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  • Writer's pictureJake Thornton

How I managed to sell my first big expensive TV show to SyFy, and lived to tell the tale!

In my previous post, I discussed becoming a professional screenwriter, marked by a four-studio bidding war over our spec script, 'Winter’s Knight,' in 2014.


Today, I want to delve into what happened next, including how we landed our first open writing assignment in television.


As a child in the 80s, I was captivated by "The Never Ending Story." Many rainy Saturday afternoons were spent watching it. It resonated with me, and undoubtedly with many others. My mum even drew inspiration from it for a lecture on Nichiren Buddhism, which our family practices.


Following the sale of 'Winter’s Knight,' I had the incredible opportunity to work with Wolfgang Petersen, the director of "The Neverending Story." Here’s how it unfolded.


The Never Ending Story - Still a classic...

Post our first major sale, we were, poetically speaking, hot shit. Everyone wanted to meet with Ben and me, leading us on a tour across numerous production companies. Our first stop was with Original Film, known for producing the "Fast and the Furious" movies, "Passengers," and "Sonic the Hedgehog." They later produced our first film, "The Princess."


The meetings were frequent and rapid. At that time, I was still employed at The Apple Store. Business affairs at a studio can take a while to finalise paperwork. However, with a small loan from my mum until the paycheck arrived, I was able to leave Apple and fully engage in these crucial meetings.


Ben and I soon realized the importance of having fresh, pitchable ideas for these discussions. While we had some concepts, we knew we needed more. Thus, we started brainstorming ideas that aligned with the style and tone of 'Winter’s Knight.'


If you're known for a big, 4-quadrant fantasy action-adventure, your next project isn’t likely to be a romantic comedy or horror film. You now have a brand to maintain. So, we developed several exciting ideas for our pitches. In a future post, I'll talk about how we sold three consecutive pitches to Sony Studios over the next few years…


Additionally, we started exploring opportunities in television, including meetings with TV production companies. One such meeting was with UCP (Universal Cable Productions), known for the "Battlestar Galactica" remake, a personal favourite of mine. We met with the incredible Kate Fenske, a fellow Brit, and the awesome Bryan Crow. Although TV wasn't our primary focus, during the meeting, Kate mentioned they were seeking writers for an adaptation of John Scalzi’s "Old Man’s War" series. The series, comprising six books and four novellas, is fantastic.



We quickly read the first book and were instantly hooked. As a fan of Warhammer 40,000, any soldier-based space narrative captures my interest. But this story had a compelling emotional layer. I won’t spoil it, but I highly recommend checking it out. You can do so here.


Originally, "Old Man’s War" was set as a movie at Paramount, with the esteemed Wolfgang Petersen (known for "The Neverending Story," "Das Boot," "Air Force One," "Troy") attached to direct. And he was still on board! We eagerly put together our adaptation approach, or “take” as it’s known in the industry.


Our take focused on the villain from the second book, elevating him as a central character right from the start. This approach formed the basis of our first pitch. Before this, Ben and I had collaborated on a script titled "Silverfox," based on an early draft by Ben. After completing the script, we crafted an over-the-top pitch presentation with concept art, music, and clips from other films. Though we managed to secure a few meetings through connections, we faced universal rejection.


Now, we had to revisit and refine our pitching skills. Fortunately, both Ben and I, with our acting backgrounds, are comfortable sharing ideas and storytelling. For us, pitching has always been about telling a captivating story. It's not just selling an idea; it's about engaging your audience with a narrative.


Reflecting on our first pitching experience, I see how much we’ve evolved. But even then, our approach was solid.


Our pitch to Kate, Bryan, and their boss was well-received. They wanted us to meet with Wolfgang Petersen and his team, including Kimberly Miller and Rachel Walens at their Santa Monica office, as well as Alexa Faigen, who worked with producer Scott Stuber.

Visiting their office was surreal. Posters from all of Wolfgang’s films adorned the walls. Wolfgang himself was charming and passionate about the project, despite years of attachment. He discussed the challenges of adapting it into a movie but saw a long-form television series as the ideal format.


