There are two sides to this question and I’ll try to cover both.
1. Does going to a film school or taking a screenwriting class improve someone’s writing?
2. To work professionally as a screenwriter in the industry, will I need a degree / certificate in screenwriting?
Education is desirable but not mandatory for success, for screenwriting. Of course, it helps to learn. You get better, faster. You have tools available. You have peers. You make connections. But it is not mandatory. Screenwriting is not surgery. If you want to be a surgeon you need a degree in medicine. It is compulsory. But no one gives a shit about whether you learned screenwriting or not, as long as what you are writing is good. So essentially the question comes back to you. Do you think you need to learn screenwriting?
Now, let me tell you my story.
I grew up in a small town near Ahmedabad, which is 500 Kms away from Mumbai – the filmmaking hub of India. And in late 90s, the time I am taking about, there was still internet darkness and no mobile phones from where I came, which meant that the distance between me and my screenwriting dreams was as much as that between Paris and Pluto.
I knew there was a filmmaking school in Pune, but they took only some 30 students a year. That was all. I stood no chance of fighting with my small town, middle class circumstances. So I did the next best thing. I started studying literature.
In my college library, I stumbled upon a book that contained 4 screenplays by Woody Allen. For the next 5 years of under-grad and post grad studies in English literature, I kept that book with me. I must have reissued it from the library over 100 times. That one book taught me everything about how to ‘write’ a film, in terms of formatting. In terms of thoughts, ideas etc. my mind was a minefield because of my literature studies.
For networking, I took up classes in drama where I realised my penchant for direction. I was writing, directing, acting, SFX + music, lighting and backstage for a lot of amateur groups. Basically, I would just take up any job that was connected to entertainment media. (In desperate times I even did field reporting for a news company. Because they let me ‘write’ the news story all by myself).
I graduated from doing theatre to doing television programmes soon. And finally, after 8 years of miscellaneous drudgery I gathered enough courage, packed my degrees in theatre and literature, my certificates for various plays and CDs of my TV work and landed in Mumbai. The first thing I was asked in all interviews was to throw away the last 5 pages of my 6 page CV. They just wanted my local address and contact details – no one cared what education I had and what work I previously did. :/
But it matters. It does matter to have the right education. In my interviews, I could impress people because I had studied my craft well. I got a job as an assistant director within days of landing in Mumbai. Rest, as they say, is history. Within a year and a half, I landed my first big screenwriting contract. And that too with the biggest studio in India at the time – YRF (YashRaj Films). The movie was called ‘Mere Yaar Ki Shadi Hai’ (2002). I later on went to write the blockbusters ‘Om Shanti Om’ (2007), ABCD (2012), ‘Happy New Year’ (2014) and recently ABCD2 (2015).
Today, I’m one of the most successful young writers in India. I’m invited to teach screenwriting and filmmaking by several institutions. I had my own filmmaking / screenwriting workshop called ‘FilmGoa’ that was extremely successful. But I myself didn’t go to a film school ever.
Education is important, labels are not. Knowledge is all around you, how you harness it and channelise it for your success is up to you. And if you can’t figure it out on your own, there is always a book somewhere that can teach you.
*The question was by Usama Quraishi & its reply was first published on Quora