In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.
Seeing your screenplay produced is the ultimate goal for every screenwriter.
It’s one thing to win a contest, get representation, sign that first option contract, and get that first check for either a script sale or writing assignment—but the final summit is actually seeing a studio produce your screenplay with a name cast.
It doesn’t happen often. Most working screenwriters make money off of spec scripts and assignments that never make it to the big screen or television.
Here we offer a ground-level, in the trenches perspective from a screenwriter—me—that saw his screenplay go from page to screen. I’ll share the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the process to give all up-and-coming screenwriters a real world look into what it’s really like to be a screenwriter—and how it really feels to see your work produced by Hollywood.
The purpose is to showcase a story apart from the glitz and glamour that we read about with the top 1 percent screenwriters making big paychecks and working with A-List talent. 99 percent of the other working screenwriters out there have a much different experience.
This one was mine.
I had worked in the film and television industry for years—but on the studio end of things. I moved to California from my home state of Wisconsin with hopes and dreams of becoming a professional screenwriter. When my wife and I relocated to our second apartment, we blindly selected one in Culver City. To our surprise—and my utter glee—the apartment was located just across the street from Sony Studios. The former home of MGM.
I wanted—no, I needed to work behind those walls. After weeks upon weeks of failed attempts to secure a Sony job through their employment website, I walked up to a Sony security gate and asked the guard, “How do I get a job here?”
Two weeks later, I was a Sony security guard. I worked my way into the VIP parking lot and enjoyed months of seeing and talking to Hollywood elite.
I then worked my way out of the Sony security uniform and into an office position where I later became a studio liaison working with incoming film and television productions. From there I networked and got into Sony development as a script reader and story analyst—all while honing my own screenwriting skills on the side.
I later left my studio position to raise our newborn son while writing at home. I managed to secure representation from my first notable screenplay and found myself invited to multiple meetings at Sony, Universal, Dreamworks, Warner Bros, and Disney.
But priorities changed after nothing came from those meetings. We decided to move back to Wisconsin to raise our son closer to family. Ironically enough, I managed to sign my first contract after moving 2000 miles away from Los Angeles. My deal with Lionsgate was going strong until the one-two punch of the economic crisis and the Writers Guild strike of 2007/2008 hit.
I continued to write but the industry was left in such turmoil in the months and years that followed.
The Right Place at the Right Time
I was mentoring a group of screenwriters based in Wisconsin when I received an email from a producer and executive in Los Angeles. He had offered to help me and the group in any way, being a Wisconsin native himself. I pitched him my scripts and signed a release for him to read them. Long story short, he was impressed and offered me my first writing assignment.
That assignment didn’t go beyond the initial pitch to networks, but I finally earned my second writing paycheck after my Lionsgate deal expired after the strike. A couple of months went by when he called me again with another assignment.
“This one is already presold on the concept to foreign territories and is going to be made,” he told me.
The pay was a mid-five figure deal, which I was of course more than happy to accept. The catch was that I had just two weeks to write a page one rewrite of the screenplay they had.
Page one rewrites are where you take the core of the concept and maybe some of the characters and settings, and start from scratch. The existing script was lacking, so we had to make it better.
After I pitched my take, they sent the contract over and I was finally working on my first paid writing assignment that went to script.
I barely saw my family for two and a half weeks. The distributors were ready to go and wanted to get casting and production underway. There was no time to reflect. There was no time to outline. There was no time to ponder. The script had to be done in two weeks time, plus a few days for rewrites—if I wasn’t fired after handing in the first draft.
Here I was, still a work-from-home dad with a four-year-old and now a one-year-old—and a new puppy—trying to find the time to deliver. My wife would come home early and I’d be off to the University of Wisconsin library into the wee hours of the next morning. Almost every day for two weeks.
The project was actually set up as a four-hour miniseries, which meant that the script would have to be roughly 250 pages—well over double the length of a feature script. But when you’re on assignment, there is no time to complain or stress. You put up or you shut up and go find another career to pursue.
I handed in my first draft in late spring of 2010 and waited by the phone to hear their response.
While the contract was for a then-amazing mid five-figure deal, that was spread out over four drafts (first, second, polish, and production drafts). If they weren’t happy with the first draft, they could fire me and I’d only receive the portion of the contract for that sole draft.
The phone rang finally. I answered. It was my producer.
“Ken, we’re pretty happy.”
They loved it—instant relief.
Despite that love and support for the draft, the production producer wanted some major changes. Some storylines were dropped and altered, but the bulk of my first draft remained—which was Die Hard meets a disaster flick with a government agent dealing with domestic terrorists that were controlling the West Coast power grid, causing a coast-wide blackout that other characters were dealing with during a heat wave moving through Los Angeles and beyond.
I handed in my final draft of Blackout in the summer of 2010.