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Should Screenwriters Go to Film School?

Is it worth it to go to film school? In part one of a series, Screenplay Doctor Susan Kouguell gets an answer from UCLA’s Professor Richard Walter and BU’s Professor Garland Waller. Email screenwriter@newenglandfilm.com to have your screenwriting question answered in an upcoming issue.

By Susan Kouguell

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Professor Garland Waller of BU & Professor Richard Walter of UCLA

One question I repeatedly hear from aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers (as well as their family members, who contribute financially and emotionally to their loved one’s dreams) is this: Is it worth it to go to film school? The word “worth” should be interpreted subjectively and not just in dollars and cents -- and the word “film” is the umbrella term that, in the context of this question, includes television.

In this month’s column, I ask two very prominent professors to discuss their respective film and television programs: Professor Richard Walter, Chairman of UCLA’s graduate program in screenwriting and Professor Garland Waller, Director of the Television Graduate Program in the College of Communication at Boston University.

Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert, and longtime chairman of UCLA’s legendary graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting,is available in stores now. Professor Walter lectures throughout North America and the world, and serves as a court authorized expert in intellectual property litigation. For more information and to order the new Essentials of Screenwriting, visit www.richardwalter.com. Contact Professor Walter at rwalter@tft.ucla.edu if you would like to subscribe to his monthly screenwriting tips newsletter.

Garland Waller is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Television Graduate Program in the College of Communication at Boston University. Under the banner of Garland Waller Productions, Garland has produced, written and directed several productions. The most recent is the controversial independent documentary No Way Out But One, which won awards and recognition, including the Award for Film and Media Excellence, a selection of the Bare Bones Film Festival in Oklahoma, a Telly Award for Best Documentary Selection, an Indie Award and an Accolade Award: Best Documentary Selection. No Way Out But One, the documentary short that was produced as a test run, won the Unspoken Human Rights Film Festival and the Telly Award. Her award-winning indie documentary, Small Justice: Little Justice in America’s Family Courts brought attention to a little known and rarely covered scandal -- that in America, men who batter their wives and sexually abuse their children can get custody in family courts. As a producer of special projects for WBZ-TV in Boston for many years, she produced award-winning documentaries and specials which earned her such awards as five New England Emmys, The Grand Prize: International Film Festival of New York, the Gold Prize at the Film Festival of New York, American Women in Radio and Television Award, Iris Award for Best Entertainment, and two Ohio State awards. Garland travels around the country screening No Way Out But One and speaking about family court injustice and the failure of the mainstream press to cover this national scandal. The Documentary Channel is currently airing No Way Out But One.

To learn more about Garland Waller’s film No Way Out But One go to: http://nowayoutbutone.com.

Susan Kouguell: Discuss your experiences in the film industry.

Richard Walter: I’ve written features for all the major studios and several independent production companies too, sold material to all three major broadcast TV networks, published five books, including two novels, both of which won film rights sales. Among my assignments are the uncredited first two drafts of American Graffiti.

SK: How many years have you been at your University and what courses do you currently teach?

Richard Walter: I joined the faculty thirty-five years ago and have chaired and co-chaired the screenwriting program now for more than thirty years. I teach a lecture course once a year regarding screenwriting fundamentals, and every quarter I teach a graduate workshop called ‘advanced screenwriting’ in which eight students are enrolled; the assignment is a feature length screenplay for each of them.

Undergraduate film majors can choose a concentration in screenwriting for their senior year. Our main -- some say legendary -- program is, again, the aforementioned M.F.A., which can be completed in two years; about half the students stay for a third year.

Garland Waller: I started teaching at BU in 1995… I teach graduate and undergraduate classes in producing. The Creative Producer concentrates on nonfiction programming like talk and reality shows as well as documentaries. I also teach Hothouse Productions which is a class that operates as a student run, client-driven production company.

SK: Describe the type of students in your program. For example -- are they looking to continue their education in graduate school in film or are they seeking immediate employment preferably in the film industry after completing their degree?

Richard Walter: We are a graduate program offering a master of arts in screenwriting. Virtually none of our students has just finished an undergraduate education. They have all been out in the world; many are making career changes. Our students include lawyers and doctors who want to live a more creative life. A typical student is a single mother who supports her writing habit by creating copy for the clients of an ad agency, that is, someone who has lived some life and has some experiences worth writing about other than the funniest prank played on their roommate in the dorm.

Garland Waller: Most of the students in my program want to graduate and get jobs ASAP in the industry -- either film or TV. There is a studies curriculum as well, but I don't teach that. In those classes, the students plan a more academic career.

SK: What are the enrollment requirements?

