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What is a Screenwriting Degree?
Screenwriters create scripts for movies, television, and other motion media. They write original stories, characters, and dialogue or write adapted screenplays, which are based on existing material such as a novels, short stories, stage plays, musicals, TV series, even old films and film characters.
Screenwriting students learn to understand the world of film, TV, and digital media. They learn how to create the skeleton for a feature film or TV show, how to structure a story, create appealing plot lines, develop authentic and relatable characters, keep the audience hooked with engaging dialogue, and navigate the pitching process to bring a screenplay to life. They learn that screenwriting goes through multiple phases, starting with getting the raw material in your heart on the page, then translating that raw material into something the audience can understand, and finally crafting that story to its perfect form.
Certificate in Screenwriting – Two Year Duration
Certificate programs in screenwriting teach the fundamentals of the craft, how to write and revise scripts for feature films and television. Students are also exposed to the business and operations of film studios and television writers’ rooms and the pre-production and post-production of filmmaking.
Here are some examples of core courses offered at the certificate level:
• Pre-Production and Production for Film and Television – an overview of the real-world aspects of producing in the various sectors of filmed entertainment, from script development through pre-production and production; topics range from the producer’s interface with the writer, director, and other key personnel to pitching and selling ideas, script breakdown and scheduling, budgeting, and other critical on-set issues facing the producer
• Post-Production for Film and Television – survey of how new technologies continue to impact post-production process for film and television; a step-by-step overview of each stage of the process and building the post-production team, including editors, audio mixers, composers, sound designers, visual effects artists, and post-production management
• The Language of Filmmaking – exploration of the many components of film language used by directors to effectively tell their stories; using a diverse selection of multimedia material, including film and sound clips, pictures, articles, and interviews, students analyze shooting and editing techniques; topics covered include image composition and lighting, camera movements, editing, and sound
• Feature Film I – overview of the complete process of writing a feature film screenplay, emphasizing the craft’s key elements of story structure, plot, scene development, character, theme, genre, and dialogue; creating and evaluating story ideas, exploring how characters’ inner wants and immediate goals shape and drive the action of a screenplay; learning what constitutes compelling plots and subplots; how to construct a scene; students write a script outline, clearly delineating its beginning, middle, and end
• Feature Film II – students pitch their story based on their script outline and revise it to make sure the premise can carry the entire movie; students begin writing their screenplay receiving feedback on character development, story structure, conflict, and other key points
• Feature Film III – students focus on writing the next 45 – 50 pages of their script, refining their story outline, fleshing out main and secondary characters, continuing to discover each character’s unique voice and develop the art of the scene as it pertains to type, choice, structure, and placement
• Feature Film IV – in the process of completing their script, students hone in on structuring conversations, explore how to maximize their story’s visual implications, deepen scene writing skills, assemble scenes to form powerful sequences, ensure their script’s central conflict is resolved, and work on theme and imagery; discussion of script revision techniques and the business aspects of feature film writing
The television component of the curriculum typically allows students to focus on either half-hour TV or one-hour TV:
• Half-Hour TV I: Existing Series – students develop story documents and an outline for an existing half-hour TV series; they learn how to turn the classic three-act story structure (beginning-middle-end) into a three-act show, how to use the tools of storytelling in a way that meets the demands of an existing half-hour television show; by the end of the course, students will have written two complete story documents, a blended story document and beat sheet (the precursor to a screenplay outline, which identifies the important moments in an episode or feature film, and lays out what needs to happen in each act of the story), and a complete outline that will allow them to easily construct an episode of television; this course is modeled on the process used in many writers’ rooms
• Half-Hour TV II: Existing Series – students write a solid first draft of their script and work on polishing it; they begin by refining their story idea and outline as needed and then write their script, focusing on capturing the essence of the show through its act structure, plot and story, multiple storylines, characters, scenes, and dialogue; the business of the half-hour comedy
