Rejection and Development: A Screenwriter Describes His First 2 Years in the Business

By  · Published on August 7th, 2015

If you’ve never heard of Jake Thornton, that’s okay. He’s new.

He’s never had his name on a feature film playing at your theater, but he’s sold scripts, he’s been a jobbing screenwriter for two years, and he’s hopeful for a bright future of working his ass off.

To celebrate the anniversary of his big regulation size break, Thornton went on an epic Twitter rant (with a lot of rave in it) to make sense of his experience with agents, producers, spec scripts and side jobs teaching old ladies how to use Apple computers. It’s both a personal inventory of failures and wound-salving successes, as well as an act of laying bread crumbs on an invisible path for those aspiring to be where he’s at.

I’ve Storified the full rant/rave if you want to see it in Twitter form, but since it’s a huge string of short bursts, I’ve also transcribed it here in essay form for easier consumption. What follows is from Thornton, emphasis all his:

“So I thought I’d do a little screenwriting ‘rant’ today, but not in a negative sense. I’m a newbie screenwriter in year 2 of my career. And it’s been an AMAZING ride. It took me a long time to get here, and now I’m really enjoying it. It’s WORK, but it’s work I love. Me and my partner, Ben Lustig, worked for 6 years, writing spec scripts, honing our craft. I’m not trained in screenwriting at all.

It was those years that got my craft down. They were really important. Always had to remind myself where I was going and why I was doing it.

We tried pitching a project in the first year using industry contacts. In hindsight I would have tried to get an agent or manager first. Now I think, ‘Why did I do that?’ but it was all part of the learning curve, learning how the town works. During this time I worked several different side jobs, but the best one was working for the Apple Store in the Beverly Center. Some days I would get up at 6am to write before work. I’d write on my lunch breaks. I’d keep writing.

And during those six years before my ‘break,’ me and Ben almost gave up several times. Always remember coffee at Sherman Oaks Galleria ‐ ‘Do we still want to be screenwriters?’ ‘Do we still want to do this?’ But the answer was always yes. So we kept writing…

Got our first manager through an industry contact. We’d written 2 specs by that point. He liked our style. His client had sold Snow White. He asked, ‘What kind of films do you want to write?’ Us: ‘Big fucking tentpoles!!’

‘So why aren’t you writing those?’

Up to that point, we had been writing low budget stuff. We felt like we needed to start ‘small’ and work our way up. He said no, write big. There was (and still is) a fear in Hollywood about projects not having ‘pre-awareness,’ so he wanted us to mine IP. It’s still a trend today. And it’s not the worst advice for newbie screenwriters. What’s the clean idea? We pitched LOADS of ideas at him…

What about ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bosses’? It’s about a mafia hit woman but is inspired by the story of Goldilocks…

Yuh. That one was bad. We pitched out so much stuff. I’m not sure how many I loved…

While working at Apple, I met lots of screenwriters in store. I always asked, ‘What advice do you have?’ EVERY ONE said ‘Write what you love.’ Which is of course very easy to say, but not so easy to do. But then me and Ben had an idea…TWISTED. It’s a re-imagining of the Oliver Twist story but where the street gang all have powers. Dodger can never be caught, etc. Led by an evil Warlock called Fagin. Super Fun. Harry Potter in the world of Dickens. Our manager passed…but we wrote it anyway. Because we found the idea we loved.

Of course, after it was finished, our manager loved it. And got it in front of agents, and we got repped at a big agency. And you think, ‘Hey, I’m repped at a big agency. Now the work will just come flooding in.’ Nope. That’s the point when you step up to the next level and work even harder.

Twisted was passed on to a company where we could develop it. Still at this point, unpaid. Paying Hollywood dues. Which sucks. I think if people are working for you, you should pay them something. If you like the project, put skin in the game. But I doubt it will change any time soon. We weren’t WGA West eligible, so no union back up…

Anyway, project gets developed and this was our first experience of development.

Ahhh, development. It can boon or bain. But how to survive with artistic vision in mind? Craig Mazin talks about how to preserve the ‘intention’ of the movie. As long as this intention is preserved, you’re winning. And so sometimes you’ll hear a note that just sucks massive donkey dick. And you have to just nod, and take the note. ‘We’ll see if we can make it work.’ The art is finding the note behind the note. I hear this a lot, but it’s valid. What are they ‘really’ trying to say but don’t know it yet?

