Is it necessary to have a film-related degree/course in order to break into screenwriting?
No. The truth is, no great screenplay has ever sat unsold because the writer didn’t go through an acclaimed program. No writer has ever been denied the Oscar because he didn’t finish his master’s thesis.
Frankly, a film degree isn’t a prerequisite for any job in Hollywood, from actor to gaffer to studio chief. The Industry is one of the last bastions of apprenticeship, perseverence and pure dumb luck. All that really matters is whether you can do the job.
That said, I personally went through USC Film School. And before I get dropped from the alumni rolls, let me retrench a bit and give two reasons why film school might be right for some people, and why it was right for me.
First, there’s a hell of lot to learn about filmmaking, and while you can learn the specifics of any trade on-the-job, film school can give you a broader perpective. In making GO, I was surprised to find myself dealing with budgets, lenses, preview screenings and TV spots. It went way beyond my "writer" function, but the breadth of my education in film school paid off.
Second, film school is a place to make contact with peers, experts and people who can ultimately hire you. I got my first job, my first agent, and my first paid writing assignment all with the help of friends I made in film school. To this day I work with many of them. This isn’t cheesy, gross let’s-swap-business-cards "networking," but simple reality. You tend to help people you like, and people with whom you share a common experience. The "boot camp" aspect of film school can be important.
Is film school right for you? It depends on your circumstances. If you’re still an undergrad, by all means switch to film. Follow your bliss. If you’re recently out of college, a two-or-three-year grad program could be great. Pretend it’s an MBA or law school. Beyond that, the benefits are harder to calculate. Because the truth is, it’s not an MBA or law school. There’s no guarantee you’re going to make any money. You might be better off learning film along the way. Take a course or two, read a lot of books, go to seminars when you can.
And most of all, if you want to write, just write. One hundred and twenty pages of quality screenplay are worth more than one page of diploma.