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% screenwriters making big paychecks and working with A-List talent. 99% 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 the 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 the group and me 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 pre-sold on the concept to foreign territories and is going to be made,” he told me.
The pay was higher than low-five-figures, 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 significant 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.
Casting and Waiting
Casting didn’t begin until November of 2010. While they clearly wanted to rush into production, the casting process was brutally long. As the screenwriter, I had nothing to do with it beyond waiting for updates — and they were few and far between.
Going into the assignment, I knew that they had wanted to cast the great James Earl Jones. They had worked with him before. I had the pleasure of writing a specific role and storyline just for him. Sadly, he was unavailable.
The first names they confirmed that had been signed were Eriq La Salle (ER, Logan) and Anne Heche (Donnie Brasco, Volcano). Needless to say, it was a thrill to see things moving forward finally — and especially knowing and respecting the actors that had just been attached.
Weeks went by with random updates here and there. Christian Slater had a scheduling conflict, so Sean Patrick Flanery (The Boondock Saints, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) was signed instead. With James Earl Jones unavailable, the great James Brolin signed on to take over the rewritten role. Then came Billy Zane and Bruce Boxleitner. Things seemed to be ramping up, until production was delayed for many more months, leading into April 2011.
Once production began, it was an on and off again affair where they would shoot for a couple of months and then go on hiatus until other lead actors’ schedules opened up.
That April, I was thrilled to be invited to the set by my producer. This would be my first trip back to Los Angeles after moving back to Wisconsin in 2006. All of my business before then had been handled through email, conference calls, and by my manager in Los Angeles.
The Set Visit
Going back to Los Angeles was a dream trip — especially given the fact that I was returning to visit the production of a screenplay I had written.
Before the set visit, I was going to make my first return to the studio I still call my second home today — Sony. One of my hopes, wishes, and bucket list dreams was to return to the Sony VIP gate I had worked at years before as a security guard — only this time as a guest.
It was a surreal moment as I pulled up to that gate. My name was in the system, and as the security guard printed my pass, I mentioned, “I used to work this gate.” He was surprised and thrilled to hear my story. That remains to be one of the pivotal moments of my life. A little dream come true in the wake of a much bigger one just ahead.
My producer then picked me up at my hotel the next morning, and we were off on a trip to the production company’s studio lot in Simi Valley, just north of Los Angeles — a community surrounded by green hills and rock faces.
The studio was impressive. A former furniture warehouse now adorned with sets and sound stages. What impressed me, even more, was learning that this company owned everything I saw. Production vehicles, trailers, equipment — everything. Nothing had to be rented and for a company that has so much output per year, it proved to be one of the smartest collection of investments I’ve seen — drastically reducing budgets for each and every production. But that was just the beginning.
He led me to their new backlot, which is basically a city facade consisting of two adjacent streets and blocks. It was bigger than Disney’s backlot. Certainly bigger than Sony. And it was made specifically for Blackout.
After a quick local bite to eat, we headed into the hills to go to set. When we arrived, we realized that we had just missed a trailer moment. They blew up a van moments before our arrival. As we pulled up, the fire crew was dowsing the van with water. We had missed it.
It was an hour and a half until they shot the next scene. As the sun went down below the hills, I was introduced to the set producer. It was a warm welcoming, to say the least.
My producer and I then sat in the car for an hour, talking about family and business, and then headed up the trail.
It was here that I saw my first shot. It was exactly as I had written it. The dialogue was word for word from my draft, and I would soon learn that this was the case throughout the night. Surreal to say the least. Here were actors dressed in Special Forces tactical ware, hiding in the shadows, reconning an enemy location, and saying the very words I had written.
My producer had told me that the director, Bradford May, was crazy. He meant that in the best of ways, so it was pretty clear to me that the boisterous man barking orders and calling everyone “his lovelies” was indeed Mr. May — or as I would soon call him, B May, the name he went by on set.
Our visit was unannounced, so B May was surprised to see my producer — who was also the executive producer of the miniseries — on set. He lit up — hugging him and grasping him with pure glee and emotion. Picture Al Pacino, at his over-the-top best, mixed in with a little Dean Martin. That was B May, a director with TV credits from now-ancient shows like Hawaii Five-O of yesteryear. This guy was old school.
His energy was electric. I had met many directors in my time in Hollywood, but B May had this electric vibe about him, and it fueled the crew — his lovelies. When my producer introduced me as one of the writers, B May lit up once again, grasping me like I was his own son. Brian Bloom and another lead actor came up, in full Special Forces apparel, and joined in on the conversation. Bloom, a produced screenwriter himself (he co-starred in and wrote the big screen version of The A-Team), made a noticeable extra effort to shake my hand and show added appreciation and respect once he heard that I was the screenwriter.
After more introductions and warm welcomes, the conversation went to the production.
As my producer, B May, and I walked over to craft services, the conversation continued. B May was imploring my producer that they “needed to make more of this sexy stuff.” Great drama mixed with practical action — no computer graphics. As they went on talking about certain locations and certain sequences, it was a thrill to hear that everything they talked about was my stuff. My sequences. My dramatic scenes. My action. But as a writer, once you hand over that script, “my” doesn’t apply anymore because it is a collaborative art form. It was B May’s. It was the actors’. It was the crews’. It was the additional writing of the production screenwriter brought in after me. But the great thing to realize was that they were referring to it as ours — and I was part of that.