Richard Walter: An undergrad degree from an accredited college or university, and a splendid application. The most important part of the application is the writing sample. Most applicants submit screenplays, but we do not require that. We’ve admitted writers on the basis of novels, journalism, poetry, even ad and catalogue copy. We value above all two qualities: a powerful command of English and a fertile imagination.

Garland Waller: Here is the official statement of what we look for in the Master’s program. This is also true of the undergrad program as well. "The MS Television program tries to recruit students seeking the tools they need to seek professional careers in production, management, programming, marketing, teaching, and criticism. The Admissions Committee will review all aspects of an application before making any final determination on admission or merit scholarship. Therefore test scores, transcripts, essays and letters of recommendation are all important."

I am on the grad admissions committee for the TV Program. I can also add that if students have already made videos, we do look at those. We certainly care a great deal about creative and thoughtful writing on the essays. What we always hope to find is someone with a spark, something that makes that person stand out. It might be something they have done – working in Africa or being a community activist. Maybe the person has already worked in the business for a while and has terrific references. I like to think that we have a good mix of people. Some have been in TV before. Some have never been and want to be. What we want all of them to have in common is the desire to be creative producers and writers.

SK: Please share some of your former students’ success stories in the film industry.

Richard Walter: Ten scripts for Spielberg: Jurassic Park I, II, III, Indiana Jones II, III, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, Eagle Eye, Amazing Stories. One of our writers won the Oscar® this year, his second in a row. Another won it two years ago. In the past five years we’ve had three best screenplay Oscars® and five nominations.

Garland Waller: Ah, I love questions like this. There's one student who had never done a Web site before and taught herself how to do it, just so she could help me with my documentary. She was a real go getter. She is now at a classy agency in LA deciding on what shows get made. Hard worker. She's great. Golly, I have so many. One worked for David Kelly. Rose from assistant something to a VP of something. Another student is an executive producer on The Good Wife Another is a producer at Good Morning America. I have another student who did an internship on The Daily Show this summer. He's still here at BU. I know that minutes after he graduates, he'll have his own show. Some people just have the magic.

SK: What is your opinion of the value of attending film school or choosing screenwriting as a major?

Richard Walter: Film school is now the premier avenue into the film business. There’s no better way to enter than through writing. I would caution students against majoring in film as an undergraduate. For mature individuals, though, seeking careers as screenwriters, nothing better could happen to them than to be admitted into our program.

Garland Waller: I add TV school here because I always think people consider TV something that you watch with a beer in your hand and film is art. I happen to think that sometimes TV can be art and film can be better screened with a beer or heavy, mind-altering drugs. There is a snobbishness that makes my hair hurt. But back to your question -- Both TV and film influence how we think and feel -- and I would even add how we vote, how we choose partners -- why we buy what we buy. Film and TV are so integrated into our lives that not to understand these influences is almost dangerous. As for the skill of making both, well, anyone can get a camera and can edit on a computer in their pajamas in a basement, but to create programs or movies that reflect fine storytelling and visual splendor that takes work and study and understanding.

SK: Any words of wisdom you would like to share to aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers?

Richard Walter: It’s never easy, not even for the most experienced, successful practitioners. It’s not about talent and ideas but about discipline and stories. It is perpetually frustrating and painful and unpredictable, and it is the most satisfying, exciting experience a human could have.

Garland Waller: I think writing and producing for TV is the ultimate thrill. This week, an indie documentary I produced will air on The Documentary Channel. My husband Barry Nolan and I worked for three years, researching, writing, shooting, editing -- and now, No Way Out But One will air. There is such a feeling of exuberance when you see your work on the air. It is worth all the nights in a dark edit room, wishing you could just go home and wash your hair, all the waiting in airports until your plane takes off for Detroit, all the transcribing and moving things around so they make sense, and all the despair when you see the rough cut and it isn't what you wanted. Somewhere between the first shoot and the final edit, there is a sense of accomplishment and, at least for me, a sense of personal joy. And that is worth all the challenges. Working in film or TV is not for everyone. It's not a good field to go into if you want everyone to like your work and tell you so. You have to have a strong sense of self but be willing to hear other's suggestions and criticisms. To me, it's a good life. But it's not a life for people who get their feelings hurt easily.

Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University, and is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and film executives worldwide ( www.su-city-pictures.com; su-city-pictures.blogspot.com). Susan wrote The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! (St. Martin’s Griffin) and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, which is available at $1.00 off by clicking on www.createspace.com/3558862and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD. To order the Kindle version go to: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009SB8Z7M (discount code does not apply). To read an excerpt go to: https://www.createspace.com/Preview/1089452.

Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell Twitter page for more Savvy Tips.