We presented our take to him, received some notes, and after some back-and-forth, we refined our pitch and presented it again to UCP. They were pleased with the direction and decided to bring us into the network. Things were looking up. All we needed was for SyFy to approve the project, and we’d be set.


On the day we pitched to SyFy, we entered the board room and realized we weren't the only ones pitching that day. Half-eaten sandwiches on the table hinted at earlier presentations. This was a new realization for us, being novices in the field. Looking back, I now understand that competition for a project is common. Currently, we're experiencing a similar situation with a property at Disney+. My advice is always to inquire about the number of writers pitching for a project. This knowledge helps you decide whether it’s worth competing.


The room was packed with executives from SyFy, and I won't lie and feel like I was overwhelmed. We;'d only been professionals for a few months at this point, and here we were, pitching a huge Sci-Fu show... to SyFy.


It went well, and at the end, Scott Stuber, who now runs Netflix’s film division, looked at us and said “You guys are the real deal.” The praise was wonderful from someone as experienced as Scott. We shook hands with everyone, left, and waited by the phone.


A few days later, our TV agent at WME, Matt Solo, informed us that we had secured our first TV job. We were ecstatic!



However, we were about to enter what is known in the industry as development hell…

TV contracts typically involve five stages. Step 1 is the outline step, where you submit a detailed, scene-by-scene outline of the pilot. Step 2 is drafting the teleplay based on the approved outline. Steps 3 and 4 involve rewriting based on studio and producer feedback, and Step 5 is a final polish.


We embarked on the outline step for a two-hour pilot for SyFy. This required us to think about act breaks where commercials would fit in. These typically end on cliffhangers or major actions to keep viewers engaged. We sought to create a complete story introducing characters and the world while setting the stage for a larger narrative.


As screenwriter, Mike Le puts it, “In film, you close all the doors behind you; in a TV pilot, you intentionally leave them open.” This philosophy was new to us but became a guiding principle in TV writing.


The project had many stakeholders: us, Wolfgang and his team, Scott Stuber and his producers, UCP, their producers, and the network. The multitude of voices led to an overwhelming amount of feedback.


We submitted the outline, and then everyone weighed in on notes. We did the notes. There were more notes. We took notes. Then another round of notes. Notes and notes and notes and notes and notes. Some later notes would contradict earlier notes or actively contradict notes in the same document. We began to feel the amount of different voices weighing in.


At this point, one of our execs at UCP spoke up. The outline still wasn’t working right. It needed something. For those unfamiliar with the book, it follows the story of John Parry, a seventy-five-year-old guy who decides to sign up for the space-faring Colonial Defence Force. Upon his arrival, his consciousness is transferred, Avatar style, into a super soldier body, and goes on all manner of amazing adventures. I won't spoil the rest. It's great. Go read it.


This led to the infamous 'dead daughter pitch,' which Ben and I now use as a term for notes that steer a project away from its original vision.


The studio felt he needed stronger stakes for him to want to enlist. It wasn’t enough that he was old, and had nothing to live for on Earth. They wanted something more. Something personal. So I half joking, blurted out “Like what, a dead daughter who died of cancer who he promised to take her ashes into space?”


“Yes! That! That’s brilliant!”


But wait, I wasn’t really serious. It was a “something like” example. But no. Now the studio wanted the dead daughter.


To this day, I don’t think Ben has ever truly forgiven me for the dead daughter pitch. In fact, when we get notes that make us want to insert something not from the source material that takes it away from the original idea, we still call them dead daughter notes.


But we were stuck now, having to outline this idea, whereby a portion of the story was told in flashback, about this daughter who died from childhood cancer who John had promised to take their ashes up into space…


Now, during this time we’d been in touch with the author, John Scalzi, who honestly, is just a nice and decent human being. He’d been through the optioning of the rights to Old Man’s War for many years. He gave us the freedom to do what we wanted with his fabulous book. He knew how hard studios could be with their feedback, so he said that whatever needed to get changed was fine by him. We even got a chance to meet up with him at San Diego Comic Con where we all talked about the project. He’s one of the good guys, and it was great to have him on our side. Thanks, John!



