
Don’t forget, they offered to read a script of yours that doesn’t need to be graded by the end of the week, while dozens of others do.
Save that money!
Last but not least, I can’t recommend enough that you try to get in and get out of film school as quickly as possible.
I was lucky to be able to transfer to my school, and because of my transcripts from my local community college, I had no problem completing the entirety of my course requirements in under two years.
Because of this, I wasn’t stacked with as much student debt as many of my peers.
Student debt can bog down a creative career and hurt your chances of ever getting ahead. Instead, you are constantly burdened with the need to make money to pay off your loans.
Even as a transfer student, I still had around $20,000 in loans by the time I left my school.
While many film schools make it worth your while with fancy equipment and pristine facilities, it’s always a smart decision to be financially frugal, even when investing in your future.
Think about it like this: a degree is not a guarantee of a job. Even a great script is no guarantee that you’ll become a working screenwriter. Only with hard work, dedication, and the fortitude to not give up after 99 no’s will you get your opportunity.
Make sure you’re prepared for it by writing as much as you can, whenever you can, and never stop reading screenplays! That’s the best education you can get anywhere.
Read what sells. Read the classics. Read bad scripts. Read everything! And never stop writing!