The University of Iowa’s new major in screenwriting arts builds on the institution’s long and renowned tradition in creative writing—and enrollment is growing fast.
Sara Epstein Moninger
Justin Torner
Dana Telsrow

When the University of Iowa officially began offering a major in screenwriting arts in 2020, it had a strong supporting cast in place: The nation’s top creative writing program. A pioneering university film department. A designated UNESCO City of Literature. A campus where aspiring screenwriters had been developing their art for decades.

The program conferred its first degrees in May 2022, with 13 students graduating. Now it has 137 declared majors. Administered through the Department of Cinematic Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the BA program teaches students the practical skills they need to work in the industry while also immersing them in film theory and history and exposing them to various forms of writing.

The decision by UI leaders to offer this new major was smart—and timely, says program director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh.

“We are in a new golden age of screenwriting,” says Ghazvinizadeh, who joined the UI faculty in 2018 and whose debut feature, They, was selected for special screening at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. “There are so many new platforms for storytelling, specifically episodic storytelling, that writers who are not super famous but who have a voice and a vision have a lot of opportunities. Not only is there a place for them, there is a need for different voices.”

Did you know?

The University of Iowa’s major in screenwriting arts complements and builds on the institution’s long-standing and renowned creative writing tradition. Not only do students learn the practical skills and knowledge needed to become successful members of the screenwriting industry, they also study history and theory related to screenwriting and filmmaking and develop a portfolio of work.

Foundational courses include Foundations of Screenwriting, Introduction to Film Analysis, Modes of Film and Video Production, Fiction Writing or Playwriting I

Core courses include Screenwriting Studies, Screenwriting: Short Form, Screenwriting: Long Form, and Advanced Screenwriting I and II.

Electives can include related courses on writing fiction, poetry, or other genres or on production, acting, or directing.

The department, one of the oldest of its kind in the country, already had been offering courses in screenwriting, but new courses were added for the major and others are in development. Iowa City, Ghazvinizadeh adds, is the perfect setting for students to study this art form.

“Our students learn different strategies and models for developing successful plots and unique characters. While learning these methods, they also get exposed to and meet great writers, and that’s something other educational institutions cannot offer,” says Ghazvinizadeh, noting that proximity to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Nonfiction Writing Program, the Playwrights Workshop, and the International Writing Program sets Iowa apart. “Iowa City is a little college town, but it’s also a writer’s town. Writers are constantly visiting for readings and other literary events. Students can find inspiration everywhere—and they may not get that if they’re just reading screenwriting textbooks.”

Students come from a variety of backgrounds and bring diverse talents to the classroom, whether in theater, business, or journalism. Some are inspired to take an introductory screenwriting class and then discover a passion for the work, while others already have written a feature-length movie. The curriculum includes foundational courses, intermediate courses, and advanced ones in which students focus on writing, workshopping their scripts, and developing portfolios. By the time they complete the program, Ghazvinizadeh says, they are well prepared for what comes next, be it an internship, graduate school, or a professional job.

Danny Cummins dreams of writing a film for Pixar, the animation studio known for Toy Story and The Incredibles. The senior from Gaithersburg, Maryland, is a double major in screenwriting arts and in English and creative writing, and says he thinks his time at Iowa will help him reach that goal.

Drawn to writing and filmmaking at a young age, Cummins first came to campus during high school to attend a two-week summer residential program in creative writing. He learned from UI faculty and alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—and he fell in love with his surroundings. Applying for admission as an undergraduate was a no-brainer.

“Literature is baked into almost every aspect of the city,” says Cummins. “There’s so much literary history here. At the library, you can go to a machine and print out a short story written by a student. We have so many lit magazines and incredible bookstores. For a writer, it’s like a haven.”

“I cherish every second that I had with the University of Iowa because I have a clear understanding of how I’m going to write. Now I just need to sit down and do it.”

Eric Flores
2022 graduate of the University of Iowa screenwriting arts program

Though the screenwriting arts major wasn’t available when he first enrolled, Cummins immediately switched his major from cinema when it became official. One of the biggest takeaways so far, he says, is that screenwriting requires collaboration.

“Writing, for me, used to be sitting at a computer, often late into the night, banging my head on a keyboard, trying to get words out, and struggling,” he says. “But screenwriting and filmmaking demand a lot of collaboration; otherwise, a movie doesn’t get made. When you see your classmates two times a week for a couple of hours and read each other’s work and share feedback, you become friends. I think that has made our writing better. The feedback is much more personal—and it’s a community we’re interested in keeping after graduation, hopefully for the rest of our careers.”