John Scalzi - Good egg.


So we did the dead daughter outline. And it sucked.


We were now about 6 months into the project, and still at the outline phase. If it hadn’t been for the sweet 7 figure sale at the start of that year, I would have struggled to get by.


We had a call to figure out how we were going to get to draft on this.


We had a conference call once, and no word of a lie, there were eighteen people on the call…


We launched into 2015 still not having been sent to script. Wolfgang and his team were facepalming at the direction we were headed in, and Wolfgang called a lunch meeting. He wanted us all to get on a new page and get to script as soon as possible. He used his weight as director to pull the outline away from the path down which we were headed.


With his help, we moved away from the dead daughter, found the direction we all wanted to go in, and we were finally sent to script in February. We had booked this job the previous June, and it had taken us eight months to get here…


But by now we were desperately behind schedule. SyFy is a broadcast network, and as such was still following the broadcast network schedule. Shows get pitched and picked up in the summer. You write during the fall and early winter, shows are picked up in January to March, made into pilots and then full seasons piece dup after that. We were desperately behind schedule and had to write a two-hour pilot as soon as we could.


We jammed on it, and honestly, it came out pretty well we thought. We did our rewrite. Got notes. Did the 2nd rewrite… and then it went quiet. Real quiet.


Then, in June of 2015, we found out that they no longer wanted to continue with us as writers. They would pay out our final step, and we were released from our contract.


The only feedback we ever got was that someone at SyFy read the pilot and said, “Why are we making a show about a bunch of old people?” Sigh.


And that was that.


We were facing the realities of being writers in this business. And bring fired is one of them…


So what did I learn from all of this?


  • Dead Daughter Notes: Be cautious with off-the-cuff suggestions, as they might become the direction of the project. Now, I would have the courage to voice my concerns if I felt we were heading in the wrong direction.

  • Too Many Cooks: With numerous people involved, it's crucial to discern whose feedback is most pertinent. Follow the advice that makes the most sense.

  • Speed in Writing: The ability to write quickly is essential in TV, especially for traditional broadcast networks. While streaming has introduced more flexibility, rapid and quality writing remains a valuable skill.


So what happened to everyone on the project?


Sadly, Wolfgang Petersen died in 2022. He was a charming, funny, and intelligent man. He directed some great movies, and I’m sad we didn’t get to see him at work directing this show.



Wolfgang Petersen 1941 - 2022

Kimberly Miller and Rachel Walens started a new company, Cathartic Media. We met with them last year and hope to find something with them in the future.


Scott Stuber went on to run the film division at Netflix.


Kate Fenske now works as Chief Creative Executive at Sister, Stacey Snider’s company. She’s great and we’re still in touch.


UCP hired a new writer, David Coggeshall, who went on to write Orphan: First Kill. They didn’t end up producing his script either.


The rights for Old Man’s War expired at UCP and SyFy, and last I heard they were at Netflix.


John Scalzi went on to be offered a $3.4m deal over ten years to continue wiring books for Tor. His latest book, Starter Villain, can be found here. He also helped me get my first publishing agent.


Thanks for reading.


If you liked this, please consider signing up for my mailing list. I send things out occasionally and hope to have a book out soon. You can do so here.

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6 commentaires


jparsons1974
22 janv.

After reading this 1) I never want to write for television. 2) I will hold off on snide comments about tv shows. 3) Writing by commitee is a complex game I don’t want any part of.

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Gregory Butera
Gregory Butera
19 janv.

"Why would we want to make a show about old people?" Did they even read your outline? Who wouldn't want a chance to go from old and feeble person to young, super-human with green abs that go for days?

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Daniel Almeida
Daniel Almeida
19 janv.

Really interesting read and I believe extremely helpful for future writers.

All the best,

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Sarah Baran
Sarah Baran
19 janv.

Interesting story. I had a running episode of "The Movies That Made Us" in my head as I read it.

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Hedzer Komduur
Hedzer Komduur
19 janv.

Very insightful. Thanks for sharing!

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