• Half-Hour TV III: Original Pilot – this course takes students from half-hour comedy pilot idea to beat sheet and the first 10 pages of their script; in the style of a real writers’ room, students develop a compelling story, brainstorm, and support another’s vision; by the end of the course, they have strong act breaks, a full beat outline, and a critique of the beginning pages of their original half-hour pilot script
• Half-Hour TV IV: Original Pilot – from their outline, students write a solid first draft of their original half-hour comedy pilot script; they rework their story idea and outline as needed, fix story problems to maximize the comic potential, and refine the world, characters, tone, and story of their pilot; they then move toward completing a first draft of their script, working on scenes, dialogue, and action, until it captures their original vision and matches a network’s likely requirements
• One-Hour TV I: Existing Series – students develop story documents and an outline for a script for an existing one-hour TV series; they learn how to turn the classic three-act story structure (beginning-middle-end) into a five- or six--act show, how to use the tools of storytelling in a way that meets the demands of an existing one-hour television show; by the end of the course, students will have written three complete story documents, a blended story document, and a complete outline that will allow them to easily construct an episode of television; this course is modeled on the process used in many writers’ rooms
• One-Hour TV II: Existing Series – students turn their existing one hour spec episode outline into a full script; students write a solid first draft of their script and work on polishing it; they begin by refining their story idea and outline as needed and then write their script, focusing on capturing the essence of the show through its act structure, plot and story, multiple storylines, characters, scenes, and dialogue; the business of the one-hour drama
• One-Hour TV III: Original Pilot – students develop the world, characters, tone, and story engine for an original TV series before developing an outline their script’s first act; by the end of the course they have strong act breaks, a full beat outline, and a critique of the first ten pages of their original one-hour pilot script
• One-Hour TV IV: Original Pilot – from their one-hour outline, students complete their pilot script; they rework their story idea and outline as needed, fix story problems to maximize the drama potential, and refine the world, characters, tone, and story of their pilot; they then move toward completing a first draft of their script, working on scenes, dialogue, and action, until it captures their original vision and matches a network’s likely requirements
Bachelor’s Degree in Screenwriting – Three to Four Year Duration
Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Screenwriting – Three to Four Year Duration
Whereas certificate programs in screenwriting are singularly focused on the practical aspects of the craft, bachelor’s programs commonly offer a well-rounded collegiate education in the arts and humanities, with a comprehensive study of, and practice in, the art of screenwriting and related filmmaking disciplines. At the bachelor’s level, screenwriting courses are still focused on feature films and television, but they may span several other major fields and new media such as playwriting, comic books, web series, and games. The longer duration of the bachelor’s curriculum also allows for internship experiences. The most sought after programs incorporate opportunities for students to pitch their thesis script to agents, managers, executives, and/or producers.
Here are some sample core courses that may be part of a screenwriting bachelor’s curriculum:
• Elements of Screenwriting
• Writing the Feature Film Screenplay
• Story Generation
• Writing for Television: The One-Hour Drama
• Script to Screen
• Writing for Television: The Half-Hour Spec
• Sequential Art Writing: Writing Stories for Comic Books
• New Media: Web Series, Mobisodes, and Branded Entertainment
(a mobisode is an episode of a television program made specifically for viewing on the screen of a mobile phone, usually lasting between one and three minutes; branded entertainment, an example of which is The Lego Movie, is the insertion of a brand within an entertainment property in such a way that the line between entertainment and advertising becomes blurred)
• Adaptation: The Challenge of Translating a Non-Cinematic Art Form into a Cinematic Story
• Writing for Television: The Pilot
• The Great Playwrights
• Advanced Writing Seminar: Character Development and Topics
• The Business of Screenwriting
• Advanced Thesis Workshop: Film Option
• Advanced Thesis Workshop: TV Option
• Advanced Writing Seminar: Scene Writing and Topics
• Screenwriting Project Planning and Management
Master’s Degree in Screenwriting – Two Year Duration
Master of Fine Arts Degree in Screenwriting – Two Year Duration
Master’s programs in screenwriting are generally targeted at working screenwriters with a specified minimum number of years of experience in the field and a related undergraduate degree. Many schools require that applicants provide a narrative statement which tells their unique story, their journey to screenwriting, what is important to them about the stories they want to tell, and what people, movies, and art inspire them. Applicants are also often required to submit an original screenplay and write a scene in professional format on a specified topic. The focus of the master’s curriculum in screenwriting is portfolio development, which occurs through workshops, conferences, internships, and an extensive practicum.
