The first 2019 Introduction to Screenwriting class with James Janowsky is now open to enrollees! It all starts January 24. Our courses tend to fill up quickly, so make sure to sign up here to ensure you land the slot you want.
James is a comic book writer and screenwriter with six years of teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and founded the James Richard Janowsky Awards in 2012 to honor the best of the best film students at Columbia University, New York University, and School of Visual Arts… among other accomplishments.
We asked him a few questions about the relationship between his experience as a moderator for film Q&As and involvement with the Student Academy Awards and other screenplay competitions and his approach to education.
Comics Experience: What is some of the most insightful advice you’ve ever received while moderating Q&As with filmmakers? How have these exchanges with other creatives in the industry shaped your approach to the medium?
James Janowsky: That’s a good question.
The majority of the Q&As I moderated were with talent that were promoting their soon-to-be released film—which, in most cases, if not all, they were contractually obligated to do. Often, we discussed their film and how the project came together. So, there wasn’t a lot of advice given. However, collectively, I started to see a pattern that shaped my opinion about filmmaking and the film business.
The major overarching thing I learned was that the good films come down to an initial good story idea, then making smart and interesting storytelling choices during the screenwriting process, and then hiring the proper talent—director, directory of photography, actors, editors, etc.—best suited to tell that story. It sounds simple, but it isn’t.
Now, I don’t want it to seem like I didn’t learn anything from the talent. Off the top of my head, there are two moments with directors that stick out for me. The first happened during the end credits when I was meeting the talent outside the Paramount screening room before the Q&A. I was talking with the director and he unexpectedly said to me, “I don’t make movies anymore, I just promote them.”
I was a bit stunned by his honest response, but it made sense. A commercial film is about promoting the film and getting it into the publics’ consciousness… basically, getting as many fannies in the seats as possible. But a student short film is the complete opposite. It’s objective is to promote the student filmmaker; demonstrating that the filmmaker has the ability to tell a story effectively in this medium and, hopefully, convince a producer to hire you on their next project.
The second was when I was moderating a Q&A with Todd Solondz, the director of such dark, dark comedies as Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. He mentioned that he didn’t have the budget for rehearsals. So his workaround was to extend the audition and rehearse the actor—especially children, if my memory serves me right—to prepare them as much as possible before they got on set. I thought that was a smart and resourceful way to save time and money when you are making a low-budget movie.
CE: What is the judging process like for the film festivals you’ve participated in, such as the Student Academy Awards? How has this shaped your teaching style?
JJ: First, let me say, that I have a different approach to student grant giving than I do for film festivals.
When I was the Student Grant Committee Chair for a not-for-profit film organization, we would watch finished student short films and then award a monetary grant to each of the deserving students. For me, it was about awarding the student, not the film. Therefore, you don’t only give grants to students that made good films, but also to students that demonstrated potential even if the film was just okay.
I never wanted to treat the student grant giving the same as year-end awards where you give honors to commercial films made by professionals. They are students, they are learning, and in most cases their crews are also students, and that has to be taken into consideration. Even now, that’s how I approach my own student grants, the James Richard Janowsky Awards.
As for the Student Academy Awards, that’s pure competition. They award the top three student shorts—Gold, Silver and Bronze—in each category. So, you are looking for the best films and awarding excellence.
What I learned during each process is that not all film schools are created equal. One particular undergraduate film program annually submitted students’ work that was not good. Each shorts’ running time was the maximum time allowed, every gimmick/trick was used—flashback, flash forward, dream sequences—there seemed to be a lack of understanding how to tell a story.
It was really sad to watch the films because you could tell the students were very creative, very inventive, but they didn’t seem to understand storytelling fundamentals for this medium.
For me, I want my students to understand that writing is about asking questions about their characters, their scenes, their conflict… then, coming up with creative, smart, and logically sound answers… solutions when they sit down to write their screenplays.
CE: What are your expectations for students? What are the desired outcomes you have for them, based on your extensive experience?
JJ: My expectations? Hmmm… This may seem old-fashioned, but it is true: I want my screenwriting students to know the storytelling fundamentals when they sit down to write. I want them to write with confidence, and that only comes with understanding the medium. Eventually, as they grow as writers, I want them to write stories that people want to produce and people want to watch.
Ready to transition your ideas into screenplays? To secure your spot, sign up here!
If you want to make comics, write, draw, letter, and color comics, or improve as a comics creator, you’ll find like-minded friends and colleagues in our online workshops and courses. We hope to see you there!