Writing for Film: Screenwriting Programs Online

Experienced and emerging writers alike are looking for screenwriting programs to improve their craft, learn from the professionals, and give their scripts a creative edge over the competition. If you’re ready to finish that screenplay or try a new medium, an online screenwriting degree can be the catalyst that pushes you into production.

Why Study Screenwriting? What Does a Screenwriter Do?

“Our screenwriting MFA is for people who want to write narrative content for the screen,” says Bettina Moss, Program Director for National University’s MFA in Professional Screenwriting. “Whatever form that takes — including scriptwriting for feature films, TV writing, and transmedia writing. Stories that could be a television show or even a graphic novel or a web series.”

Moss has been in the business a long time, working with major studios and professionals across the entertainment industry. She offers solid advice for getting the most out of an online screenwriting degree in a world where the demand for stories is growing.

Narrative content is the theme that brings different media of screenwriting together. Writers have a story to tell, and screenwriters have a passion for seeing their stories come to life. The principles of great storytelling in a novel and in an eight-part miniseries, for example, may be similar: protagonist versus antagonist, characters, conflict, worldbuilding, and the overall plot structure. Screenwriting programs teach that there are particular challenges and creative thinking that go into translating a story into a script.

Whereas a novel might narrate details of a plot, character action, and even internal dialogue, screenwriting tells a story in terms of plot and dialogue, but with a narrative style that leaves room for actors, directors, set production designers, and other professionals to add their own creative layers to a story. This is true across film, television, and even comic book production. Screenwriting programs teach writers that their work as a storyteller becomes a highly collaborative process when you write for the screen, and studios are looking for writers who understand this.

On the job, screenwriters might develop and pitch script ideas on their own or they might work with a script development team, a team of writers for a TV show. They may be hired to rewrite or improve an existing screenplay or TV script. Screenwriting may be the least visible part of the work that brings shows to your screen, but it’s an active and thriving component of production that typically requires multiple writers. Between 2009 and 2014, the Writers Guild of America West reported an increase of 12.4% in employed screenwriters among their membership — a six-fold increase from the period before.

As a profession within the arts, the pay for an optioned and produced script or on a team of television writers varies dramatically and depends on a contract or agreement with a production studio. According to the WGAW, median annual earnings for their members is in the $100,000s (2014). Writers building their career in film, television, gaming, and other industries might earn less, and top established writers in the industry earn much more.

Demand for Original Scripts Is Rapidly Growing

In the US, and around the world, the entertainment industry is booming thanks to an explosion in the kinds of technology that allow people to experience content — from video games to streaming video — on demand. Technology has completely transformed the TV and film industry over the past two decades. People aren’t just watching a broader variety of programs, they’re binging scripted television and seeing their favorite movies multiple times.

“There is an abundance of platforms for your story today,” comments Moss. She wants writers interested in screenwriting programs to understand that the industry can be challenging, but it’s also rapidly changing and becoming more inclusive for diverse voices. “There are so many more places for content to be seen today than just a decade ago. Streaming video, binge-watching, original programs on Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, not to mention web series and podcasts. And this content is winning awards: it’s winning Oscars and Emmys.”

Nearly 500 original TV programs aired in 2017, that’s more than twice as many TV programs as just fifteen years earlier in 2012. Original programs — shows that need TV scriptwriters — are growing in every area of media. In the last five years, fictional original programming on premium cable grew by 45%, basic cable by 40%, and broadcast networks by 29%. That’s not even accounting for the increases in subscription-based video, or documentary and non-scripted reality television.

A new digital economy, including streaming video on demand (VOD) and online network TV subscription services, are major drivers in the entertainment sector, opening up more and more channels for shows that need screenwriters. Online subscription VOD services — think Netflix and Hulu — are continuously adding and developing new original content on a global scale. More people than ever are consuming television and feature film content, and they’re doing it at home, on multiple devices, and in movie theaters.

“The reality is: story is king,” says Moss. To meet this demand, “the entertainment industry needs stories in order to produce anything.” Before helming the MFA in Professional Screenwriting program at National University, Moss worked in film development at HBO Films for over a decade. Her own education was in screenwriting at Columbia University, a caliber of education she brings to the MFA in Professional Screenwriting at National.

What You Gain From Screenwriting Programs

When you’re looking for an online screenwriting degree, it’s important to understand the benefits of screenwriting programs and how to get the highest value for your investment in an MFA. Writers and creative professionals need to evaluate tangible benefits beyond earning potential, benefits such as a measurable improvement in the craft of screenwriting, an expanded professional network, and increased confidence in professional skills.

