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Thursday, March 26, 2009

I'm a 30 year-old that has been thinking about breaking into the TV and movie screenwriting biz for 5 years. Finally, I'm ready to do something about it.

I'm about a year away from completing a PhD in environmental marketing (i know, i wonder what that means sometimes too). I've started wrting TV specs, original features, SNL sketches etc. on the side. I'm debating whether or not to finish my PhD and just move forward.

Q1: Would a PhD be helpful AT ALL as I attempt to break into the business? (in terms of differentiating myself from others)
No. No one cares if you have a degree or not. Having an interesting background is always good -- many of the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA writers have served in the military. But degrees? Nah.
Q2: I've been looking at the one year writing program at Vancouver Film School. Any comments about their program?
I don't know much about the program, though readers, feel free to comment blelow. But I don't think you need a writing program to write. As I've written repeatedly, you'll learn far, far, far more of what you need to know by getting an assistant job in an agency in LA than you ever will in film school. And you can write in your spare time, fired up by what you're living at work. The only film or TV program I think really jumps you ahead faster than getting an actual job in the biz is the CFC, and that's only relevant to Canadians who want to work in Canada.

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"I don't think you need a writing program to write." I agree.

We have a handful of schools with writing programs here in Sydney (AU) and from having spoken with students of most of these, they didn't learn anything, not even the most basic concepts.

As a matter of fact, in my view the most prestigious school has delivered the poorest results.

I find this staggering, but it's a fact.

By Blogger Karel, at 5:25 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger Michael Williams, at 7:20 PM  

Many years ago, I took the one year film program at the Vancouver Film School. Things have no doubt changed, but I wouldn't recommend it. It was a factory then and they didn't seem to care about the students. Despite a very high tuition fee, we had shoddy equipment that would constantly break down, we weren't allowed to use even learn the AVID, only the Steenbeck, and a few of the instructors didn't even seem to know, or care, what you were doing. An example of how the school worked is how the screwed one of their foreign students. When this guy from Thailand, who had worked in the industry there as a cameraman, enquired about the course, they told him that he would definitely still learn a lot in the course and they recommended him taking it. They enrolled him, despite him speaking virtually no english, and there ended up being absolutely nothing he learned. All they cared about was that he pay his tuition. They defended their action by saying that it was up to the student to decide, only whether they should take the course, but whether their english is good enough.

Now, as I said, that was quite a few years ago, but I don't think spending a vast amount of money on something you can learn from a few good blogs (like this one), books and writing groups, is the best idea.

By Blogger Tim W., at 7:52 PM  

I took the Writing course at Vancouver Film School and found it absolutely fantastic - but this was a gazillion years ago, back when it was a four month program.

I totally agree that no one can teach you to write. To a certain extent, much of the actual tuition we received in structure, techniques for character development, etc, could have been picked up by reading a book (I personally learn better when I can discuss and question, but I can see there perhaps wasn't much more to the content of the classes than the theories of McKee, Vogler and their ilk).

However, what the course provided was a structured environment in which you had no choice but to write. In four months we had to complete a first draft screenplay, a teleplay, two shorts and various other assignments, (while attending classes 9-5 Tues-Fri): churning out pages, having them critiqued, moving on - all of which was a fantastic preparation for writing in the real world, where you often have to make yourself meet a deadline when there aren't enough hours in the day, and the creativity fairy is taking a nap.

Further, constant critique in a workshop environment was another strong point: I found hearing so many opinions on my work week in week out - some constructive, some not, some on the money, some in a different solar system - to be an invaluable preparation for sitting in a room with a producer or agent shrugging dismissively and muttering they "didn't really get this" without bursting into tears or hiding under the chair and softly singing nursery rhymes to myself.

In addition, there is also a positive of creating a peer group - I still read, have my work read by, and sometimes co-write with people from that class.

So while I go off to collect my pimpin' fee from VFS ;) I'd end by saying that of course you can achieve all that without taking that or any course (and things might have changed a lot in the eon since I was there) - but I'd argue that it's harder. Good luck!

By Blogger Unknown, at 2:58 AM  

Thanks Tim W and Clare. I had wondered the same thing about VFS.

By Blogger Norlinda, at 3:30 PM  

I'll second Claire's review of the VFS course and add that it is very dependant on the other students in your class. I was actually a classmate of Claire's and was pleased enough with the experience that I took VFS up on the offer of a second course at a deep discount. They were transitioning from the four month course to the full year and wanted feedback on the extended material.

I really enjoyed the immersion of the first class and thought the price was right for another few months of focusing on the writing without the interference of a non-writing job.

That second class had fewer serious or talented writers in it and that really had a big effect on what I got out of it. They didn't seem to have the same drive or focus as Writing08 and I got a lot less out of their feedback. If anyone from Advanced Writing for Film and Television 01 is reading this... of course I'm not talking about YOU... just the other students ;)

If you go to VFS, be ready to hustle at connecting with the other students and start building a support network for when you get out. Find the people who are serious and talented- then cultivate those connections.

The industry acceptance of a VFS course is pretty dependant on what course you take there. The animation classes have had plenty of their students poached by the industry before they even graduate, while I've had producers tell me that they cull the actors out of a casting call if they have VFS on their resume.

The writing class seems to sit right in the middle of that, they won't running after you but at least they won't round file your work at the whiff of VFS alumnitude.

By Blogger Clint Johnson, at 7:55 PM  

If you're in Vancouver, check out programs at Praxis. It's been around a long time -- a non profit organization designed to help aspiring screenwriters.
They have workshops, short courses, etc. If you get into one of their programs you'll probably make some good contacts.

By Blogger Ranting Parent, at 12:52 AM  

Hey Clint!

I'll second the importance of the standard of classmates - I have since been in many workshop/feedback situations and thanked my lucky stars for the talented and thoughtful Writing Class 8s. Unfortunately I think that's just the luck of the draw... so I guess we're recommending the VFS writing program... if you can go in 2001 and be part of Class 8! Helpful, huh?

Would say quickly though that I've worked with a couple of VFS acting grads and been pleased with the performances (I direct too) - it's not RADA, but in my opinion there are fairly few acting courses that can actually ruin a good actor. Whereas RADA, LAMDA and a handful of North American equivalents on a CV will assure me of a certain standard of actor, VFS won't tell me a lot either way so if the actor looks great otherwise, VFS alone wouldn't put me off. Sure that's very helpful to all the actors reading this blog... !

By Blogger Unknown, at 4:52 AM  

First, I would like to everyone for responding to my post and answering the questions I had re Vancouver Film School.

I agree, I could probably learn the entire curriculum of the VFS program on my own (through books, blogs etc). I think I am more attracted to the prospect of structure and networking. While I'm sure the program will provide structure, I wonder how valuable the networking opportunities will be. Perhaps my money would be better spent attending screenwriter conventions, expos etc.

Can anyone recommend conventions or expos that are worthwhile networking opportunities (or opportunities to pitch)??

I'm beginning to learn that Canadian citizenship makes the screenwriting biz much more challenging. If anyone has any success stories, it would be great to hear them! Thanks again.

By Blogger Unknown, at 7:34 PM  

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