Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

Benefits of the USC Film School for Writers

It is beyond me how we expect 16- and 17-year-old kids to make an informed college decision - whether to go, what to study, how to pay for it - when they have little life experience upon which to base their choices. But alas, the process of picking an undergrad major and diving headfirst into real life is just how we do it around here. So hopefully, this breakdown on whether or not to choose a writing school will make things a bit easier on both students and those lucky few financiers (ahem, parents). For anyone waffling between film programs to attend for an MFA, we're going to tackle that topic below, too. 

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My guess is that you, reader, have already decided on the screenwriting school route, and you're now narrowing in on which film program to apply to and attend. Today, I'm specifically covering the pros and cons of the writing program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Still in the beginning stages of picking a school? We've got a laundry list of things to consider before you choose a film school from a screenwriter who learned the hard way. He was gracious enough to share his personal experience with the writing community so that you get everything and more out of your screenwriting school experience! 

To help me today,  producer, screenwriter, television writer, and novelist Stephanie K. Smith recaps her experience earning her master's degree at USC (she earned her undergrad at New York University). She is a huge help in answering writers' frequently asked questions about the USC Writing for Screen and Television program. A film industry veteran, you can find Stephanie's name in the credits on television shows such as Amazon Prime's "Carnival Row," the novel "Tangle In the Dark," the Emmy-nominated limited series "Genius," and as co-producer on the "John Wick" spinoff "The Continental." 

Does USC have a screenwriting program?

Yes. The screenwriting and television writing program at USC is part of the School of Cinematic Arts, and its formal name is the John Wells Division of Writing for Screen & Television. The School of Cinematic Arts is made up of seven divisions that students can choose from as a film major, some with individual tracks, including:

Film & Television Production

This division has separate tracks for students wanting to pursue directing, producing, cinematography, editing, sound, or production design. 

Cinema & Media Studies

According to Aniko Imre, a professor in the Cinema & Media Studies division, this major "explores media in all its manifestations and implications" across platforms, genres, historical periods, and cultures. The division offers more flexibility and opportunities for students to build up multiple skill sets. 

John Wells Division of Writing for Screen & Television

We'll call this the screenwriting division, as students will learn to write for television, video games, digital platforms, and motion pictures. In this division, students can earn a bachelor's of fine arts or a master's of fine arts in their pursuit of becoming a professional writer.

USC Screenwriting BFA

The undergraduate program in USC's screenwriting division is a four-year program for students who ultimately want a career in writing for television or film. Classes are workshop-style and small, exposing students to industry professionals worldwide. Screenwriting students will also intern at top entertainment companies to learn by doing. 

USC Writing for Screen & Television MFA

The graduate program in USC's screenwriting division is a two-year degree program for students to earn their master's in fine arts. The writing program helps prepare students to work in the entertainment industry as writers, and students benefit heavily from USC's solid industry connections and geographical proximity to Hollywood. Students can expect to complete mentorships and internships at top entertainment companies. 

Peter Stark Producing Program

The producing program at USC teaches students the ins and outs of producing films in Hollywood today. As Division Chair Larry Turman puts it, "Every film school in America teaches you how to make movies. The Stark Program teaches you how to get films made. There's a difference. "

John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts 

For students who want to pursue animation or digital artistry, this program covers every genre, from mainstream to experimental, from evocative storytelling to mind-blowing visual imagery. 

Media Arts & Practice

The Media Arts & Practice division at USC is "designed for students who want to move beyond the cinematic arts, and who want to critically and creatively work at the intersection of fields like media and urbanism, storytelling and politics, business and art," says Andreas Kratky, the Dean of Research and Professor of Media Arts & Practice. 

Interactive Media & Games 

Students interested in interactive media and video game design can attend this program to learn the core mechanics of what makes an entertaining and interactive experience. Students will learn narrative, how to create an emotional connection with the audience, and explore new genres of play. 

You can find the complete USC catalog here. 

Pros and Cons of the USC Screenwriting Program

Weigh the pros and cons of attending the USC Screenwriting Program through your own lens, but use some of these standouts in each category to help guide your decision. 

Pros of Attending USC's Writing for Screen & Television Program

Connections & Opportunities

"Well, I came to USC in sort of a unique position, that I had gone to NYU as an undergrad and also studied Dramatic Writing," Stephanie began. "I chose to go to USC less to learn about writing, in my young mind anyway, than to make connections and to actually put myself in a position where I could get an "in" in the industry."

You will be attending school at the epicenter of the entertainment industry with professors who are well-connected to Hollywood. Making connections is one of the hardest things you'll have to do as a writer, so this program gives you a running head start. 

Quality of Education

"What I found that I absolutely loved about USC and I thought made it unique from the program that I had already attended was that it really taught you about structure," Stephanie explained. "There was a very big focus on, you know – the USC matra is "somebody wants something badly and is having trouble getting it" – and that was regarding when you were writing a feature film, and I thought that was wonderful." 

Courses are taught by some of the film and television industry's leading professionals who aren't just teaching out of a book but a playbook of what it actually takes to land a writing job in the industry. You will undoubtedly glean info from them that you can't find online or in any screenwriting book. 

