MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #32
I’ve taught screenwriting for thirty years. Still, I've learned far more than I've taught. My own students are my teachers. That said, however, they are not permitted to give me assignments. See, it's the other way around. Read on to learn why I saved a particular candidate and our program a lot of time and effort by advising him not to enroll.
The Average Versus the Mean
It’s Not Called Screen Talking
The graduate screenwriting program at UCLA enjoys an embarrassment of riches. We receive fifteen times as many qualified applications as we have available slots for new writers.
The ‘take rate’ for students admitted is virtually one hundred percent.
That is, among applicants admitted, almost everyone enrolls.
It’s not a whole lot different from, say, the Juilliard School of Music, unarguably the world’s most respected music conservatory, where my own late dad taught for approximately forty years. If you are admitted to Juilliard, you don’t dilly-dally around trying to decide whether or not to attend.
You seize the opportunity.
It would be extremely unusual for a musician admitted to Juilliard to visit the school and quiz the faculty regarding its merits and his chances for success thereafter as a musician.
I was somewhat surprised some years ago, therefore, when an applicant who had been admitted to our Westwood writers’ factory scheduled an appointment with me to “discuss his future.”
Hadn’t he been admitted to the program?
Wasn’t his future to enroll in the program?
Note that a major reason for the program’s success has to do with the fact that we instructors are all working writers. Some are visiting-professor Oscar-winning superstars like Dustin Lance Black; others are working stiffs like me. But all bring not only an analytic and intellectual vantage to the table, though we bring that, too; more important, we provide a practitioner’s conversancy with the hands-on nature of the art and the craft and the business of creating dramatic narratives for the screen.
That’s why the organizing principle of my writing life is: no meetings. It’s not called screen talking. Every writer has to be a warrior for his own writing time.
All the same, I agreed to set aside time to meet with the prospective new student.
He entered my office bearing a clipboard and a ruled yellow legal pad on which he had scrawled questions to ask in order to determine whether or not to enroll. What was the median length of time following graduation for students to acquire agents? What was the average income among our alumni two years after leaving the campus? How about five years? In addition to the average, he wanted to know also the mean.
I did not explain to him that while ‘median’ means something else, ‘average’ and ‘mean’ are synonyms.
Mean means average.
Average means mean.
I told him that I didn’t have the figures at my fingertips but I could certainly track them down for him, and if I did so, he would see that nothing better could happen to a writer who wanted to move from the academic to the professional writing community than to study with us at UCLA.
That said, however, I told him in as respectful a tone as I could muster that I was going to decline to do so. First of all, I explained, I’m the professor. I don’t take assignments from students; it’s the other way around.
Second of all, I told him, notwithstanding the stunning success among our graduates, I did not believe that he would succeed.
Of course he asked me why I thought that.
“Because you’re sitting here with a ruled yellow legal pad asking me these questions. Writing success is not about means, averages, and medians. It’s about story, character, and dialogue.” I told him that with his focus on the numbers he would defeat himself, and I strongly urged him to decline admission.
“We’ve admitted you and you have every right to enroll,” I told him. “And if you choose to do so we will welcome you warmly and treat you generously. Nevertheless, my strong expectation is you will not succeed as a writer.”
I pleaded with him to decline admission.
This was by no means reverse psychology.
Please don’t think me cynical, but by succeeding in discouraging him from joining us I served the best interests of both the writer and our program.
What Does Richard Walter Share with UCLA MFA Screenwriters During Office Hours?
Film Courage, a website and radio show focused on empowering independent filmmakers, interviewed Richard Walter recently on everything from preparing for admittance to the UCLA MFA Screenwriting Program to applying a long-term strategy to your screenwriting career. In a new video posted to the Film Courage YouTube Channel, Richard Walter lets you into his office for the full 90-minute session.
Watch the video on the FilmCourage YouTube channel.
Catch Richard If You Can!
Up and coming workshops and seminars: