A few months ago I responded to a post in a Facebook screenwriting group. Someone had asked whether it was possible for a first-time screenwriter to sell a big movie for a lot of money. Most of the responses were a resounding no. After all, out of all the scripts that sell each year for a lot of money, hardly any are by first-time writers.
I posted that I had done so with my first script, Winters Knight. It was big big-budget movie, and it sold for a lot of money. Many asked how it had been done, and I said that at some point I would write a blog post about it,
Well, here it is. This is tied in with a series I’m going to do over the next few months charting the highs and lows of my first ten years in the entertainment industry as a screenwriter.
So settle down with a hot chocolate, or other beverage of your choice, and listen as I tell the story of how I and my writing partner, Ben Lustig, sold our first script…
The year was 2012. Ben and I had managed to secure our first manager and agent at a top agency. We still hadn’t sold anything but were excited about the prospects ahead. Our first spec script, Twisted, a magical take on Dickens’ Oliver Twist, had gone on sale and not sold. We had been dropped by our manager and struggled to find a new one, but eventually, with the help of the producer we had set up Twisted with, managed to secure a new and awesome management team.
One thing our previous manager had helped us with was finding our voice and what type of movie we really wanted to write. We wanted to create BIG movies. Fun, popcorn, high-concept movies. Movies you go with the whole family to see. Movies you come out of smiling. One day, while chanting at my Buddhist altar, an idea struck me out of the blue. Why hadn’t we seen an original story of the myth of Santa Claus. I pitched it to Ben. “It’ll be like Snow White and the Huntsman… but with Santa.” Ben loved it and we began working on it pretty much straight away. Its original title was ‘The Knight Before Christmas’ which is hilarious now because there is a Hallmark move of the same name. In our story, young Nick was a disgraced former knight, roaming around Europe, with his beloved sidekick, Black Pete (Zvart Piet for all you Danish who have this as part of your folklore), who is eventually roped into rescuing a bunch of kids from an evil bad guy. We jammed on it and really liked it.
We had another opportunity for our Twisted producer to spec a script for him based on Beauty and the Beast, which we did. That went out, and again didn’t sell. But a producer read it and liked it, and wanted to meet and discuss other ideas.
That producer was Lawrence Grey. We met at a hotel in Beverly Hills for breakfast. He was full of energy and very passionate. We loved him. Then a moment I will carry with me for the rest of my life happened. He said “So I wanna hear some of your ideas, but I wanna pitch you something first. Why has no one ever done the origin story of Santa Claus?”
Ben and I laughed. “Our team told you about our script right?” Ben asked. Lawrence shook his head. No, they hadn’t. We looked at each other. “We’ve written that script!” I said.
Lawrence couldn’t believe it. “Is anyone attached?”
We said no. There was now.
So we sent him the draft. Now, to be honest, as I look back, the draft…wasn’t great. But it had potential. And Lawrence saw the potential in it and us. So we agreed to develop it with him with the aim of taking it out.
At this time, my first son, Phoenix, was born. I was working part-time at the Apple Store in the Beverly center in Los Angeles, and also had to take a part-time job driving for Uber to pay the bills. My wife and I were treading water financially. With our previous two scripts not having sold, I was starting to face the very real possibility that I would have to go full-time at Apple in order to provide for my family.
I made a silent agreement with myself that if this script didn’t sell, I would have to do just that. But I had not moved to LA to pursue a career in computer sales. I had moved away from my family in the UK to pursue the Hollywood dream. I knew that I wanted to achieve my goals not just for myself, but to provide for my family in an even better way. And also to show my young son when he was older what is possible when you believe and work your ass off.
Ben likewise was facing a similar crisis moment. Was he going to continue screenwriting? Or was he, like me, going to choose a different career path, maybe even go back to school? Added to this, he had back surgery during this time, which left him in crippling pain. While it was not funny at the time, we both laugh at these writing sessions with him reclining in his Laz-e-boy off his face on pain meds.
I entered into the hardest eight months of my life. Lawrence wanted a major overhaul of the script, and we spent at least three months working on getting the first act just right. He had been an executive at Universal for many years and had great instincts about what this type of movie required. But sometimes it felt like pulling teeth. “It’s not quite there guys. What about…” became the regular theme of the calls that I would take, often in the break room of the Apple Store. But Lawrence was teaching us really great lessons. Not just about how to write for this kind of movie but also how to work with a producer.
Having a good producer is worth its weight in gold, and Lawrence was truly wonderful. While we liked the character of Pete and had a great sequence where he died at the end of Act 2, Lawrence called us out on it,
“We all know he’s going to die. Why? Because most of the world doesn’t have a Santa Claus with Black Pete at his side.” We’d also relied upon some tried and worn tropes. It would have been nice to have had a non-white character in the movie, but not at the expense of it being done badly. Our version of Pete was a former slave who owed his life to Nick. It fell a little into the ‘White Savior’ trope, and in hindsight, I’m glad we moved away from it.
Lawrence also wanted us to move away from the time period and the knight tropes. He felt that felt a little worn too. But at breakfast one day, discussing the latest draft, he said “What about Vikings?” We loved the idea, and it actually fit with the research that we had done about the Santa Claus myth. In fact, Santa has been heavily influenced by Norse Mythology. Odin flew around in December for Yuletide to head off the Wild Hunt. He knew who had been bad and good and hunted down or abducted those who deserved it, an eight-legged horse that pulled his sleigh, and was the most iconic figure of Yuletide, a holiday that celebrated hospitality, feasting, and gift-giving. We also used a character, Wodan, the god of the woods in Germanic lore, at one point in our story. Wodan and Odin are often times interchangeable in myth.
So we did it. And it gave a whole new lease of life to the script, and made it really fun. We wanted to figure out how to bring in all the things we think about Santa and Christmas and give an origin to all. Elves, Christmas Trees, going down Chimneys, Gift Giving, how white beard, his red cloak, his ‘Ho Ho Ho’, the reindeer, the sleigh. We also threw in some Krampus for good measure. All of it was going to be set up in this movie.
We also let Lawrence know that we had come across a book by L. Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz) called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. It’s fun, but very kiddy, and we had decided not to use it as inspiration. But Lawrence urged us to reconsider. If there were elements that could be lifted from it, than having that as “Extra” IP could help with the sale. So we went back and revisited it, and found a way to make it work. And it made the script even better.
So after months and months of completely revamping the draft, we finally felt like it was getting closer to being ready to take to market. We were at the end of 2013 by now. Lawrence had had success around this time setting up a project called Section 6, a kind of unofficial prequel to James’s Bond that explored the origins of MI6. This was very exciting for us, as the script had sold for a lot of money. $1M to be exact…
Lawrence knew that a screenplay by first-time writers needed all the help it could, so wanted to package additional elements onto the script. He felt that directors were the best idea, as opposed to actors, so began the search using his connections. The directors we landed on were Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg. Their film, Kon-Tiki, had been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Oscars, and they were very hot around then. They were also from Norway, where our screenplay was now set. They loved it. We loved them.
It was a perfect match.
Lawrence commissioned some original concept artwork to be done to give studios an idea of what we were talking about. And here is some of it. One of the actor archetypes for Nik was Channing Tatum. Our villain, Jack Frost, a malevolent and bitter ice sprite, would be someone like Guy Pearce. Joachim and Epson also had a connection of theirs do a picture of one of the iconic moments from the script; Nik’s escape from the magical forest of Burzee in the back of a sleigh, being pulled by Reindeer, while pushed by savage Ice Wolves. Fun!
Now came the title. We hadn’t settled on one. We couldn’t called it The Knight Before Christmas any more, because it was no longer about a knight. We felt that putting Santa Claus or Saint Nick in the title was going to make not feel too kiddy. We had created a far more four-quadrant film that was more PG-13. This wasn’t a film just for kids. We spent weeks batting around different ideas. Some of them included The Chronicle of Nik: Santa Begins, The Christmas Chronicle, The Blade of Christmas, Warrior of the North: The Legend of Santa, The Christmas Chronicles: The Legend of Santa, Winter’s Knight: The legend of Santa. But ultimately we settled on Winter’s Knight. It felt magical, and gown up all at once.
Lawrence wanted to give the package one extra element of selling power, so partnered with veteran producer, Marc Platt. We were ready to go out.
Our agent at the time, Mike Esola at WME was now about to come into his own. Mike was known for many years as the spec sales king. And so he set up a series of meetings for Lawrence and the directors to go and pitch their vision for the film, presenting the art work on “tone boards”, as well as what they wanted to do with the movie to the studios that had raised their hands as wanting to hear it. Those studios were Paramount, Disney. Warner Bros, Sony Columbia, and Universal.
At this point, Lawrence gently suggested that we not be part of these meetings. Ben and I were pretty disappointed. This was a chance for us to get in the room with executives at the studios, and in hindsight, I would have fought much more to be part of those meetings. But, if memory serves, Lawrence wanted the directors to be the star of these meetings and told us that the studios would probably care much more about what they had to say. We had, after all, written the script, so while we weren’t present in person, we were through the pages of the screenplay.
The meeting took place on the week of February 24th, 2014. And while we weren’t at them, we were in constant communication with Lawrence about how it was all going. They were going great, apparently, And studios were very excited. But the offers weren’t coming in. What was going on? This was our first rodeo so we weren’t sure what to expect. We got on the phone with our agent, Mike, who explained: “I told them we’re not accepting offers until Friday. I want to get a bidding war going on this.”
Two of a screenwriter’s favourite words. Bidding. War.
I was very distracted at work that week, and was checking my phone every two minutes on the shop floor at Apple.
Then Friday came around. I called in sick at Apple. There was no way I was going to be productive.
Paramount passed on the project. But we quickly got offers from Disney, Warner Bros, Sony, and Universal. And Mike played them all against each other. The prices kept going up. And up. We would have regular calls with Josh, our manager, our lawyer Wendy, and Mike, our agent, going over what the offer was and various deal points. It was a very exciting day, a day I’d dreamed about for a long time.
Disney dropped out early, then Warner Bros. Which left Sony and Universal battling it out for who was going to get it. And Friday evening came, and we still weren’t sure who was going to get it…
So… we went into Saturday. Added to this, Hollywood was abuzz because it was Oscar weekend. Sony, whose Co-President of Production, Mike DeLuca, had placed a bid of $1M…. But would Universal meet that?
Mike Esola was at an Oscar party that night, with Mike DeLuca and Donna Langley who ran Universal. Donna shook DeLuca’s hand, and said, “it’s yours, well done”. We got a call from Mike Esola at 10.30 at night from the party. The deal was done. We had sold our first screenplay for $1M….
Read the Deadline article here.
The following months were a dream come true. I was able to quit my job at Apple and become a full-time screenwriter. Everyone wanted to meet us, and it paved the way forward for the career I still have today.
So… what happened to Winter’s Knight?
Well, Ben and I did our contractual re-write, working with the fabulous executive, Andrea Giantetti at Sony. I still think of her as my Hollywood Mama. She guided us through what working with a studio is like, and she ultimately ended up buying three more projects from us over the years.
Then… well… we were fired. This was our first experience of this. We knew that a more experienced screenwriter would be brought on to bring the script to another level. There are many reasons why this happens, one of which is it’s an insurance policy for the executives running the movie to be able to say (if the film is made and fails) “Well, it wasn’t my fault. I brought on INSERT A-LIST WRITER HERE to punch up the script. Don’t Balme me!”
We found out who these writers who were to replace us by reading Deadline one morning. J.D. Payne, and Patrick McKay, who now run the Lord of the Rings show for Amazon, were hired to do a rewrite (two actually), and for a while, they became great friends and taught us a lot about the industry. We had always really looked up to them as people whose career we would like to emulate, and still do.
The directors, Joachim and Espen, were on hold to direct Pirates of the Caribbean 5. It wasn’t certain his film would go, and if it didn’t, then our film would be next. Sony studio head Amy Pascal was a fan of the project, and really wanted to greenligiht it. But…
Pirates 5 was greenlit. And then…
Sony was hacked by North Korea. In the hack, various emails from Amy Pascal were publicised and she was forced to stand down. Out went one of the biggest fans of the project. Tom Rothman was brought in over from 20th Century Fox. Mike Deluca left Sony not long after and… well the project kinda died.
And so that was that.
Lawrence Grey went on to produce Lights Out, and has made several fun family movies, Yes Day and Family Swap, on Netflix. Here's a cool article form the LA Times about him here.
Winter’s Knight is still shared by our team as a writing sample for open writing assignments and still holds a very dear place in my heart.
So, ten years on, looking back, what did I learn?
From my own personal growth perspective, I see that hard work, commitment, and unwavering faith in a dream are what’s required for success.
The vision of the movie is greater than my personal vision as a writer. Being a good collaborator is king. Whether collaborating with directors, producers, actors, whoever. Take notes, listen, share ideas, and collaborate. The sum becomes worth more than the parts.
Good producers are worth their weight in gold. I love working with producers who make me a better writer. Lawrence Grey did this for us.
One lesson J.D. and Patrick taught us, which I still hold to my heart, was something they shared while we were getting burgers one day in Sherman Oaks. They said, “You teach other people how to treat you.” I love that, and it;’s so true. I would have fought harder to get into the room for the week.
Have a good team that you trust and like working with. Mike, Josh, and Wendy were all fantastic during the lead-up and aftermath of the sale, and I owed my career to all of them.
So, that’s the story of how Ben and I sold Winter’s Knight and started this crazy journey as Hollywood screenwriters.
Next time, I’ll talk about how we got our first job, Ghost Brigades, an adaptation of John Scalzi’s fantastic book, Old Man’s War for SyFy, and what I learned from that.
Thanks for reading. :)