Do Film School Grads Have an Advantage Entering the Industry?

As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and produces on her own, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide.

In show business they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck, because now you know Priyanka!

I’m at a good film school, but how is it really going to help with a career in entertainment? It doesn’t seem to matter to agents.

Career paths in entertainment are as varied as snowflakes. The basic tools you need to “make it” are credits, contacts, and a work ethic, all welded together with confidence. How and when you collect your tools is your own business. Some are born into industry families, some have layovers in agency mailrooms, some make standout films at Tisch. If you’re trying to decide what to study, then no, it’s not necessary to spend years studying film in order to work in entertainment. Half of the people you meet in the business are English majors, I studied Italian, and Mike Judge was a physicist, which makes him two kinds of genius. But if you ARE in film school, here are the benefits and how to make the most of it if you feel stuck.

As an artist has a portfolio, your dream is (probably) to amass credits, or a respectable body of work that can get you more work. In school, you are swimming in a perfect soup of resources, surrounded by willing and capable bodies who will help you shoot things, and access to high-end production facilities for which you will have to beg, borrow, and steal some day. Use all of your crayons before you have to give them back.

Now is also the time for aggressive networking. Your talented peers will only continue to be more so, so seek them out, collaborate with them, and keep in touch. So many people venture into the business not knowing a single soul other than their improv team, so a full rolodex when you graduate is a massive head start. So many of your jobs will come to you through your network, those talented kids will be winning awards some day, and unsurprisingly, people like to hire people they already know.

As for work ethic, unless you’re skipping every class, homework and deadlines and ambition tend to whip a work ethic into you, but the intangible quality that I hope you get out of film school is confidence. In your work, sure, but also in your ability to pick up a laptop, a camera, a bunch of friends and create. There is nothing more integral to your future in this business than a relentless belief in your ability to succeed. Remember and repeat aloud if necessary: if all those other dum dums can do it, you’re going to be OK.

My reductive take, and I may be in the minority, is that if you’ve paid for most of a degree and aren’t in a crippling financial bind, you might as well finish it, otherwise you’re in a debt hole with nothing to show for that money. I graduated from law school and didn’t use my degree for a single second, but its existence does tend to convince people I’m not an idiot, and that baseline confidence has been worth even more than the $120,000 I paid for it.

What books do you recommend for screenwriters?

There are so many books about screenwriting, it’s shocking. The books I recommend depend on your purpose. Some are manuals, some are treatises, and some are just the ramblings of people in the same dreadful/exciting boat. These are the best of the lot, according to an informal poll of working screenwriters (mostly my husband, who has read everything, and is quite good).

If you want to roll up your sleeves and just go for it LIKE NOW, I can’t over-recommend Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. I work with a lot of first-time screenwriters and it’s the Rosetta Stone of the form – put in a few hours to read it, and you might not be fluent, but you will be conversational.

How to Write a Movie in 21 Days by Viki King. 21 days seems rushed, but a strong method to map out your process and script within any amount of time. Also good at drawing out the personal story you want to tell, instead of just the story you feel like someone might want to buy.

Elephant Bucks by Sheldon Bull – this is Save the Cat for TV. Paint-by-numbers, in a good way.

Dan Harmon’s Story Structure 101, to map out TV episodes.

Screenwriting 101 by Film Crit Hulk. I find the caps alarming, but his approach is a smart, insightful, unpretentious anti-manual, especially if you find the restrictions of most manuals overly simplistic.

Your Screenplay Sucks by William Akers. When you’re (inevitably) stuck on draft twelve of a script and are thinking about giving up because it’s 100 pages of boring crap, this will get you excited about it again.

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman. This is like going to lunch with the smartest funniest screenwriter of all time, and he’s sharing wisdom from 30 years ago that is still true.

Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. An entire generation of Apatow-trained writers were given this on their first day in the room. Analyzes playwriting in the 1940s, but the lessons remain the same.

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Truby is a story guru in the same club as Mckee, Field, and Snyder, but when you’re flopping around in a quagmire of story theory, let this help pull you out. My husband is particularly vocal about his approach to the third act.

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. When you want to take a step back from screenwriting and be inspired by the creative processes of other artists. Many of the rituals can be adapted for screenwriting.

Photo credit: Lauren Olson/NBC

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