Degrees Similar to Screenwriting
Acting is much more than it appears to be, because great actors act so naturally that their skills and years of training are invisible. But the fact is that acting is a complex art. Degree programs in the field seek to break down this complexity and teach students the intricacies of the craft, from voice and movement to emotion memory to improvisation and impulse to dramatic analysis. Acting, though, is a craft that can never be perfected, which is likely why so many of the greats in the business work until their dying day. They, too, in essence, are students of acting.
Animators are artists. Their art is producing images or ‘frames’ that, when combined in sequence, create an illusion of movement called ‘animation.’ Degree programs in the field teach students how to use animation software and hardware to create characters and stories for the motion picture, television, and video game industries. Typical components of the curriculum include two-dimensional and three-dimensional art and animation, storyboarding, life/human and background drawing, layout, and digital painting.
Students of broadcast journalism learn how to report, produce, and deliver the news for television, radio, and other broadcast media. Their studies typically include communication theory, electronic media production, mass communications law, and media and society.
Cinema is a global phenomenon. Its impact – artistically, culturally, and politically – is undeniable. Through their study of film history, film theory, film analysis, and film criticism, students of cinema studies develop an understanding of how films resonate in our lives. They explore film genres, authorship, ideologies, and styles. They are introduced to film production and editing. And when they complete their studies, they find that their technical knowledge and artistic and aesthetic sensibilities can be applied in a variety of creative callings.
Degree programs in this field teach every stage of film production, from conception to distribution. Coursework includes securing screenplay rights, identifying financing sources, finding locations, negotiating with film distributors, hiring casts and crews, and managing production budgets.
Degree programs in game design teach students how to create, develop, and produce video and computer games. Foundations of a game design curriculum typically include game theory and history, pre-production and production techniques, storytelling, graphics, animation, digital music and sound, and programming.
This degree program involves creating images and content using the latest design techniques and technology. Animation, audio, interactivity, still images, text, and video are examples of multimedia arts. The core curriculum consists of courses in 3D digital art, animation, design concepts, interactive design, storytelling, and writing for media.
Photography degree programs teach the technical, creative, and business skills required to be a professional photographer. Courses cover the history of photography, black-and-white photography, color photography, lighting techniques, materials and processes, two-dimensional design, digital photography, and photography as a business.
Theatre arts degree programs teach the performing arts and the fields that support them. Some curricula may focus on a specific area, such as acting, dance, or music. Others may address more than a single aspect of the live theatre industry, covering a range of topics including theatre history, dramatic literature, playwriting, directing, and/or self-promotion. Still others may focus on or include the technical/supportive disciplines of lighting, scenic design, costume design, and make-up.
Skills You'll Learn
Students of screenwriting learn a set of skills that is welcome not only in the world of filmmaking, but beyond. They bring the following to any kind of work they do:
• Ability to work both independently and collaboratively
• Ability to work under pressure
• Appreciation of aesthetics
• Attention to detail
• Broad historical and cultural knowledge
• Creativity / clear, concise, and creative writing
• Enhanced cognitive function in older adults, often associated with pursuing the creative arts
• Enjoyment of their work
• Motivation and dedication
• Patience and persistence
• Pride in ‘getting it done right’
• Respect for deadlines
• Storytelling / comfort adapting content for different audiences and users
What Can You Do with a Screenwriting Degree?
For most graduates of screenwriting programs, the dream is to work as a film or television screenwriter. But the entertainment job market can be difficult to break into. There are other rewarding roles, however, in which budding screenwriters can apply their artistic sensibilities and writing and storytelling talents. Here is a snapshot of some career options:
• Advertising Copy Writer
• App Writer
• Author / Novelist
• Content Editor
• Content Writer
• Graphic Novelist / Comic Book Writer
• Lyricist (writes the words to a song or musical)
• Media / Film Critic
• Online Corporate Training Script Writer
• Radio Script Writer
• Screenwriting Teacher
• Script Reader (evaluates scripts and the possibility of their becoming successful productions)
• Short Story Writer
• Television writer
• Video Game Story Writer
• Web Series Writer
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