IS A SCREENWRITING MFA WORTH IT?

by Susan Sassi

Even pre-pandemic, MFA’s were coming under fire.

Are they really worth all that debt?

Here’s the Wall Street Journal saying that MFAs in the arts are an unsustainable investment and often just a vanity purchase for the rich. Slate followed up with a similar argument.

Meanwhile, trade schools like Script Anatomy are rising fast, democratizing fields that have been closed off to many people because of cost, and achieving results that put top dollar MFA’s to shame. Covid has only exacerbated the trend by turning a pricey Screenwriting Masters into just another Zoom school.

So how does this stack up? How do you choose between a pricey but prestigious MFA and a nimble, affordable trade school like Script Anatomy?

Screenwriting MFA vs Trade School

Let’s start with MFAs – the pros and cons. Then we’ll move onto Trade Schools

Pro MFA
  • Prestige—names like Yale, USC, Wesleyan, and NYU impress people. And the peer network can be valuable afterward.
  • Depth, time—there’s a benefit to years of studying the craft, particularly if you’re new to screenwriting. There’s also time to practice and create a full portfolio.
  • Teaching possibilities—an MFA from a respected school is often necessary to teach at universities.
Con MFA
  • Cost—just look at these prices! NYU is $90,000 for two years, AFI is $130,000. That doesn’t include housing, living expenses, and you likely won’t have time to work during the course.
  • Time—an MFA takes you out of the professional market for at least two years.
  • Relevance—expect full-time academics with old credits who may not know what’s current in a fast-changing business.
  • Cut systems—many prestigious programs (eg. Juilliard) cut students every semester, resulting in a small, hand-picked graduating class. Cut students receive neither a degree nor a reimbursement.

Now, let’s do Trade Schools. We’ll take Script Anatomy as an example. The pic below shows one of two classrooms in the center of LA.

Pro Screenwriting Trade School
  • Cost—Life-changing. Script Anatomy courses start in the $600-800 range. Take four in a year (which is a lot!) and you’ll be paying less than 1/15th of an MFA. AND your living expenses won’t change. AND you can continue to work.
  • Alumni Network—the Script Anatomy community is dynamic and career-focused and they’ll remain your peers in the business. Many students are already working as writers assistants, script coordinators, actors. Some are working writers, even showrunners, who return to brush up or workshop a pilot. There are community events to meet and bond with other professionals, not least your instructors.
  • Relevance—Script Anatomy instructors are working writers with current credits. They’re not tenured professors who may be out of date and less interested in the hustle. They have up-to-the-moment industry knowledge and they have contacts.
  • Vocational—Trade schools prepare you for working life. At Script Anatomy, classes are run like writers rooms. The lessons are practical and applicable.
  • Time—You don’t have to wait for 2 years to try to break into the industry. You’re always trying. Script Anatomy is a continuing education program in which you write a sample in class while working a full-time job, developing your own scripts for money, or going out for staffing.
  • Teaching opportunities—former students often return to teach at SA in between writing jobs.
Con Screenwriting Trade School:
  • Prestige—you don’t get a fancy degree or a Yale tie. There’s no lavish campus or graduation ball.
  • Time—you won’t always finish your work in class. Script Anatomy courses are intensive and equip you to continue developing your work alongside your classmates in between courses. This could be your future writers’ group.
  • Practicality over theory—You won’t be schooled in some of the high-flown esoteric theory of drama, since the trade school ethos is to prepare you for the industry. Script Anatomy focuses on the practicalities of effective craft.
So where does this leave us?

In a very positive place!

If you can afford the time and/or money an MFA requires, go for it. It’s a great experience, you’ll learn a ton, and you can always go to Script Anatomy afterward – as many do – to hone your work for the writer’s room.

But if you don’t have two years to spend and you don’t want a six figure debt, then don’t worry. You have options! You can still access high-quality teaching, a proactive and connected peer group, and expert faculty who have their finger on the pulse.

Check out some of our courses


 

Lorelei Ignas

Written by Lorelei Ignas

Lorelei Ignas is a 2016 NBC Writer’s on the Verge Fellow and currently a staff writer at Netflix

 

 

 


 

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