Go back to school. The world is bizarre, jobs are disappearing, and you’ve always wanted to be a screenwriter, anyway. A screenwriting MFA may be the way to go.
Right now, every screenwriting MFA program is an online screenwriting MFA program. For most, that isn’t by choice. Educators and students are doing their best to recreate the classroom experience with Zoom and Skype — and mixed results.
Why not find a program that’s been online for years, and has it all figured out? With all the academic rigor and prestige of brick-and-mortar programs?
Enter: the low-residency MFA.
A low-residency MFA is also know as a low-res MFA. (Low-res TVs are bad, but low-res MFAs are great.) They open educational opportunities to professionals, parents and others who can’t just up and move to a small charming college in the middle of nowhere. A low-res MFA is ideal for people who need an MFA in order to teach, or who want to learn a craft, such as screenwriting, in a structured, collaborative way.
Participants spend a few days a year meeting in-person with teachers and fellow students — usually somewhere very cool — and the rest of the time working remotely. It usually takes two years, give or take a few months.
Because the programs are designed to be remote, and weren’t forced to be remote by the cruelties of COVID-19, the low-res MFA programs we’re about to list have proven histories of helping their students learn primarily through online interaction. They aspire to a best-of-both-worlds approach that combines the flexibility of working at home with the camaraderie and one-on-one attention of traditional classes.
Some of these programs will be completely online for a while, with no in-person meetings, given the COVID-19 issues. But they all know how to roll with that, given their experience with remote learning.
“We are not scrambling to figure out how to do this; we’re kind of the experts in how to do this,” says writer-director J S Mayank, director of Western Colorado University’s screenwriting program. “We aren’t trying to figure out how to take a brick-and-mortar experience and move it online.”
With all that in mind, here’s MovieMaker’s look at some of the most proven low-res screenwriting MFAs in the country.
UCR Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts
Program director Tod Golberg knows you might be skeptical of an MFA program in screenwriting, even during the best of times: “Do you need it,” he asks, “when there are a thousand screenwriters sitting in a thousand Starbucks already?”
So he makes sure he isn’t churning out the next “enlightened barista” who theoretically knows a lot about writing — the Palm Desert program is about results. “The goal is to get on a show or get your movie made,” says Goldberg, an accomplished novelist whose colleagues include screenwriters, novelists, and more.
UCR’s program takes advantage of its wondrous location — a Hollywood getaway — to connect students with literary agents, editors, producers, and show runners who can help them break in. It offers majors in fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, poetry and screenwriting, as well as forms within those genres. Its literary magazine, The Coachella Review, is edited by students and provides another forum for writers.
Students work closely with professors over seven quarters of online study and spend five 10-day residencies at the Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa, which doesn’t sound horrible.
“Finding a group of people who share an affinity with you and are going through the struggle with you — that’s not in the catalogue. That’s the emotional part that often gets lost,” Goldberg says.
“The 10 days that they’re together, they really form these close bonds,” he adds. “These are people with lives and jobs and families. And to suddenly bring people into your life who want to share with you, and partner with you, and share their contacts — you can’t get that in Starbucks.”
Prominent faculty include Mark Haskell Smith (Gun Shy), and if you’ll allow a personal testimonial here? I took a (non-UCR) writing class with him in the late 2000s that helped me finish my novel and get it published. He’s the best teacher I’ve ever had, in terms of proven results.
LENGTH: Just over two years
Click ahead for more of our five top low-residency MFA programs in screenwriting.