Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Should You Get a MFA in Screenwriting?

(My guest blogger today is award-winning writer Steven Arvanites.  I met Steven at the Atlanta Screenwriting Competition workshop -- we both were winners last year.  Nice guy and a unique talent.)

If you have any aspirations to teach it's definitely of enormous benefit.  Also, it marks you as someone who is dedicated and serious about the craft.  Additionally, it opens professional doors through your teachers and mentors.  This is especially true for screenwriting programs at UCLA and USC, and Hollins too.  However, you can win an Academy award with only a G.E.D. high school diploma.  It's all about your passion and dedication to the screenwriting and the wacky business.  But if you are looking for a higher degree I definitely recommend Hollins.  It has much to offer.

In conclusion, I grew as a writer from by teaching, learning from my students and the plethora of guest speakers.  For you are constantly exposed to ideas, structure, dialogue and character development it eventually seeps into your own writing.  That was true for me. 

In the summer of 2009 I was invited by the Hollins Universityscreenwriting summer program director, Dr. Klaus Phillips, to teach two workshops.  My topics were: Reaching Your Creative Goals and How to Pitch.  Both were successful and the students enjoyed learning how to pitch their scripts.  Afterwards, Klaus took me to lunch and offered me a teaching job for the following summer's screenwriting program.  I immediately accepted.  This would be a great opportunity to expand myteaching credentials and to spend the summer on the bucolic campus of Hollins University in Roanoke Virginia.

After two delayed flights on United Airlines -- The Greyhound Bus of The Sky -- Klaus picked me up from the airport.   Before checking into my housing he took me to lunch.  Has anyone ever say no to free food?  In reflection, I think Hollins works so well because his leadership.  He's not only generous and magnanimous, but he knows exactly how to make students and faculty feel at home, and at ease to do their best work.  In other words, a Mensch!

I wandered the sprawling Hollins campus with its antebellum buildings coupled with their state-of-the-art Visual Arts Center and the magnificent $14 million Robinson Library. (It would become my "office" for the summer.) My housing was located across the Highway, but centrally air-conditioned, and had a brand-new TV/DVD player thanks to Klaus.

That evening I met the other members of the faculty.  It was serendipitous for we got along extremely well.  The other faculty was: Tim Albough, Christa Maeker, Joe Gilford, Stephen Prince and Seth M. Donsky (who will be teaching a workshop for NYC screenwriter in October).  All talented teachers; and great fun too!!

My class was intimate, only five students.  I had three women and two men.  The requirement for my advanced class was the first-year basic screenwriting course. Each student had their own unique voice and great stories to tell.  However, we got off to a slow start due to Logline Trauma.  It is amazing how difficult one sentence can be to create.  But after some rewrites the students quickly caught on and we flew for the rest of the term.   In the very first class, I laid down my Rules of Critiquing. In previous teaching situations writer comments were dismissive and non-constructive.   I determined it was not going to happen again. This class needed to be a "safe place" where students can make mistakes and not only learn from them, but flourish.  The first round of criticism must be entirely complementary.

What did you like about the writing?
What did you like about the characters?
Are there particular moments in the writing that delighted you?

Then we did our second round of critiquing -- the criticism. Criticism is not a dirty word.   It is vital to receive criticism in order to make you a better screenwriter.  Surprisingly, my class had a difficult time in praising and an easy time criticizing. But soon all balanced out and everyone's script was better for it.

Each student was required to write seven pages a week.  Next a short movie clip demonstrating "High-Concept". E.g. - Liar, Liar -- the lawyer's son makes a wish that his father must tell the truth for 24 hours.   Please click on my VLOG for an expanded definition.

Also, I was a worksheet monster.  Each session had at least one in-class worksheet and several informational take-home worksheets.  The three hours usually flew by and so did six weeks.

However, teaching only occupied a minority of my time.  With the help of my wonderful and talented friend Hillary Homzie (a professor on the children's literature side) I accepted a personal challenge and wrote a script in two weeks entitled, Mafia In A Dress. I needed new material for the CineStory Writers Retreat (co-sponsored by the Academy Awards) in September.  Location: Idyllwild, California.

I had written a High-Concept script, Mafia In A Dress, two years ago.  The concept was great.  My execution stank.  Not wanting to abandon such a good idea, I rewrote 97% of the original screenplay.  I trudged to the library every day (with the heat hovering at 100° it was a no-brainer) and to my favorite computer terminal and turned out the pages. It was the ultimate Butt In Chair Time.  In two weeks I was finished.  I'm ecstatic at the finished script, and eagerly anticipate my CineStory mentor's critique.

Another benefit of the Hollins M.F.A. screenwriting program are the informative workshops offered.  My lecture was: How To Make A Film for under $10,000 and Win At Two Film Festivals.  I'm officially in love with PowerPoint!

Among the other lecture guests was Scott Kosar the screenwriter of:  The Machinist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Crazies. What a fascinating story on how, The Machinist got made via the connections he fostered through his UCLA masters degree.  Additionally, screenwriting guru Hal Ackerman spoke about his famous book and his newly published novel; and, finally, Peter Riegert of Animal House fame.  The cumulative experience was a 24/7 screenwriting paradise!

Remember, keep writing!

there is an accompanying VLOG @:

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