Anyway, first development was great and we held onto the intention of the script. We waited for it to go on sale…

Meanwhile, we’re coming up with new material. One day an idea hits me: ‘What about the origin of Santa Claus? We do it in a cool way, a way we hadn’t thought about this character before. Who was he when he was thirty? How did he become this legend?’

Our manager passed. We started writing it anyway.

Twisted went on sale. It ‘went wide’ to the studios, but had no attachments (meaning no directors or actors were attached). And I can see why it was a hard sell. It’s funny, because I just read a Go Into the Story interview with Gary Whitta about his Oliver Twist. He said it was a post apocalyptic version. Pretty cool. It’s see that!

Suffice it to say, Twisted didn’t sell. We were heartbroken. I used to be an actor. After I moved to LA I got VERY close to playing Ringo in the Robert Zemeckis remake of Yellow Submarine. I had 7 callbacks. I was already planning my life around getting the job. When I didn’t get it, I fell hard. This was like that.

And the next day, our manager dropped us as clients.

Ain’t nuthin’ like the double whammy to make you question a career path.

‘Why do we fall, Mr. Wayne?’

But we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and kept following the dream. We finished a draft of Santa, at that point called Knight Before Christmas. In that version, Nick was an ex-Templar knight who had renounced his faith. This was November 2012, and the script, like all scripts, needed development.

We read it in the new year and decided to put it on the shelf. We’d come back to it in a few months. The company that developed Twisted with us had an idea they wanted to pitch us: a sequel to Beauty and the Beast…ah, that sweet, sweet IP again.

But we actually dug the idea. Set a few years after the original story, Belle learns that her Prince was a beast to begin with and comes from an island of beasts. It was fun. But again, we’re unsold writers, so we wrote it on spec.

At this point I’ll add, me and the wife were expecting our first kid. Due in April. And I was freaking out. How was I going to support my family?

So our B&B script Beauty and the BeastS (See what we did there) was our first experience of being given an idea and running with it. And this was another great experience. I’d recommend any wannabe screenwriter to just find a random idea and create a story from it. The ‘What Ifs.’ We created a really rich visual world and just ran with this idea. We busted it out in 8–10 weeks which was good practice because for a studio deal, you get 12 weeks for a first draft. So, although we were writing for free, we were learning invaluable lessons in craft. And of course, with every screenplay you get better and better.

So Beasts goes on sale…

And everyone passes. Again. FUCK!!

My son had just been born and I was again planning my life around my script selling. So…lesson? NEVER DO THIS. Assume it won’t sell. Don’t give up the day job. But also…allow yourself to dream. It’s like walking a fine like between pragmatism and idealism.

During this time we got a new manager who is an absolute legend. We’ve stuck with him and he with us. So at least we had a team again. A few weeks after B&B went out, we had a call from our agent. A producer had read our script and liked it. He wanted to meet.

Sure. Why not. We had literally nothing going on. I was still freaking out about life and maybe we could spec one more thing…

So we met with Lawrence Grey. He really liked Beauty and the Beasts and would have produced it if it were available. During the meeting he talked about this origin of Mi6 movie he was working with a newbie writer on. Sounded fun. He then said, ‘I want to pitch you an idea, and I’ve no idea why it hasn’t been done. The origin story of Santa Claus…’

Our mouths dropped. ‘You know we’ve written that spec, right?’ He had no idea. The chances of a producer pitching you an idea for a script that you’ve ALREADY written. Golden. We went on to talk about that script, talk about all the research we’d done on the Santa Claus myth, the L. Frank Baum book, which up to that point we’d decided not to use. And so we began developing it with Lawrence.

In an early phone call he said, ‘The script is nearly there. Like two weeks’ work and we got it.’

We were in development for 5 months.

But what a five months. Lawrence is a great development producer. He gave really astute notes from day one. I swear we spent a month just on the opening 20 pages. It really taught us attention to detail. How is this a big movie? It’s not just about set pieces, it’s about big dramatic themes, relationships you want to set to an epic backdrop.

During this time I take a second job driving for Lyft and Uber. Hardest time of my life. New Baby. 3 days writing. 4 days working at Apple. 4 nights driving. 3 nights with new family. But there’s that point in a movie when your hero goes through the biggest challenge, and it’s make or break. This was that moment.

