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Alumni Advice for Writers

Alumni Weekend 2012
Cynthia Vargas (far left) and Michelle Passarelli (far right), both with Columbia Alumni Relations, join F&V alums Dino Stamatopoulos (‘86), comics creator Art Baltazar (BA ‘92), and Mark Protosevich (BA '83). | Photo: Larry Kapson
When the Alumni Office first suggested bringing in a panel of writers for this year's Alumni Weekend, the Film & Video Department immediately thought of Mark Protosevich, who wrote Spike Lee’s current production, Oldboy. Mark enthusiastically agreed and flew up from the set to participate. His screenplay and story credits include The Cell, I Am Legend, Thor, Poseidon, and Mass Effect.

All three writers tell stories in sequential panels or frames—two do that in moving images and one does that in comics.

Local comic book creator Art Baltazar is known for his comics The Cray-Baby Adventures, Patrick the Wolf Boy, Tiny Titans, Young Justice, Superman Family Adventures, and The Big Amoeba. He owns Aw Yeah Comics in Skokie and is the model of an independent storyteller who has been able to work for major comics.

Moral Orel created by Dino Stamatopoulos
Moral Orel, created by Dino Stamatopoulos
Rounding out the panel was Dino Stamatopoulos, who is probably best recognized as the character Star Burns on the TV series Community. He is known primarily as a writer, cutting his teeth on the early Ben Stiller Show, MADtv, Mr. Show, TV Funhouse before creating television series like Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and Moral Orel.

All three panelists shared experiences from their Columbia days, each stressing how important it is for storytellers to take classes in a variety of subjects and in other departments to strengthen and broaden their storytelling skills. But most of the evening was spent providing insights into the various approaches to storytelling, whether in film, television, or comic books, and giving advice to current students on what it takes to make it as a professional writer. For film, Protosevich’s best advice is “persistence.” There are lots of talented writers, but the ones who make it are the ones who are able to listen to feedback, take a hard look at their own writing, and work hard to make it better—and who don’t let rejection discourage them, to keep writing.

   The Big Amoeba, story and art by Art Baltazar
The Big Amoeba, story & art by Art Baltazar
Baltazar pointed out that “even though comics are scripted, no publisher really hires writers by reading scripts—the best way for writers to break into comics is to take the DIY approach: Write a good story, hire a talented artist, and create a short comic to print themselves or distribute through the web. This can then serve as a calling card or a work sample that can in the best possible world open doors for a writer to work for one of the major publishers.”

Stamatopoulos stressed how “television writers’ rooms require an ability to work together, to collaborate, and to enjoy the process of co-creating stories or material,” and that for him, one of the joys of creating his own TV series has been to have more control over the material and process.

Next year, the Written Image Screenwriting Awards will be held during Alumni Weekend, promising more great guests and opportunities for Columbia students and alumni screenwriters to meet and interact.