Dawn McElligott: CSUN Says ‘Olé for Hollywood’

The MFA in Screenwriting Gang at CSUN. Scott Sturgeon is the gentleman in the blue shirt standing stage left.

by Dawn McElligott

As the competition for students can be like a bullfight, Cal State University Northridge, (CSUN), seeks to rival UCLA and USC as the best place to pursue a degree in the entertainment industry.  At the university whose mascot is “Matty the Matador,” Professor Scott Sturgeon agreed, “That’s where we want to go.”

Sturgeon explained that Professors Eric Edson and John Stahl had restructured the university’s film studies to be more competitive, resulting in part, in the Master of Fine Arts, Screenwriting Program, a division that Sturgeon now guides as an Associate Professor.

 The MFA Program in Screenwriting a 42-unit endeavor, which entails two feature length screenplays and two half-hour scripts.  Spec scripts and pilots are expected for both a one-hour show and half-hour shows.

Professor Sturgeon explained that CSUN employs professors with unique perspectives, allowing students to have a more varied experience.  The MFA in Screenwriting Program is part of the university’s Cinema and Television Arts (CTVA) Department.

 Professor Edson is still teaching at CSUN and has authored the new book, “THE STORY SOLUTION: 23 Actions All Great Heroes Must Take.” Professor Edson shares his perspectives gleaned from writing seventeen screenplays on assignment.  Sturgeon characterized Edson’s interest as geared toward “blockbuster Hollywood movies.”

Students can also explore indie film interests.  Sturgeon pointed out that writer/director, Jared Rappaport, leans toward indie film.  Alexis Krasilovsky, brings a feminist perspective to her classes, along with filmmaking experience, according to Sturgeon.

“The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is a huge supporter of the Cinema and Television Arts (CTVA) school at CSUN.  One of the reasons is because we have an incredibly diverse student body … They gave a $ 2 million grant to, not just our program but to the whole film school. They fund a scholarship for one of the grad students and for two of the undergrads every year,” said Professor Sturgeon.

Diversity is also achieved by accepting students from different age and industry experience levels.

The MFA Screenwriting Program accepts generally 15 students per year, in the fall.  Of those, usually about three or four are right out of film school and are in their early twenties.

Some older students had been writing a long time and had postponed graduate school for other responsibilities such as family or work obligations.

Finally, there are the industry professionals who tend to be over 50 and are seeking an MFA in order to segue into a teaching career.

All of Professor Sturgeon’s writing classes are done as workshops.  Asked what the older students with experience bring to the classes, Sturgeon’s response was, “Oh My God, they bring perspective … It’s great to have a few older people with experience.  They have a long-term view of how the business works.”

According to Sturgeon, “They’ve seen the ups and downs and they tend to inspire the younger students to just dig in and keep writing… ‘keep your head down, keep writing, stay true to yourself and it’s going to work out,’ so that’s what they bring… they can teach you how to give good notes …”

Sturgeon’s also enthusiastic about the contributions of the younger students.  The professor enjoys seeing younger students discovering the importance of story structure, something normally gleaned through experience in writing.

Sturgeon noted that many younger students are more interested in TV writing.   “The business is changing so much right now that the students are just excited, everybody wants to write TV.  You don’t just have to write features … We’re doing more TV right now, we want to do even more TV.  We want to hire a full-time TV writer, sometime in the next two years, if we can get a TV search.”

A main thrust for the department’s future is building industry and alumni connections.  Sturgeon wrapped up the conversation by saying what many students probably would most like to hear:

“We want to get our students working.”

From your lips to the ears of that great “executive producer in the sky,” Professor!

Dawn McElligott is a an award-winning writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles by way of Philadelphia and other points East. You can learn more about her HERE