Finally in November we have a finished script that we all love. Nick became Nik. No longer a Knight but a Viking warrior and he comes from a magical forest called Burzee. At this point, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg step on board to direct. This was HUGE for us. Our first attachment. They were signed on to do Pirates 5, had been nominated for Kon-Tiki…and they loved the script.

So in the new year (2014) we met with them and did the first set of director notes. Again remembering everything we’d learned up to that point. How to take the note, but make it yours, how to push back if something really doesn’t sit right. What’s the INTENTION of the movie, the scene, the moment? Can you do that AND take the note?

And in February of that year, in Oscar week when directors were in town, the newly titled Winter’s Knight went on sale, and there’s that part of me that’s like, ‘If this doesn’t go I’m not sure I have another spec in me…’ But it did, and we amazingly had a four-studio bidding war. I don’t say that to be boastful. It was the result of years of hard work.

And in my opinion, paid for all those years of work…and heartbreak…

One of the best things at that time was being able to leave my job at Apple and spend more time with my son. His first birthday was great.

So what happened then? All the Hollywood doors opened. Everyone wanted to meet with us. Which is good, but kinda sucks, too. Where were you two years ago? But people love success. And so the Hollywood water bottle tour begins…The meet and greets…

And we suddenly realized, we don’t have tons of other ideas to talk about. So, advice…ALWAYS HAVE SHIT TONS OF IDEAS TO TALK ABOUT.

Lawrence gave us good advice during this time. Producers may have a germ of an idea, an article, a picture (seriously)…’We don’t know what the story is, but you can come up with something, right?’ What a screenwriter is looking for after the first sale is the next JOB. We were pitched loads of these things, but it wasn’t until we went to SyFy that a real job appeared. It was a TV show based on John Scalzi’s ‘Old Man’s War’ books. We weren’t familiar, and so we had to prepare for our first PITCH to get an ASSIGNMENT.

So an assignment is a job that exists already. There are already players in the game. In the case of OMW, we had Wolfgang Petersen directing and Scott Stuber producing as well as all the folks over at UCP. And so we have to ask, ‘How am I going to make these books a TV show?’ Again, more education on the job. We found a cool way in. Were trying to write the kind of show we wanted to watch.

I don’t really think SyFy has done anything really great since BSG, which I watched religiously. I wanted OMW to be the new BSG. And so we began working on that. Got the pitch down and went to SyFy, and we got the job.

That was an epic day. I celebrated by going out and buying an Xbox. But getting an assignment, battling it out against other writers for a job, that’s hard work. And we jumped through flaming hoops.

But get it we did, and we began working on our first TV show. Soon after, we got another assignment. This time adapting a comic book into a TV show for an online streaming service. This had big producers, too, who I really admire. And this was a SUPERHERO comic, which was great, because I want to write in Marvel’s universe someday. More training.

And at this point we start think, ‘What’s our next movie gonna be?’ and so we start thinking of pitches. The benefit of being a sold screenwriter is that people can pay you to write your ideas now, and so we had a couple that we casually pitched in general meetings, and producers wanted to produce them. One of them was called The Wells Initiative. What if a young H.G. Wells actually experienced the events that would one day inspire his famous novels? Trigger Street liked it, wanted it. We had another one (that I can’t announce yet) happen during this time, too.

So it’s all going pretty well. We’d pitched on two assignments, gotten both of them and had two producers interested in producing features. The Wells Initiative sold to Sony, and we literally just finished that a few weeks ago.

We finished the comic book adaptation, but the network passed on the script. Was the first DOWNER since sale of Winter’s Knight. But I had to learn to be positive. It allowed us time to focus on other things. And then we had Old Man’s War, which we had retitled Ghost Brigades (the title of the second book). But the development process on that was tough. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, each with their different ideas on what the show should and could be. And I’m sad to say that, despite our hard work, SySy has moved on to other writers on that show.

I hope it makes it to the screen, I really do. I’m just sad it probably won’t have my name on it.

What’s been my biggest lesson over the first ‘official’ two years of my career? Be great to work with. Be collaborative. Be open. Fight for your vision, but don’t be an ass. Listen to your instincts. Do the right thing. Don’t always take the advice of your reps. Do right by people. Keep reading screenplays. Keep watching movies. Spend time with your family.

Recharge. Drink whiskey when you need to. Exercise.

And most of all, stay grateful. A year and a half ago I was teaching grannies how to click a mouse at the Apple Store. Now being paid to write. If I ever feel frustrated I remind myself where I’ve come from and how hard it was to get here.

Be grateful.

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