Flashback to December of 2013.
I decided to enter a screenwriting contest. Contests are where I’ve had the most success in my career — beyond a bit of prize money and free publicity, I’ve met some pretty awesome people over the years from placing in these things, from industry contacts to reps to confidants and friends. Many of them play a role in the story to follow. Not all of them survive.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This contest was different. Rather than being judged on content and execution, on a script, the competition revolved entirely around concept. Does this sound like it’ll make a great movie or TV show? Entries could be as short as a logline, as detailed as a several page pitch. Most of what I write are character stories and little genre pieces, but I had this one Big Idea. Up until this point, it existed only as a few lines scribbled down in a notebook somewhere. When I first signed with a literary rep, he encouraged me to think beyond my character stories, to come up with some High Concepts that would be easy to sell. This was one of those. The Suit had rejected it on the basis of being outrageously expensive and a logistical nightmare to produce, but hey, nobody was talking production here. This was just a concept contest. Sky’s the limit.
I sat down and wrote out a logline, and it was actually kind of cool. I thought more about it, where the story might go. It felt bigger than a feature film — it was a TV series. LOST-big. No, Game of Thrones-big. An epic.
That night, I described the show to my wife over pints of porter and winter warmer and pub grub. One of my fiercest critics, she wouldn’t hesitate to tell me if the idea was uninspired garbage. She has in the past, using almost those exact words. But the reaction she had this time was — and I’m paraphrasing here — “Holy shit.”
I was encouraged. I expanded the logline to a three page pitch of the series and submitted it. I felt good. Like I had a solid chance of placing in the contest.
After an enthusiastic and congratulatory phone call, I was plopped into a development session to discuss notes and ideas the contest guys had on the pitch.
At this point, I made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going to get emotionally involved. Wasn’t going to fall in love with every character, grow attached to every plot thread, like I have an unhealthy tendency to do with my more personal character stories. This whole thing had been an exercise in crafting a high concept, a product to sell, and I was going to keep it that way. During the call I said uh-huh a lot and wrote stuff down. Sure, I could flesh out a few of these people, make this villain a little less moustache-twirling, expand upon this theme, tighten up this b-story. Piece of cake, I told them, all the while reminding myself that I wasn’t married to this thing. I wasn’t going to get precious with it. I’d make some quick edits and move on.
Haha! It’s like I’d never met myself.
I told the contest development guys I’d think everything over while I was on vacation with family in Mexico, then get them an updated pitch when I got home.
Then one day, while on a rickety little fishing boat on the Sea of Cortez, something happened. The air was warm and the water calm. The world was eerily quiet, the horizon almost entirely empty, except for a single sailboat. Here, I took a picture of it.
Now, having no context of what Big Idea is about, this means very little to you. But for me it was a revelation. All of a sudden and for the rest of the trip, I couldn’t get this story out of my head. That’s the thing about writing. Lightning strikes without warning, and suddenly the lifeless shape on the table sits up with a beating heart and a mind of its own.
When I got home, what was supposed to be a few tweaks to my pitch became in-depth character biographies, mapmaking. World building. By June of 2014 my three page contest entry had inflated to become a twenty-five page show bible/treatment detailing a five season mythology, dozens of characters, their journeys and fates, setups and payoffs, mysteries and lore.
I’d broken my promise to myself and fallen in love with the damn thing.
I sent the bible/treatment to my Confidants, who told me it was everything they’d hoped it would be and more. I sent it off to the Suit, who came back with an enthusiastic — again, paraphrasing — “Holy shit, write the pilot already!”
I’d only written one pilot before. It was experimental and only my wife and the Confidants saw it, so I needed to re-familiarize myself with the format. I poured over produced pilot scripts, took a look at current stylistic trends — is four acts still a thing? A teaser plus five? Six??
After that came research and outlining. This took much longer than it had any right to, and I was slowly becoming aware of the enormity of this endeavor. I brought my long-time friend and Frequent Collaborator on board for another pair of eyes and another brain to help develop characters and subplots, tell me when I was spending too much time sweating minutiae, pulling me up when it all felt hopeless (I’d turned 30 the year before, and the existential dread was real.)
We also had too much story and too many characters to cram everything comfortably into 60 pages. So after much deliberation, we did what I’d later learn was the unthinkable: wrote a two-part pilot. I felt a mountain lift off my shoulders. The characters had room to breathe, the beats weren’t fighting for space.
Part I introduced the characters, the world, the hook of this show, and Part II set forth how successive episodes would play out in terms of structure and tone. Part I was huge and epic, Part II had a tighter focus and, more importantly, showcased something far more approachable in terms of cost and production design.
May of 2015, nearly a year after the Suit greenlighted me to write the pilot, the two episodes went out for first reads.
The response was unexpected.
Usually I send out a new spec, and my little circle of loyal readers come back with notes, and the Suit comes back with, “it’s written well but…” and then some form of, “are you working on anything else that we might actually be able to sell?”
This time, the Confidants wanted to know when they were getting the third episode. The Suit came back with a list of production companies they’d already sent Big Idea off to. The decision to write a two part pilot had won everybody over, and the biblement proved the story was viable over the long term.
Within a few days, Big Idea had climbed through the ranks of the first major production company, which had a first-look deal with Netflix (which just happened to be the place Frequent Collaborator and myself envisioned the show calling home from the beginning). All we were waiting on now was the development executive to read and give the same glowing thumbs-up as literally every other person who had read it. And wait we did. A week.
Then two. Then three.
“He’s on a honeymoon cruise,” The Suit tried to calm my nerves. “He’ll read it when he gets back to the office.”
