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Lessons Learned

Making it in the Entertainment Business: Screenwriter

Cindy Davis was on her way to earning a PhD in marine biology when she enrolled in a screenwriting class just for fun. That was all it took for her to switch gears and find a new career that would lead to writing the English-language screenplay for the Oscar-winning film “Spirited Away” and the Oscar-nominated “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

“I took an extension course, which is great because you’re not trying to get a good grade, you’re just trying to learn,” Davis said. “I’d recommend it for anyone.”

Now teaching screenwriting courses at UCLA Extension, Davis said it is important for aspiring screenwriters to keep learning. “You can’t even believe how many screenwriting books I own,” she said. “And I watch a kabillion movies, break down the structure and figure out what makes it work.”

A screenwriter, author and Universal Studios story analyst who teaches in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, Billy Mernit has written the book — literally — on screenwriting, “Writing the Romantic Comedy.” He and Davis also contributed chapters to "Cut to the Chase: Writing Feature Films With the Pros" edited by Linda Venis, director of UCLA Extension Writers' Program.

He agrees with Davis that extension courses can be critical.

“If you don’t actually attend a film school but you want to get your craft up to snuff, then the Extension Program at UCLA is an excellent venue for acquiring better craft skills and for networking with other aspiring screenwriters,” said Mernit, who attended film school at New York University. “The instructors are professionals working in the industry, so you’re going to learn from people who understand how the industry works.”

Other tips include:

See every movie, read every screenplay. “In my experience, there is nothing like reading a good screenplay and learning from it,” said Mernit. “Don’t only watch the contemporary movies, but go back a little further and look at the classics that inspired a particular genre.”

Enjoy what you’re doing. “Write what you love, write what you really want to be writing,” Mernit said. “Go with your strengths. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with different genres, as long as you’re genuinely interested in it.”

Seek out screenwriting competitions. “There are a number of prominent screenwriting contests out there,” Mernit said. “Some of them are bogus and a waste of money. But some of them are taken very seriously by the industry and doing well in a competition can become a calling card when pitching a screenplay.”

Among those that can carry weight are the Academy Nicholl Fellowships, the Austin Film Festival’s Screenplay Competition, the Sundance Screenplay competition, Scriptapalooza and BlueCat. “This is an industry that is run on fear. People hate to be wrong. So if someone else says that your work is good, that could unlock some doors.”

Don’t be unprepared. “You should really have full confidence that whatever it is you’re working on is absolutely the best it could possibly be before you try to sell it,” Mernit said. That means taking your screenplay to a writing group, a writing class or someone familiar with the industry for feedback first. “You often don’t get a second chance. The first read is so important.” 

Mernit and Davis emphasize that aspiring screenwriters need to be prepared for a reality check.

“The competition is extremely fierce, in large part because there is this odd misconception that screenwriting is relatively easy,” Mernit said. “Even if you’re successful, the money can come in at such weird increments. It can get really nutty.”

David Ogul for UCLA Extension

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