Through an alumni connection suggested in class by Ghazvinizadeh, Cummins secured a three-month internship with film producer Andrew Sugarman at Pantheon Entertainment. Tasks included script coverage, clerical work, and even fundraising for a project. Not only did he learn about the day-to-day work of film production, he made valuable industry connections and has been working with one of them on a pitch for a TV series.

A robust alumni network

Although the screenwriting arts major is new, Iowa has long produced writers who find success in the entertainment industry—and many come to campus to encourage students. Recent visitors have included:

Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, 2007 UI alumni and writers of the film A Quiet Place

James Giovannetti, a 1972 UI graduate and assistant director of the TV series Chicago Fire

Sarah Heyward, a 2009 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and screenwriter for TV shows Girls and Modern Love

Mark Johnson, a 1973 UI graduate and producer of the Academy Award–winning film Rain Man

Nicholas Meyer speaking with students on the University of Iowa campus

Nicholas Meyer (above), a 1968 UI graduate who wrote and directed several Star Trek films and earned an Academy Award nomination for adapting his novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution

Merritt Tierce, a 2011 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and screenwriter for TV’s Orange Is the New Black

Rachel Yoder, a 2011 graduate of the UI Nonfiction Writing Program who adapted her debut novel, Nightbitch, for a forthcoming film

Cummins says he stays in touch with his peers who graduated in May and organizes an online workshop with them twice a month. “It’s clear we all want each other to succeed as much as we want success for ourselves,” he says.

Eric Flores, a native of Round Lake Beach, Illinois, who graduated with the first cohort, echoes that sentiment.

“The classes I took felt like a writers’ room, with all of us sitting in a circle talking about scripts and how we could make them better,” he says. “We are encouraged to maintain a writers’ group after we graduate to keep those connections, because those are the people who are going to help you. They’ll look at your script and take notes. If I ever get into a position where I can refer someone, I know my classmates well and who might be a good fit for a project.”

Anna Morrison, lecturer in screenwriting and director of undergraduate studies in cinematic arts, says most of her students plan to attend graduate school.

“I think it’s easier now for a screenwriter to get started in the business without going into graduate school, but I do encourage them to go on to an MFA program, either in screenwriting or production or directing,” says Morrison, who earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and frequently invites alumni to talk with her students about their careers. “It gives them invaluable time and access to other people for networking and building relationships. They can watch their films get made into a student project.”

Flores is spending time with family in Mexico while developing a feature-length screenplay about the Latin Kings, a Chicago-area gang formed in the 1950s. He plans to submit it for graduate school applications.

“Iowa really helped me focus,” he says. “Before my senior year, I had no clue what I wanted to write about. But by the end of it, I had a dozen stories that I wanted to work on. The main stories I want to tell are Latin American stories, specifically in the Midwest. Now I know which ones need a little bit more research and which ones I can easily write. I cherish every second that I had with the University of Iowa because I have a clear understanding of how I’m going to write. Now I just need to sit down and do it.”

Ghazvinizadeh says she has high hopes for her students.

“Screenwriting can be a difficult field to be prominent in, but I’m very confident that there will be students out of Iowa who become very well-known and important screenwriters over the next few years,” she says. “The quality of their work is undeniable. We’re not New York. We’re not L.A. We are not a city with a lot of film productions. But we are a writing town, and my goal is to make this program not only a four-year BA program but a residency for writers to produce a lot of quality work.”

“Our students learn different strategies and models for developing successful plots and unique characters. While learning these methods, they also get exposed to and meet great writers, and that’s something other educational institutions cannot offer.”

Anahita Ghazvinizadeh
director of the University of Iowa screenwriting arts program

Favorite films?

Yeah, we went there. We posed that question to the people interviewed for this story. Here’s what they said…

Anahita Ghazvinizadeh, director of the screenwriting arts program: Take Shelter by Jeff Nichols; the Polish series Dekalog by Krzysztof Kieślowski

Anna Morrison, lecturer in screenwriting arts: Fruitvale Station by Ryan Coogler; Brokeback Mountain by Ang Lee; Shiva Baby by Emma Seligman; The Shining by Stanley Kubrick; Force Majeure by Ruben Östlund

Danny Cummins, screenwriting arts major: Everything Everywhere All at Once by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert; Pixar’s Ratatouille by Brad Bird; the Star Wars movies, especially The Empire Strikes Back

Eric Flores, 2022 screenwriting arts graduate: Moonlight by Barry Jenkins; anything by Kelly Reichardt, such as Certain Women and First Cow