“I like to ask prospective students before they join our MFA in Professional Screenwriting program: ‘Why do you want an MFA?’” says Moss. “We have a conversation about their experience and their passion for writing.”  Moss says that she most often hears these five things when she asks students why they chose National University’s MFA program: mentorship, community, exposure, options, and schedule flexibility.

Students Want Pro Mentorship

Students want their online screenwriting course to be taught by entertainment industry professionals who know what they’re doing. “All of our faculty currently work in the industry,” shares Moss. “Most of them have extensive experience, have won awards such as Emmys and the prestigious Nicholls Fellowship. They’ve made it into film festivals, worked for major TV studios. Some of them are current writers on popular TV shows.”

The quality of the faculty is one of the MFA program’s biggest selling points. “We have relationships in the industry that lend us a great network to tap into,” adds Moss. “We put a real highlight on student interaction. Our faculty have the freedom to interact as much as they want.” MFA program faculty are dedicated to introducing students to thrive in the entertainment industry, how to build a writing career, and market their work and themselves. Faculty strive to help their students get produced, to understand the business from an insider's perspective and also to work in many areas of the industry, such as development.

Students Want a Writers’ Community

“Our students want the camaraderie that screenwriting programs offer, a cohort to encourage creative thinking,” Moss says about her MFA students. Two cohorts begin each year — in January and July — for the MFA in Professional Screenwriting program. The writers get to know each other and the faculty during each online screenwriting course. In the writing workshop, students receive personal consultations about their screenplays or television pilot scripts.

“One of the pluses of smaller class sizes is that creativity is more supported when you get personalized attention,” says Moss. “We talk to students about changing the way they perceive writing projects and how they can firmly understand their own writing strengths.” Students find that their cohort peers, as well as instructors, make up their MFA writing community.

“I studied with people who shared the same passion for writing,” says Erika McCarden, an alumna of the MFA in Professional Screenwriting program and currently a member of the MFA faculty. McCarden teaches Marketing for Film & TV, pulling from her experience as an Emmy Award-winning writer-producer for Disney Channel, Oprah Winfrey Network, and other studios.

“A lot of students are already professional writers,” explains McCarden. As an instructor, she says she takes the time to listen to what writers are trying to achieve, and then gives them ideas about how to package, market, and produce those ideas. “I get letters and emails from students sharing how much they liked the class!”

Students Want Industry Exposure

Writers want the opportunity to build a professional network while they’re in an MFA program. National University’s MFA in Professional Screenwriting offers an unparalleled residency program where students learn the business firsthand by visiting production studios, meeting working industry writers and producers, and taking workshops from successful writers in Hollywood and beyond.

MFA students look forward to the screenwriting program’s two-week industry immersion residency that can be taken almost anytime during the program. This is no lightweight residency. Students develop a pitch, meet with development and production executives in Hollywood and Los Angeles, and dialogue with working writers at the Writers Guild of America West. Industry guests teach workshops about building your screenwriting career and the business of screenwriting. “Professional writers, directors, and producers from different production companies came into our class and spoke to us,” explains McCarden.

“It was an eye-opener into the business. A lot of MFA programs don’t have that opportunity to meet professionals in the industry, and that’s what I really liked about the program,” adds McCarden. “Paramount, Sony, Universal, Warner Bros — we were inside the writers’ rooms, with real showrunners and writers. They took the time to talk to us and give us advice on how to succeed with our projects.”

Students Want Career Options

An MFA degree allows graduates to teach writing or the arts in an academic setting in the future.

“One of the biggest pluses of an MFA is that it’s a terminal degree, and that means you could teach at the university level,” says Moss. This is an attractive option for students who want career and income options open to them immediately after graduation, whether they have a little or a great deal of industry experience.

“When I graduated, I had these great relationships with my MFA faculty. I felt very comfortable reaching out to them, they really care,” comments McCarden, who graduated in 2015. “They thought I had a lot to offer from my experience in TV and film marketing. I was able to shape the class around what I’m passionate about, real insights into marketing in the entertainment business.”

Students Want Schedule Flexibility

Most writers are balancing time spent in a screenwriting degree program with an already busy life where they juggle family, jobs, and time for writing. For many, the online MFA format is a perfect fit. “Students choose this MFA because they can take screenwriting classes online. Some programs require several residencies per year, but we have just one residency, taken anytime after your first six months. And it’s a great week,” says McCarden.

