With so many film education options out there, it’s nice to see a name you know. After years of providing beginner and veteran screenwriters with the tools they need to be successful, Los Angeles’ The Writers Store is jumping headfirst into the world of film education. With Writers University, the company is giving aspiring and professional writers alike the chance to perfect their craft—when it’s convenient for them.
MM chatted with The Writers Store’s Jesse Douma to get the lowdown on the company’s latest venture.
Jennifer Wood (MM): For years, The Writers Store has been a preeminent name in the world of screenwriting—providing new and established writers with the software and products they need to be successful in Hollywood. Now you’re turning to the world of film education with Writers University. Why now?
Jesse Douma (JD): Initially it was almost as if our clients “demanded” that we create an online school such as Writers University. For many years we had been selling weekend courses by the traveling gurus who, for obvious reasons, only hit the metropolitan areas of the United States, rarely ever even visiting Canada, Australia and the U.K. We were fielding calls and e-mails on a continual basis from film and writing enthusiasts throughout the United States and dozens of other countries inquiring if and when a particular class would be held in their neck of the woods. Of course the economy of scale just never allowed an independent instructor to offer a class that requires 75 attendees to be scheduled in Atlanta, Georgia, for instance.
Another problem with attending a class that might be held over a three-day weekend or maybe at one of the fine college courses available throughout the country seems to be today’s busy lifestyle. As much as we try, taking three days off or committing to a twice-weekly evening class over a three-month period is just too difficult for students who also work full-time either away from or inside the home. Writers University brings Hollywood experts directly into our students’ homes at a schedule that’s entirely their call.
MM: Writers University is an online educational program, which is something we’re seeing more and more of in the creative world. How do you think the availability of online courses is changing the world of moviemaking?
JD: Writers University’s courses go hand in hand with all the other technological advances the world of moviemaking has enjoyed during the past few years. Computers and software allow moviemakers to participate in a professional way in all stages of the process—writing a professional script that withstands the scrutiny of the most sophisticated pro, previsualizing shots that are actually “shootable,” camera equipment that’s affordable and interacts with computers mere mortals can operate; editing and adding soundtracks are functions previously reserved for only the most highly evolved pros.
Writers University is capable of bringing students in touch with these professionals, allowing them to benefit from their years of experience for a very reasonable fee at their own pace.
MM: What is the actual process of taking an online class? Are there specific times a student needs to log in, etc.? Walk us through a typical “class.”
JD: Lesson materials for our four-week long classes, such as lectures, exercises or assignments, are accessible to the students on a week-by-week basis. Attendees communicate with their instructor or their fellow students by posting questions and comments publicly or in a private setting. During the following week, and depending on the class, the course work is then submitted privately to the instructor, who reviews and provides feedback based on the work he or she has received. Students can log back into the course material for a period of six months after course completion and review their own work and any public discussions.
MM: What are the requirements and/or prerequisites for any of these classes?
JD: Most Writers University classes are open to all interested in the subject we address; any special prerequisites are posted in the course description. We work hard to make our classes interesting to people who have experience in the subject matter—who might just want to get another point of view or a refresher—and also those students who are interested in learning the ropes.
MM: What do you see as the greatest benefit of an online learning environment? What are the potential drawbacks?
JD: The greatest benefit of online studies is the freedom it provides for people to attend at their own schedule. That truly is the biggie, as far as we’re concerned. The biggest drawback is that online courses do not lend themselves to meeting people face to face, so if you just moved to a new city and hope to get to know new friends to go out with, you still might want to register at a local college. Online learning offers unending possibilities of communicating with people around the world and the opportunity to understand their way of working. Online learning can provide invaluable support, and it’s natural to wonder about what is digital learning when you delve into it.
MM: When it comes to Writers University in particular, what are the ways in which your program is offering something different and unique to your students?
JD: Writers University students already start out by being different than most other students you will find elsewhere. Our clientele is doggedly determined to enter a professional arena that is said to be impenetrable, unless you are related to someone or work in the mailroom. The Internet has changed that during the past few years, with no small credit going to some of those instructors who are working with Writers University. Take Kathy Fong-Yoneda’s course “Pitch Perfect” as an example: Kathy is one of those people whom you could never meet unless your paths would cross serendipitously. Through Writers University, Kathy, who has years of experience working for production companies and major studios as a development executive, is available to teach our students not just how to groom their work and find a buyer, but most importantly what to do when opportunities come their way. All that just by logging onto their computers! On a separate note, a very special feature of Kathy’s course is the option for course participants to be able to actually practice what they’ve learned by “pitching” their project to her and asking her questions in a 30-minute phone meeting.
MM: Several of your classes serve as introductory or foundation courses—Screenwriting Basics, Beginning Television Writing, Intro to Playwriting—but you’ve got some great advanced classes, too—How to Sell Your Script, Mastering the Essential Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, Writing Dialogue for Emotional Impact. Is there one particular group you’re leaning more toward as a demographic—beginner or advanced—or one group you’re finding more success with so far?
JD: Actually when we first launched Writers University we assumed, because the Writers Store’s client base consists of fairly advanced and successful writers and filmmakers, that the advanced classes would be our most popular. To our surprise, once we begun to introduce what you call foundation courses—Screenwriting Basics, etc.—we started attracting a new group of students, whose desire it is to get an introduction to their field of interest in a short and concise setting. We see our introductory class offerings growing alongside our more advanced classes in lock step.
MM: What sort of growth can we expect to see from Writers University in the future? What new classes are in the works, if any?
JD: We are in discussion with some very accomplished and famous professionals and instructors to develop classes you cannot find anywhere else. Unfortunately I cannot tell you any more details about that yet, but we are incredibly lucky to work with some of these folks who have been our friends for almost 25 years now. One class I am particularly happy about seeing online soon is a Treatment Writing course; this has been on the front burner for me for a long time, since I believe there is particular value in preparing a good treatment in order to succeed with your screenwriting project.
MM: Where can readers learn more?
JD: Tell your readers to log on to www.WritersUniversity.com or call one of Writers Store’s product consultants at 800/272-8927 if they have specific questions about one of the courses they find there. And visit often, because we add new dates and courses all the time.
MM: Anything else you’d like to add?
JD: I would encourage anyone who hasn’t tried an online course before to consider it. Being able to schedule your learning hours around your daily commitments allows those who previously had to postpone their dreams to take small steps in the right direction now! What’s that old saw about today being the first day of the rest of your life? Online learning helps you make the most of today!