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Extra Curricular

by Holly Willis

Paradigm Shifts: TV-Focused Curriculum Changes at Three Film Schools

A couple of years ago, I was chatting with writer Jack Epps, a colleague of mine at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. We were marveling over the rise of the limited series as a format, and he explained that it allows for an expanded second act. “You can really develop the relationship between a protagonist and antagonist,” he said, using Killing Eve as a great example. 

I was intrigued by the idea that new formats could allow different aspects of storytelling to emerge so, for this issue’s column, I asked the heads of three different MFA screenwriting programs to talk about how their curricula may be adjusting to a rapidly changing landscape of film and television forms, due in part to the prevalence of streaming. Their responses suggest that the fundamental elements of story described by Aristotle remain stable, but certain trends require some fine-tuning.

“In screenwriting, it’s imperative that you have a nimble curriculum because the landscape of the industry is constantly shifting,” says Karol Hoeffner, associate professor and chair of screenwriting in the School of Film and Television at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “We want our students to be fully formed and ready to be an active member of the industry
the moment they graduate.”

LMU’s graduate screenwriting program has two tracks oriented to different career paths. Writing for the Screen formerly focused on feature film screenwriting but now includes television since it has become so prominent; the program trains writers to work across the full spectrum of moving image storytelling. The second track, Writing and Producing for TV, is oriented toward training writer-producers to be the next generation of showrunners.

Hoeffner explains that LMU’s curriculum focuses on the business and creative sides of screenwriting. “It’s important for students to understand the business structures that are in place and the differences among the various distribution companies, as well as the differences among network television, streaming services and cable, where there is such a wide array of programming.” She adds that LMU’s MFA program includes a Business of Entertainment class where students create pitch materials for one of their current writing projects. LMU also offers a class on adaptation, which is more popular than ever for students in both graduate tracks. In this class, students develop pitches for translating existing IP for both film and TV.

The biggest shift described by Hoeffner is the emphasis on television and, more recently, attention to writing specifically for streaming. “When you’re writing for streaming, it’s like writing one big, long movie,” Hoeffner says, citing The Queen’s Gambit. “Without commercial breaks, and considering the trend toward binge-watching, writers need to craft smooth transitions between acts, moving seamlessly from scene to scene, and they need to end each episode on a moment that makes the viewer want to watch the next one. In addition to interior scene construction, we also guide them to consider their own intent and the marketplace when they are creating their characters and structuring their stories.”

Julianna Baggott, an associate professor and head of screenwriting in the College of Motion Picture Arts at Florida State University in Tallahassee, highlights three specific changes in her program’s curriculum, the first being a greater emphasis on writing for TV. “Two years ago, we piloted a Writer’s Room Simulation course. It’s been groundbreaking for our students, who rotate through roles and come to really understand how a writers’ room operates.” Baggott adds that this new addition joins a course that helps students pitch their projects; the highlight of the course is a trip to LA to pitch projects to alums working in the industry. And an adaptation class “focuses on writing fiction with an eye toward film and television, as well as adapting existing intellectual property. We want students to have experience on both sides of that equation,” she explains.

Yet another exciting shift centers on the hunger for new voices. “We have a very diverse student body, and streaming has helped open up space for more unique perspectives and voices rising up from marginalized communities,” Baggott says. “Our students are diving in and claiming those spaces on their own terms. We’ve always encouraged our students to be personal and vulnerable when writing stories that they urgently want to tell, and we love to see them having success.”

Cindy McCreery, an associate professor and area head for screenwriting in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas in Austin, echoes Baggott on this last point when she describes what she finds most exciting about the current moment for screenwriting students. “One thing that’s changed is that the possibilities seem a little bigger for students telling their own stories and sharing their own original voices,” she says. “We encourage students to write about where they’re from, to tell stories about their homes and to infuse their own backgrounds into their work. If they don’t see themselves represented on screen, this is the time to change that and write it. I think because of the way the industry is changing, we are able to point to great examples of this kind of storytelling with shows such as Reservation Dogs.” 

Like those at LMU and FSU, the UT screenwriting program also has a business-oriented course that trains students how to pitch their projects in the contemporary market, as well as a course titled “Writers Room Workshop” which brings people from the industry to work with students to create a show. “Right now, we’re writing the first four episodes of a project that the production students are actually shooting,” McCreery says, adding that the experience of collaboration created in the course is necessary. “A lot of students have gone on to work in writers’ rooms,” she adds, “often admitting that they didn’t realize at the time how useful the class was.”

Another shift noted by McCreery is that UT has reoriented its TV writing class, which previously focused on writing a spec script. “The spec world isn’t what it used to be,” she says, noting that in the past, a spec script could lead to a job or a fellowship. “Now, we spend a lot more time on pilot writing and developing a series and learning how to pitch it.” The logic here is that while there’s still value in learning how to write a spec script, it may be more advantageous to leave the program with two pilots.

McCreery notes that the UT-Austin program is quite small, admitting just seven students per year. “With such a small cohort, we get to know our students really well,” she explains, adding that many students come into the program knowing exactly what they want to do, and it’s up to the faculty, through various courses, to encourage students to experiment. “If you’re in an MFA program, the stakes are low, and there’s the freedom to fail. If you’re convinced you only write drama, and then you’re in a class doing half-hour comedy, and everyone’s laughing and you realize that you’re actually hilarious, that’s a good thing. Students should be here to experiment and to figure themselves out as writers.”

Baggott concurs, noting, “We encourage students to think about their own creative process: not just what they write but how they write, in hopes of creating a flexible and sustainable practice that they can continue to rely on once they graduate. Sustainable process, risk-taking, experimentation, collaboration—those are some of the fundamental skills that help writers adapt to the shifting demands of the industry.”

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