The Minor Details: The college minor that preps you for Hollywood

The Minor Details: The college minor that preps you for Hollywood

In this installment of The Minor Details, learn how this college minor can land you a job on a Hollywood movie or television set.

Above, graphic by Robert Kinlaw.

Choosing a major is a big part of college, and it’s certainly something to be excited about.

But minors deserve love, too. They allow you to learn a lot about something else you’re interested in and can spice up any resume.

In The Minor Details, we’ll be featuring some cool, lesser-known minors at colleges in the Triangle.

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The characters in the TV shows we binge-watch are beloved to us.

But behind every Luke Cage, Piper Chapman or Joffrey Lannister, there are brilliant writers. You can also thank them for all those juicy plot twists, surprise betrayals and heart-wrenching deaths.

Dramatic writing is a desirable job for many, but breaking into the industry requires talent and luck. Today in the Minor Details, we’re featuring a UNC program that can increase your odds of getting in. It’s called Writing for the Screen and Stage (WSS), and it’s not your average minor.

First of all, it’s highly exclusive, so get ready for an extremely competitive application process. Only freshmen and sophomores can apply, and you’ll need a 2.4 GPA or better.

You must have taken ENGL 130, COMM 330 or DRAM 231 (that’s creative writing, screenwriting or playwriting). And you’ll need a letter of recommendation from a writing professor along with a sample of your best work.

It’s certainly not easy. But Dana Coen, director of the minor, said that’s exactly why it works so well.

If Coen’s name seems familiar, it’s because you may have seen him listed as a producer in the long-running television show “JAG” as well as “Bones.” Coen has also lent his writing skills to well-known series such as “NCIS” and “General Hospital.”

He said the WSS minor is especially designed for students who dream of dramatic writing careers.

“We’re looking for students who have actually considered doing this as a career,” Coen said. “It’s an intensive program, and it requires a great deal of self-discipline.”

He said theater, film and television writing are usually taught separately but have common roots. WSS aims to teach the common roots of every discipline to enhance students’ storytelling.

Coen was an actor before he started writing for television. A stage-play in his portfolio helped him land his first job in the television industry, and he excelled from there.

Many of the professors who teach in the minor have years of industry experience. Stephen Neigher, who teaches COMM 330, has sold several film scripts and spent years writing for “The Jeffersons” (ask your parents).

David Sontag created the WSS program in 2003. The late Michael Piller, a writer and producer known best for the hundreds of “Star Trek” episodes he helped create, provided funding for the program.

Later, Coen became director and tweaked the program into the interdisciplinary dramatic writing program that it is today.

UNC's Hollywood Internship

Image from the UNC Department of Communication.

Perhaps that’s one reason WSS minors tend to claim many spots each year in the Hollywood Internship, a UNC program that sends 20 aspiring students to Los Angeles where they work with some of the biggest players in the industry.

“Students actually get to be on sets and talk to producers, writers, managers, agents and directors,” Coen said. “You’re rubbing shoulders with professionals.”

Any undergraduate student with a penchant for dramatic writing can apply. But expect some tough competition from WSS minors, who have been learning from professors with years of experience in the industry.

Interested in the minor? Check out Long Story Shorts next fall, an annual festival of one-act plays written by graduating WSS minors. Last year, eight students had their plays performed for the first time.

Coen also had a few tips for prospective writers who aren’t WSS minors but want to break into the industry. He said for television, you’ll need at least two scripts: a spec script and an original pilot.

A spec script is a new script written for a well-known existing show – like writing your own episode for “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” A pilot is the first episode of a brand-new show that you’ll build from the ground up. Much like the WSS minor, it’s not easy.

He also recommended choosing a writing niche and pursuing it. Do you want to write for television or movies? Comedy or drama? The better you can answer these questions, the better you’ll be able to market yourself to agents. And most importantly, start writing. Head to celtx.com and build that portfolio — no excuses!

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