Workshopping

"There's a really good education in the history of film and television, reading all of the great scripts, dissecting movies, in addition to working on your own stuff."

The classes are small and taught workshop-style, so you'll get hands-on experience collaborating with other people who want the same things you do. You'll learn from them and learn to work with them, a critical skill to take with you into any writers' room. 

Cons of Attending USC's Writing for Screen & Television Program

Expense

"Twenty years later, both in film and in television, and frankly, honestly, even when I write a book, I rely upon a lot of the things that I was taught at USC. There were amazing, amazing professors. I'm still paying them back, so it's not like it's not cost-prohibitive." 

For most people, the ~$70,000 annual tuition (two semesters per year, 12 units per semester) is an outrageous amount of money to fork over for school. This doesn't include the expense of general life - food, shelter, utilities, and transportation. And it's not like you have a guaranteed paycheck upon graduation—a career in screenwriting means uncertain, unsteady work and oftentimes low entry-level wages. Most writers take a second job that allows them the time and energy to take writing work as it arises. 

Location

This con is also a pro in some regards. Sure, you'll be at the center of all the entertainment action in Los Angeles. But LA is one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Public transportation is unreliable. Rent is exorbitant. Traffic is nuts. But hey, it's sunny and 75 degrees almost every day! 

You Still Won't Know Everything

"It may just be that I was young and naïve, like so many people in film school are, where I thought, "Oh, this isn't going to apply to me." But I didn't get a huge education on the ins and outs of the business and what that looks like. I suspect that that was partially true at the time and partially not and that it is different now."

There are some lessons you can't learn in a classroom. As Stephanie mentioned, she didn't graduate with a complete grasp of how the business worked. But that's not a knock on the professors—some things you have to experience to understand. You'll be set up for success, but you'll still need to earn some career experience before you can master your craft. 

Is the USC School of Cinematic Arts BFA or MFA in Screenwriting Worth It for Writers?

So, knowing what you know now, only you can decide if a BFA or an MFA is worth it to you. Some would argue that a degree in screenwriting isn't worth the paper it's printed on because, ultimately, all that anyone cares about is whether your script is good. But others say that a screenwriting degree, particularly one from USC, opens doors for you that you wouldn't even be able to knock on otherwise. You'll have connections and mentorship opportunities right out of the gate, and a hefty list of very famous alumni that have preceded you (George Lucas; David Goyer; Ron Howard; and TV writers such as Dana Fox, "New Girl," "Ben and Kate"; Nahnatchka Khan, "Fresh Off the Boat," "Don't Trust the B___ in Apartment 23"; Prentice Penny, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "Happy Endings"; Jon Chu, "Crazy Rich Asians"). You'll also, likely, have a hefty amount of student loan debt. But it might be worth it because it's difficult to put a price on the connections and community you'll form at a place like USC.  

How Hard Is It To Get Into USC Screenwriting?

If you decide to submit a film school application to USC, it's obviously not as easy as just paying your way. The application process is competitive, and the graduation requirements are strict.

The Writing for Screen & Television BFA program accepts just 30 students each fall (there are no spring admissions), and students must complete 128 units to earn their degree. While there aren't any high school prerequisites per se, USC makes it known that it expects applicants to have completed the most rigorous coursework available to them at their high school. Applicants will need to submit a common film school application, a USC writing supplement (including an autobiographical character sketch, two creative challenges, a written story about your most challenging moment, a commitment prompt, a personal writing sample, and a creative portfolio list), multiple supplemental materials (transcripts, test scores, etc.), and two letters of recommendation. 

The Writing for Screen & Television MFA program accepts just 32 students each fall, and those lucky few students must maintain a minimum grade point average of 3.0 throughout their studies. To finally earn an MFA, students must complete a feature-length screenplay, a pilot script and series bible, or an original one-hour drama TV pilot, mid-season episode, and series bible. Applicants will need to submit a graduate film school application, official transcripts, financial documentation, a USC writing supplement (including an autobiographical character sketch, two creative challenges, a written story about your most challenging moment, a personal writing sample, a curriculum vitae, and a creative project portfolio list), and two letters of recommendation. 

The application period opens August 1 and closes December 1 for BFA applicants and November 15 for MFA applicants. 

Remember, both The Hollywood Reporter and USA Today have ranked the USC School of Cinematic Arts as the best in the world, so the acceptance statistics are a bit shocking. According to Wikipedia, the current admission rate is 3 percent. 

Are you looking for other creative writing school options? Here are some of the other top script writing schools

"If you want to learn unending amounts – I mean, I did editing classes, produced – I did all of the things that you get to do in the industry," Stephanie concluded. " I recommend it if those are the things that are appealing to you."

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Final Thoughts

To attend (and pay for) film school or not to attend ... that is the question. After reviewing the data and interviewing Stephanie on the topic, I don't think that either option is better than the other, but I do think that both options offer something unique. If you're looking for more life experience before you hone your writing skills, then an MFA may be your program of choice, and perhaps you get your undergrad in another major that offers you alternate career options. If you're positive that you want to write movies or TV, then a BFA might be better because you'll gain valuable skills that can help you along your path and invaluable connections. Your stories are important no matter where you learn to put pen to paper, so do whatever is right for YOU. 

You're capable of greatness,

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