On Thursday, 25 undergraduate students at Kennesaw State University presented their final script ideas to demonstrate everything they were taught in Film 3105, “Fundamentals of Writing for Film and Television.”
Jeffrey Stepakoff, who is credited on 36 television episodes and 14 series, said he came to KSU seven years ago to build a program in the English department, with a concentration in film studies.
Every semester, Stepakoff’s classes fill up within an hour of registration opening, and the waitlist is full before each semester begins.
“The interest in film and television is explosive,” Stepakoff said.
Film 3105 is designed to give students the principles of storytelling, specifically through visual media, Stepakoff said.
The course’s syllabus touts the class as “essential for those who intend to work in any field that uses story, such as actors, playwrights, agents, development executives, directors, editors and writers in non-visual fields, like novelists.”
The listed reading for the course includes the screenplays of “Moonstruck,” “Silence of the Lambs” and “Notting Hill,” as well as the pilot script for “Hill Street Blues” and the “Friends” episode “The One Where Ross Finds Out.” The listed viewing assignments include the movies “When Harry Met Sally,” “Roman Holiday” and “Almost Famous.”
The final story board projects were “beat sheets,” or condensed outlines, for feature films, one-hour dramas or two half-hour sitcoms.
During Thursday’s critiques, Stepakoff asked students what the major event was in each script.
Stepakoff said audiences in the past used to take their time for a story to develop, but now the action often begins when the opening credits start, demanding that writers go up a level in intensity.
“Why is no one getting up to go to the bathroom during his movie?” Stepakoff asked.
This semester’s writing assignments included dividing the class into three writing staffs who pitched premises and created short scenes. Stepakoff has worked on seven primetime staffs, including the television series “The Wonder Years” and “Major Dad,” as well as being a co-executive producer of “Dawson’s Creek.”
After nearly three house classes each week, Stepakoff said his students are now performing at a “professional level.”
Bryttney Murphy, 21, a communication major who will graduate in May, said she fit her schedule around being able to take Stepakoff’s class.
“It is really nice to be taught by somebody that has actually done it,” said Murphy, who wants to be a programming director and needs to know how entertainment content is created.
Redmond Farley, 28, a communications major who will graduate this month, said he appreciated that the course is not a broad overview with long lectures.
Farley said the course was structured like a hands-on workshop, with Stepakoff giving exact techniques and guidance.
“He has demystified the industry,” Farley said.
Ashely Parker, 25, an English major who wants to write fiction novels, said Stepakoff has offered to help her navigate how to get published.
She said Stepakoff told the class to write about what they know and are interested in.
“There is a market for it,” Parker said, quoting Stepakoff. She added that Stepakoff encouraged the students to make choices and be bold.
Parker’s final project was adapting another writer’s work into a screenplay.
The job field
The syllabus for the burgeoning class promises to teach students how to “create saleable concepts” and “break into the business.”
“My students have used this sequence of classes to train with me, write scripts, go to Hollywood, get agents, and begin careers in film and television,” Stepakoff said.
Beyond understanding the craft, Stepakoff said the KSU program is designed to get students access to the industry through internships and fellowships, which the school “is uniquely positioned to offer” due to its proximity a large entertainment production area.
Georgia is growing as a premier location for the film and television industry, Stepakoff said. So an education in the field is incredibly valuable.
“Entertainment today is a great commodity,” Stepakoff said.
The training offered at KSU can be applied to a broad field of jobs, including how to market a product by weaving the item into a storyline, which was an assignment in the Film 3105 class.
“Some of these students are very focused on careers,” Stepakoff said.
Digital media and online platforms offer greater access and opportunities to produce and distribute work, with content viewable by millions of people without being owned by a major studio.
Professor and published author
Parents of current and future college students see film crews in the metro Atlanta area, Stepakoff said, so it is not such a crazy dream to be a screen writer, like it was when he started.
Stepakoff was raised in Atlanta and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he received a journalism degree. In 1988, the day after getting a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting from Carnegie Mellon, he drove to Hollywood.
Now Stepakoff lives with his wife and three children in east Cobb and spends much of his time writing fiction novels.
“I have one foot in the classroom and one foot in the industry,” Stepakoff said. “I am a working professional.”
Stepakoff’s latest book, “The Melody of Secrets,” was released by St. Martin’s Press on October 29 and is “an epic love story set against the late-1950s U.S. space program and early civil rights movement.”
In his office at KSU, Stepakoff has a stack of manila folders filled with papers and yellow sticky notes line his bookshelf.
“It isn’t knowing what to write, but what not to write. … This was once a sticky note, or a scribble on the back of a toothpaste box at 2 a.m.,” Stepakoff said while holding up his latest novel.