Q. I'm a freshman in college, and I just figured out I wanted to go into screenwriting this summer. I've done a lot of research on the internet, bought a couple books, and recently finished my first screenplay, but I really want some actual education. While I've got a pretty good setup here at my university, it's pretty small and only offers one screenwriting class, and at most I can create my own film minor. I'm wondering if I should try transferring to a different school or just take summer classes at other institutes, but I've heard the latter's not that great for networking. I'm kind of at a loss here. Do you have any advice?
I think you knew the answer before you even asked it. Yes, you need to transfer to where you can learn what you want to know.
There are three things you probably need to be doing right now. The first is getting a great undergraduate education. Learning how to learn, learning things you didn't know you wanted to know: these make you a broader person who can write more interesting stories. If all you ever study is screenwriting, then you run the risk of writing only movies about screenwriters, or movies that rehash other movies.
I didn't study screenwriting in college. I studied Computer Science and English. Then I got an MFA. I'm still using crafty tools I learned in Comp Sci and in English in writing my screenplays.
The second is writing screenplays. Most people need to write, oh, ten feature length screenplays, or the equivalent in TV, before they know what they're doing. So, just write'em. You don't need a course to do that in. But a course does give you room and time to do that.
The third and most important thing is making short films with buddies who are also interested in film. A great film professor can give you lessons, but making your own films will show you more about what you need to learn than most film professors can. Hanging around film fans and filmmakers will involve you in endless discussions about what kinds of films you want to make and they want to make and what's good and who sucks and did you check out that weird film from Croatia? Cross-fertilization, baby.
So yes. You need to be at a school with film clubs and film fans and film makers, and video equipment. More importantly, a school in a city with all of those things.
Look, seriously? You should probably be going to college in LA. You will bump into people in the biz. There are a bazillion actors willing to act in your short because they're desperate for credits. There are film students who may crew for you. Or you can crew for them. You can intern for agents and producers. You can take acting classes.
If LA doesn't work for you, then go to New York. Every coffee shop around NYU, they're talking about movies. Nothing beats being where people actually make films. They are your search engine and your support network.
There are probably excellent programs outside of the cities where people make films. You can learn a lot at them. There are probably amazing filmmakers and film clubs in Austin, Texas. There's a lot of film production going on in New Orleans. And so forth. If you have a choice, though, I'd go to the heart of the biz.
I think the biz is changing. Video production is getting super cheap. You can get very decent footage with an iPhone, a filmmaking app like Filmic Pro ($4) and an external shotgun microphone. You can edit on your computer.
I think more and more people will want to see what you've made, not just what you've written. The writing is still crucial -- your writing has to be great -- but it's not the only thing. You learn more by doing, and you have more to show.
I'm not saying you have to be a director. But every screenwriter should know something about directing and editing, just as every screenwriter should know something about acting.
Good luck! And good on you for figuring this out so early.