As the night went on, it was a thrill to see the guns, the stunts, the explosions, live fire, real pyrotechnics, and air rams launching men into the air. Each and every image was one that I had conjured. Each and every word was one that I had written. It was a true dream come true to hear those words and see those actions. Words can’t describe the feeling.
It would go on to be one of the greatest nights of my life.
All it takes is a glitch in the system of our lives to expose our deepest fears. What happens then? The answer comes in shock waves when an unprecedented conspiracy pitches the West Coast into total darkness. After being charged with hacking into the Pentagon security system, computer-whiz Josh Martin is kidnapped during house arrest and delivered to a shadowy criminal known as Charles Keller. Requested to hack into the state’s highly advanced electrical system and shut it down, it’s clear what Keller wants — total chaos. When California goes dark, he gets what he wants. And tonight, no one will be prepared for what’s about to happen.
Agent Strickland of Homeland Security’s Cyber Terrorism Division fears the worst. So does Beth, a news director sticking dangerously close to the largest disaster the country has ever faced. City by city, the West Coast is blacking out as looting escalates, and the worst impulses of man are unleashed. As bedlam reigns, an expert squadron must determine the conspiratorial source of the blackout while civilization fights to survive the night.
Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Eriq La Salle (ER), Emmy winner Anne Heche (Men in Trees), Emmy and Golden Globe winner James Brolin (Category 7), Billy Zane (Titanic), Sean Patrick Flanery (The Boondock Saints), Bruce Boxleitner (Tron:Legacy) and Haylie Duff (Napoleon Dynamite), Blackout is not just a miniseries event that strikes at our deepest and darkest fears — it’s a cautionary thriller for a paranoid age.
That was the official synopsis and “one-sheet” that was sent to me as the miniseries started to hit the international markets. It never debuted in the United States on television. I would do various Google searches to check the foreign markets and discovered that it was a Top 20 show in many countries.
My producer finally managed to send me a DVD copy. I brought it back to my hometown with my wife and sons. Once the kids were asleep, we sat down to watch it with my parents, eagerly waiting to see my name in the opening credits and secretly fearing that it somehow would never appear.
But sure enough, there was my name, accompanied by the two additional writers — both of whom I have never met to this day. The first writer was the one who came up with the original story and wrote the initial draft, which was discarded after I made my own pitch for what I could do with the concept. The second writer was brought in for the production rewrite, creating a rewritten storyline that was originally conceived as an inner-city grandfather (James Earl Jones) and pawn shop owner standing up to and later evading vengeful looters during the blackouts in the Los Angeles area. The rewritten version had a white bar owner (James Brolin) with his white newscaster daughter and her cameraman witness a murder, and as a result, were chased throughout the dark streets of Downtown Los Angeles — a revamped storyline that I had nothing to do with.
We watched the television in anticipation as the miniseries began. I couldn’t hold back my smile as a frog crept up my throat once I saw that onscreen credit.
It was no longer a fantasy. It was no longer just outside of my grasp. There was my dream come true.
It was interesting to see the different choices made, most of which were budget and production related.
Action scenes I had written were cut in half.
One storyline was not mine at all. Certain dramatic moments were either discarded, cut out, or changed — with a few new characters and the absence of some. Exposition scenes were added to explain away some plot points of the story.
There were shining moments throughout the miniseries. Moments I had conjured. Some I had not. The many scenes that were mine still create that surreal feeling of finally seeing what was in my mind come to life before my eyes.
There were many moments of:
“Why did they change that?”
“Why did they add this storyline?”
“Why did they cut that storyline?”
“Why did they cast that guy?”
“Why is that character talking like that?”
Such is the life of a screenwriter. It’s incredible to see that script I worked so hard on come to life. It’s equally amazing to have been on set, meeting the cast and crew, and now seeing all of their hard work come to life.
While the miniseries didn’t debut on television as planned in the United States — it was supposed to show on the Sy-Fy Channel — it did manage to get distribution on iTunes and other streaming channels.
When it was first released, I felt the adrenaline rush of watching it rise up through the ranks in the iTunes TV Series Top 10 list. It quickly rose to the Number 2 position, beating out the likes of the first season of True Detective and Game of Thrones.
Having seen the miniseries, I didn’t understand the draw until it occurred to me that the power of a name cast, compelling logline, and cool poster image is more than enough to attract the masses.
I was on Cloud Nine for a couple of days — until I began to read the reviews.
They were harsh. Sure, there was the random four-star rating, but overall it was pummeled. The miniseries then quickly disappeared from the Top 10 list.
What was more interesting was the fact that I agreed with most of what those reviewers were writing. While 80% of what I had written was in there, that additional 20% made a drastic difference in tone, atmosphere, pacing, and many other elements. It was familiar. It was the story and most of the characters that I had in mind. But it was different at the same time.
But as a screenwriter, you just have to own it and know that you’re blessed to have had anything produced in the first place. It’s a legacy that I am very proud of and thankful for, regardless of any reservations I have — or anyone else has — about the final product.
It’s my dream. It came true. Not many people can lay claim to such a blessing. I managed to accomplish what most screenwriters never will — seeing my screenplay produced by Hollywood with a name cast. And for that, I’m thankful — Onward to the next.
Note: Blackout finally made it’s North American DVD and Blu-Ray debut in 2017 as one part of the Doomsday: Three Catastrophic Mini-Series Collection. I purchased it on Amazon for $6 — double the number of residuals the Writers Guild secured for me in 2016, four years after the miniseries was released. It’s now available for free on Amazon Prime Video. View at your own risk. Welcome to the life of a blue-collar screenwriter.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies