Whether you've already decided to go to film school or you're trying to figure out if it's the right path for you, you're going to want to read this advice from screenwriter Kaylord Hill. You may remember Kaylord as the winner of SoCreate's Screenwriter Stimulus in late 2020, where he used his screenwriting skills to write a feature-length script in just 30 days. To do that, he leaned on his film school cohort and lessons learned from mentors. But, despite the positive outcomes from his screenwriting master's experience, there are some things he wants to warn aspiring screenwriters to watch for before deciding to go to college.
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Here's my interview with Kaylord on the topic of how to choose on film school.
Is a screenwriting degree or MFA for everyone?
"It definitely can be. I take a lot of pride in the knowledge, training, and mentality film school endowed me with. However, the ascending costs, competitiveness, and no guarantees that said MFA degree will position you any closer to the industry's proximity are reasons I believe it's not for everyone. Furthermore, it depends on where you are on your journey. If you're a twentysomething and thinking about leaving the steady 9-5 world to go pursue your passion, an MFA makes a lot of sense. If you're mid thirtysomething and have a significant other with children, then an MFA may seem a bit more out of scope. Asking the question, "where am I in my journey?" (for me at least) was one of the biggest determinants of my decision."
What are some of the top schools to attend for aspiring writers?
"Obviously, where you can go as an undergraduate versus aspiring graduate student varies vastly. I live in Austin, Texas, so I have to start with my neighbor—the University of Texas at Austin (UT). UT has three MFA programs. It sports an MFA attached to its Radio, Television, and Film Department, The New Writer's Project, which focuses on fiction and poetry, while the Michener Center for Writers awards 12 fully paid fellowships for a three-year MFA, where you can focus on fiction, poetry, screenwriting, and playwriting. The film school isn't as steep as some others, which is a big PLUS.
From there, I believe UCLA, NYU, USC, and Columbia are some of the most noteworthy for screenwriting. I've spent hours upon days over years comparing curriculums, investigating alumni's career trajectories, combing blogs and chat rooms, and these are well-established programs.
Lastly, certainly not least: University of North Carolina School of the Arts. I had a strong cohort when I attended. I was one of the lucky ones. I always feel we were put together for a reason. These are some of my closest friends to this day. The screenwriting professors really pushed us not just to watch movies but to investigate their story mechanics, sort through recurring themes, and see ourselves as serious writing professionals."
What questions should screenwriters ask before they choose a school?
"Who am I as a screenwriter? What type of screenwriter do I want to become? What school aligns with the type of screenwriter or creative I want to become? Are you a screenwriter with an interest in producing or directing? For example, if you want to write grand tentpole studio-oriented movies, considering a film school in LA might be best. If you want to fixate on purely writing independent films and developing your voice in an emerging film market, then a school in Austin, TX, may be best. A lot of my friends have very specific southern Carolina voices yet have a penchant for growing independently. They're interested in growing the film economy in North Carolina; therefore, they went to school in North Carolina. Do you want to write for film or television? The resources a film school allocates to each field are going to be different. How is mentorship structured within a film school program?"
What considerations should be made before choosing a school?
"If you're talking about leaving a career for an MFA, the operative word is sacrifice. Are you willing to uproot your life? Are you willing to make the financial sacrifice of not seeing a steady paycheck show up every two weeks? Are you prepared to treat writing like a full-time profession? When you go from writing when you feel like it to writing 40 hours a week—like they say on Twitter: it hits different. Haha."
What are the benefits of going to film school?
"It's the people that are running the same marathon as you. Your cohort. They are the biggest benefit. I always mention my film school friends because not only are they awesome creatives, but they are just wonderful people. These are the people that are watching you experiment, fail, and grow without judgment. A lot of folks believe that networking is key. Networking is a prime reason why you go to film school. And yes, nothing opens doors like having intimate access. But if networking is the driving reason why you want to go to film school, just stop now. It's not for you. You can network from a variety of places and professions. Film school is the physical embodiment of your dream profession beginning to come to fruition. It's literally training you for the dream that you said you have. That's special. And I think the cohort that you're in the trenches with is truly an experience like no other."
What are the drawbacks of going to film school?
"Other than not having a lot of money … hmmm, probably not having a lot of money, haha. There are drawbacks that I know others have. They can speak to those things better than I can. There was never a time I felt like I was wasting my time. I was always trying to figure out if I could hack it. Am I as good as I thought I was or could be as a writer?"
Now that you've gone to film school, would you do it again?
"Hell yes! But I would've gone three to four years earlier if I could do it over."
So, is film school for you? If so, you'll want to read our blog on the top schools to attend for screenwriters, including some international options. Kaylord also recommends visiting the schools before deciding because it may look great on paper, but being there in person and feeling it "live" is totally different. Kaylord said he planned on attending USC, but he felt it wasn't quite right for him after a visit.
If film school is not for you, it doesn't make you any less serious a screenwriter. Everyone's screenwriting journey is different, and that's what makes you unique!
As Frank Sinatra says, I did it my way,