There’s an urban legend floating around the Screen Arts and Cultures department that two students in the program sold a spec-script to “Broad City.” Through my inconclusive investigations, I can neither confirm nor deny the validity of this story, so, for now, it’ll have to remain a myth. (But how cool would it be if it were true?) Regardless, it’s a tale that those with literary aspirations love to hear as they fire up a brand-spanking new document of Final Draft. After all, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote “Good Will Hunting” in college, so really anything is possible.
If spending a summer in Los Angeles taught me one thing, it’s that the aspiring writer’s pipe dream is, ironically, a Hollywood cliché. At any given L.A. coffee shop, at least three laptops would be opened to an unfinished screenplay, with an over-caffeinated and under-groomed “creative” at the keyboard. Even Uber drivers, without fail, tried to sell me on their movie pitch as soon as they caught drift that I was in “the biz.” Little did they know I was a just a bushy-tailed intern.
Even my “original” ideas were already taken. My roommate and I had been toying with the premise for a workplace TV comedy set in the mailroom of a Hollywood talent agency. Our story was coming together swimmingly: we’d thought of the characters, the love-triangles, the neurotic bosses. And, since Hollywood loves producing stories about Hollywood, we joked that this was our ticket to screenwriting success. That is, until I overheard some tipsy guy in Santa Monica trying to impress a thoroughly unimpressed girl with a plan to pitch his (identical) original series “The Mailroom” to a network executive later that week.
In a market oversaturated with talent, how are aspiring writers able to differentiate themselves? The odds seem daunting at best, if not downright demoralizing. And yet, even in Los Angeles, a city over 2,000 miles away from Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan finds a way to take care of its own.
It starts in the classroom. The Screen Arts and Cultures department, lovingly abbreviated to SAC (rumors are circulating of an impending rename, due to overwhelming confusion), often flies under the radar. With a relatively small yearly cohort of about fifty graduating students, the program does not begin to compete in size with the L.A. and New York City film schools. However, the department has developed a screenwriting sub-major completely unique to that of other Film and Television studies programs. In short, it forces aspiring writers to actually do the writing, and do a lot of it. In Screenwriting I: The Feature Script, students are challenged to write an entire, feature-length film throughout the course of a single semester. In Writing for Television II: Pilots, students end the semester with an original pilot under their belt, which is perhaps the single most valuable intellectual real estate an aspiring TV writer can bring with her to Hollywood.
And while it’s not particularly in the campus spotlight, the University of Michigan film community is always eager to do more. Students across disciplines flock to organizations like Filmic and M-agination, both clubs that develop and produce original films. There’s an eagerness to create and collaborate, and this energy is palpable.
Ann Arbor, in its own way, is a little movie mecca. Home to the annual Ann Arbor Film Festival, what other college town can boast two movie theaters within a five minute walking distance of central campus?
Los Angeles is a different beast all together. Celebrity spottings occur daily, traffic is horrible and, somewhere, an assistant is being yelled at for getting the coffee order wrong. And yet, the SAC department still found a way to bring a piece of Ann Arbor to Hollywood. With the help of two particularly generous Michigan alumni, Kelci Parker and Dan Pipski, the department was able to put on a speaker series for all the SAC majors interning in Los Angeles. At weekly sessions, interns had the opportunity to talk with industry executives, writers, directors and producers. It was the exclusive University of Michigan scoop, and somehow, I always left with a renewed sense of hope. Maybe, it wasn’t all just a pipe dream.
So, I’ve come to the humble conclusion that the only way to be a writer is to write, and write a lot. Perhaps “making it” only comes to those that tell stories without the expectation of fame, recognition or anyone liking what they’ve done. Success is definitely a function of talent, but not without passion and persistence. Some luck (that may come in the form of a helpful Michigan alumnus) helps, too.