Meanwhile, the Confidants, some of whom have plenty of industry contacts of their own, were wearing their office carpets down to the sub-floor from all the furious pacing. I was getting emails and phone calls every few days. “Let’s just send it to a couple of people I know. What’s the harm?”
“We’re just waiting on this exec to read. It’ll be fine,” I tried to reassure them. But I was feeling doubt creep in. Why were we putting all our eggs into this one basket? My own confidence was waning.
Finally the Suit got back to me. “The exec really digs it. But the show is expensive. They don’t want to commit without a showrunner.”
“They want us to bring it back to them with a showrunner attached.”
“We’re heading out to the agencies now.”
December 2015. I emailed the Suit. Have we heard anything at all? At this point Big Idea had been well-circulated through agencies and production companies.
“Just passes,” he told me. “It’s almost impossible for a writer with no produced credits to sell a pilot without these attachments, no matter how good it is. But the TV buying season is kind of over right now. We’ll try again later in the spring. What else are you working on?”
If there was ever a more disheartening phrase than “it’s a pass,” it would have to be “what else are you working on?” when a project loses heat. Irrational, yes; they of course just want to make sure I’m still generating content and keeping busy and fresh. But to this writer’s ears, it sounded like a death knell.
My Confidant reassured me that, like Goonies, Hollywood never says die. So in March of 2016, I put on real pants, a shirt without holes, and I went down to Los Angeles. I had drinks with a producer and director who were attached to another project, I discussed Big Idea with Frequent Collaborator and Confidant, had meetings with some other people I’d come to know over the course of this journey.
Basically, I went and did the whole Hollywood Writer thing to re-energize myself, screw my head back on, find the courage to do what I knew in my gut had to be done.
I gave the Suit the boot.
It wasn’t because of Big Idea. Honestly, I know he worked his ass off. But he’d been repping me since the beginning of my career. Some writers stick with a rep for decades, some change every few years just for the sake of change. No hard feelings, it’s just business, and this lull in the wake of Big Idea’s failure to blow up seemed like a good time to try something new.
April 2016. I’m on the phone with Suit 2.0 and he’s enthusiastically telling me how much he loves Big Idea. Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this all before. Is there a plan?
By May, Big Idea was officially backed by one of the big three-letter agencies. Suit 2.0 had plans alright. On the phone the agents were telling me what a page-turner it was, how they were going to get the biggest directors fighting over who gets to helm the pilot.
Within a few weeks I had my first Skype call with a production company with a first-look deal at ABC. That seemed like a good start. My confidence was picking up again. The existential dread was ebbing.
Two creative executives had read both episodes, but not the biblement, Suit 2.0 told me. They wanted to hear where the show went in my own words. For an introvert who experiences crippling anxiety just calling for pizza delivery, you can imagine how this news landed. I barely slept the night before. I taped cue cards all around my computer screen, to be sure I didn’t lose my train of thought or leave out something important. This was the first meeting of this caliber I’d ever taken.
It went great. I didn’t use the cards. We talked and laughed and even kicked around some new ideas about where things could go in the series. It was, dare I say, fun.
Suit 2.0 was already setting up the next meetings. No reason to sit and wait. I was whiplashed. This was so different than anything I’d experienced before.
The next meeting went similarly well. I got along with the producer and executive on the other end of the call, we all shared a vision for the project. They weren’t even aware that there was a bible, and requested I email it over. I did. They flipped out. In early June I was headed back to Los Angeles for an in-person meeting regarding Big Idea.
That picture at the top of this post? That glass-topped table overlooking Beverly Hills? That was taken by me with shaking hands minutes before the meeting began. I was the first person there. The room was very air conditioned, I hadn’t eaten all day, and I was terrified.
Things had suddenly gotten very real. It felt as if millennia had passed since that night I first pitched the idea to my wife over beer and French fries. I was finally nearing the end of a very long journey.
Just not in the way I’d hoped.
The point of this meet-and-greet was to introduce me to a showrunner who was on the brink of announcing a huge deal with a major studio, and was considering making Big Idea the project he announced with. It was also a strategy session. How do we even approach the studio — and beyond that a network — with this project? Who’s our target audience, how many episodes per season are we making, do we keep this two-part pilot or condense it into one? (That last bit made my eye twitch.)
I slowly came to realize that this was no sure thing. These guys were going to have this same meeting with a dozen other writers in this same cold-ass room that week. They’d forget about me the moment I left unless my show came out on top.
I made the long drive to Pasadena with the windows up and the AC off and my hands still refused to warm up. Suit 2.0 called, I told him how it went. I liked some of their ideas, didn’t love others. I felt good about the company, about the showrunner. Thought I made a pretty good impression. 2.0 thought that all sounded swell. That night I drank half a bottle of wine and passed out in Frequent Collaborator’s living room.
Big Idea was sent to the studio without any changes. It was good enough to get all those people into that overly-air conditioned room together, surely it would at least get us through the studio doors. Get a deal inked.
You know where this is headed, don’t you? I know you do.
July, 2016. The studio passed. Aggressively.
“It needs so much work. If it was even close we might consider it, but it’s not. And besides we already have something similar on the slate.” Paraphrasing again.
Because the production company was exclusive with this studio, that was the end of that. The showrunner made his studio-deal announcement without me and without Big Idea. ABC also passed.
Suit 2.0 was crushed, the agent was disappointed. But too many people had believed in this thing over the years. Never say die, I kept reminding myself. All we needed was the right person to read it. Never say die.
They kept making submissions throughout the summer and fall. Other producers, companies, even actors. Bringing us right up to the new year. To now.
January 2017. “Happy New Year,” 2.0 says. “What else are you working on?”