“I travel a lot. I’m super busy. The MFA program afforded me the time to build it around my schedule,” adds McCarden. “I didn’t have to drive to a campus. It was much easier for me to do it on my own time, on weeknights or weekends if I needed to.”

What to Expect From Screenwriting Programs and How to Prepare

To succeed in a challenging and rapidly changing industry, today’s screenwriters must be flexible, entrepreneurial, open to varied types of content creation, and able to self-market. The MFA in Professional Screenwriting focuses on helping students become great storytellers and competent industry professionals through the quality of the curriculum, faculty mentorship, and through the two-week industry immersion residency.

“It’s very important to me that our faculty have experience in the workaday world,” says Moss. Faculty and students in the MFA, she says, are in a partnership that they should take full advantage of. “Instructors are there because they each have something to contribute to your journey.”

The business of screenwriting and marketing in film and television are some of the career preparation topics that National University’s online screenwriting degree really emphasizes for students. “One of the best things we do for students is that we teach them how to navigate the business,” explains Moss. “When I went to film school, there was no direction on how to be a writer in this business. This is essential, and, unfortunately, still absent from a lot of other screenwriting programs.”

Produce Real Work in Screenwriting Classes

Screenwriting classes online in the MFA program are an exception to National University’s one-class-per-month format. Classes in the MFA in Professional Screenwriting build a solid foundation in writing for the screen. These core courses are set up as 3-month studio labs to give writers enough time to finish a rough draft script.

“Built into each course is a live module where faculty and students are in a virtual classroom together. If students can’t make it, they can watch the recording. This is how students get to know each other and their faculty,” explains Moss.

During the MFA, students will complete two to three full script writing projects, then choose one of these to focus — and expand upon — during their thesis sequence. Students can also take electives to explore other entertainment media, such as writing for graphic novels, comics, and web series.

The MFA thesis sequence includes three courses over six months, and then students receive an additional six months to complete their master’s thesis project — without paying additional tuition. During that time, they work one-on-one with faculty in their thesis committee for closer mentorship. These interactions might include phone conversations or video calls.

“Online does not mean you can take a vacation,” jokes Moss. “There are deadlines, requirements, and interaction. If you want to refine or build your craft, if you want to explore your imagination, and want guidance and mentorship, this MFA is for you.”

Find Your Motivation, Open Your Mind

Personal motivation is one of the most important elements of earning your online screenwriting degree. If you’re thinking of enrolling in an MFA in screenwriting, examine your drive and acknowledge your personal challenges.

“Students are amazing,” says Moss, who is a founding director of the MFA in Professional Screenwriting at National. She’s been with each cohort from the beginning. “When students come to us with a lot of drive, but also a great deal of obstacles, faculty love working with them to keep writing and complete the program. When they finish, their voice has a shot at being heard.”

Moss shares that she and fellow MFA faculty have worked with students through challenges such as anxiety disorders, the emotion of writing a personal story from one’s background, and in building confidence to push their creative work into the world.

“A writer’s voice is your strength,” she says. “Students find their voice in this program. Helping you discover your voice is a magical process — that takes hard work.” Writers, after all, come from very diverse backgrounds, ages, identities, and experience levels. All are welcome in the MFA in Professional Screenwriting program.

“Students need to enter an MFA allowing themselves to be taught.”  Moss explains that it benefits even the most experienced writer to embrace learning something new, broadening their skills and abilities, rather than sticking to a preconceived idea of what screenwriting really is.

Not to be underestimated, building confidence is critical for succeeding as a screenwriter. By taking classes, improving skills, and trying new forms of writing, self-confidence is something that can be nurtured and developed.

“Believe in the talent that you have,” says McCarden. “If it’s something in your heart, something you’re passionate about, then you are a writer, you are a storyteller. Don’t say ‘I want to be a writer.’ Tell yourself ‘I am a writer.’ Then you’re commanding that successful energy for your career.”

Write Yourself Into the Scene Today

The MFA in Professional Screenwriting at National University is a mostly online MFA program designed by film and television industry professionals with award-winning writing credits. A single, two-week industry immersive residency brings MFA students to Los Angeles to meet with production studio executives, television writers, and feature film screenwriters to learn how to navigate the entertainment business, understand potential career paths, and expand their networks. Regardless of your current career or backstory, the MFA in Professional Screenwriting program is designed for people with busy lives with a passion for storytelling. With no GRE requirements and two cohorts starting each year, screenwriters can start turning their vision into a script today. You can learn more and request additional information on our MFA program page.