Brianna writes: I'm in high school right now, but I've known for a long time I want to be in the film/television business. The idea of getting started in that goal is a little daunting that this point, so I was wondering if you had any tips for getting started at a young age? I really want to go to USC, Chapman or NYU, but I know those schools are really hard to get into and for their film programs you need to have a resume of things you've done in terms of writing or film/tv experience. If you have any tips on getting started that would be awesome! And last, I've read several times to "write what you know," but since I'm still in high school I don't really "know" a lot and I haven't had too many life changing experiences that I feel like are worth writing about. Do you have any advice for this?
Kudos for getting started so early! I offered some advice for high schoolers once before, mostly about looking for summer programs in your area. But in terms of getting more experience to put on your application for a competitive film school - why not try entering some writing competitions (screenwriting or prose)? You could also make a video/short film and put it on YouTube and/or enter it into contests and festivals. With new technology in cameras and cell phones, it's easier than ever to make your own film. I would try and target contest/festivals specifically for students, so you're not up against people with a lot more money and experience. The Palm Beach International Film Festival, for example, has a contest specifically for students in Florida. Other contests focus on specific subjects, like the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival Student Film Competition - so see what is of interest to you. I'm sure an hour of Googling will provide you with a lot of things to enter!
If you'd like to focus just on writing, consider entering prose writing or screenwriting competitions, like the 10-10-10 Student Filmmaking Competition for Santa Barbara high school students. You could also start up a Screenwriting Club or Film Club at your school. Leadership experiences always look good on a college application.
Writing what you know can be good advice for beginning writers - but I appreciate that you want to explore something a bit bigger. Don't be afraid to tackle something more fantastical; none of us really know about aliens and zombies, right? A writer once advised me to "write what you want to know," so perhaps you'll find that more inspiring. I think the best thing you can do is write about some aspect of life you've experienced or are passionate about...but explore it in a setting or way that is interesting to you. You could write about a person you know, but put them in a fictional world, or a heightened situation. What if your best friend got mistaken for royalty? What if your uncle got abducted by aliens? "Write what you know" can be helpful but also limiting advice. When you're tackling your first idea, you might want to pick something simple so you're not overwhelmed by research AND structure AND format and all of the things that make screenwriting challenging...but don't write make yourself write about taking the SATs if that's a story you're not passionate about writing. If you're interested in TV writing, you can also get started by writing a spec episode of an existing TV show you like. This can help you work on format and story structure before tackling the tough jobs of creating worlds and characters.