10. Vince Gilligan-the creator and show runner of the AMC TV series Breaking Bad as well as a writer on The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen.
In 1989, he entered a screenplay competition and won. One of the judges was Mark Johnson, the producer of Rain Man and The Natural. Johnson took an interest in Gilligan and helped him sell the screenplay that would become Wilder Napalm.
The film, released in 1993, was a spectacular flop. The Los Angeles Times opined in the first sentence of the review, “Just about everybody and everything connected to Wilder Napalm is terrible.” Ouch.
Luckily Gilligan stuck with it. He and Johnson remained friends and eventually worked together to produce Breaking Bad.
9. Terry Rossio & Ted Elliot-the duo screenwriters of Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, Small Soldiers, The Road to El Dorado, Shrek , The Pirates of The Caribbean, The Lone Ranger and others.
Rossio and Elliot met in high school where they first collaborated. Eventually, they shopped around first drafts of a movie called Little Monsters.
The script was good enough to get noticed by Davis Entertainment and get co-financed by Vestron Pictures, but unfortunately for Rossio and Elliot, it was not a hit. Before Little Monsters was released, Vestron Pictures went bankrupt, and the film never received a wide release. At its peak, Little Monsters was seen in only 179 theaters nationwide. At the end of the day, the film brought in $800,000 and cost $6 million to produce.
The next step was: “Michael Engelberg, working at Disney, plucked our Little Monsters screenplay out of a slushpile and hired us to do a rewrite on the project Princess of Mars. While the Princess of Mars screenplay was never produced, the studio liked the script, which led to an overall deal. That led to us having the chance to pitch for the Aladdin job.”
After Aladdin, the rest was history.
8. Ronald D. Moore-the creator/show runner of the 2005 re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica as well as the creator of the Syfy network’s Helix and Starz’s Outlander.
In 1988, on a tour of the Star Trek: The Next Generation sets, Moore gave a script of his to one of Gene Roddenberry’s assistants. The assistant, who could have tossed the script away, decided to help Moore instead. An agent got in touch with Moore and together, they submitted the script through the proper channels.
Seven months later, Moore was contacted and asked to write another script for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
He performed well and was given the tedious job of script editing. It would be another two years before his promotion to staff writer and co-producer.
7. Aline Brosh McKenna
She has penned several successful screenplays including The Devil Wears Prada, Morning Glory, We Bought a Zoo, the remake of Annie, and a live-action Cinderella directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Though she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, McKenna found it difficult to break into publishing. She pitched story ideas to magazine editors but few were biting. Then she wrote a “humorous guide to college for women” with her roommate who subsequently got a job writing for Married With Children.
Motivated, McKenna took a screenwriting class at NYU. Unfortunately, the other students were less than supportive. They referred to her script as too mainstream and derivative, but McKenna stuck with it. She worked on the script and got it into the hands of an agent. Soon she was signed and her screenplay was sold. She’s been working in the industry ever since.
6. George R.R. Martin-creator of Game of Thrones, the HBO adaptation of his novels in the series, “A Song of Fire and Ice.” He’s also written for the other TV shows such as The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast.
At 21, Martin sold his first short story to Galaxy Magazine. Three years later, he was nominated for his first Hugo and Nebula Awards, but it would still be more than a decade before Martin would have the opportunity to work in television. That opportunity came in the form of an episode of Deadly Nightmares in 1984 in which Martin’s short story, “Remembering Melody,” was adapted.
Unlike others on this list, George R.R. Martin never fully left his roots. Despite the challenging length of his novels – the longest being A Storm of Swords at 1216 pages, Martin continues to write short fiction today.
5. David O. Russell-writer/director of several critically acclaimed films including I Heart Huckabees, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy.
David O. Russell was an activist, not a filmmaker in college. And once he graduated, Russell worked in Nicaragua to undo social injustice, then moved to Boston where he wrote a curriculum for teaching English to non-native speakers. Listening to their stories, Russell’s first filmmaking aspirations took root.
“I had everyone write essays in their own broken English, because I didn’t want them to feel intimidated by grammar,” he explained. “Then I managed to get video equipment from the community college…I had two video decks, and I literally had to turn the machines on and off to edit.”
Russell would later use his early postgraduate experiences in the screenplay for I Heart Huckabees.
4. Diablo Cody-the writer behind Juno, Jennifer’s Body, Young Adult, and the creator of the Showtime series United States of Tara.
When Diablo Cody got sick of her day job, she quit and started a blog. To make ends meet, and possibly to have something interesting to blog about, she worked as an exotic dancer. The blog went on to garner the attention of a movie producer who recommended Cody turn the blog into a memoir.
Once Cody had a book deal, execs asked to read her coming-of-age screenplay, the script that would become Juno. “I feel much more naked as a writer than I did as a stripper,” she said. “When I was stripping I felt pretty emotionally neutral because it wasn’t a massive event in my life. But when I watch Juno there are bits I can only watch through my fingers because I cringe at how personal it is.”
3. Charlie Kaufman-best known for his screenplays: Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Anomalisa.
After writing spec articles for National Lampoon, Kaufman went on to write for Get a Life, a sitcom about a thirty-year-old paper boy.
The show ran for two seasons. In one episode written by Kaufman, Chris Elliot builds a “time travel drink” from, among other items, a Time magazine, a model of Stonehenge, and a lock of Michael J. Fox’s hair.
Kaufman would go on to write for television for nearly a decade, including stints on many sketch shows like The Edge, The Dana Carvey Show, and others before finally convincing then-music video director, Spike Jones, to direct Being John Malkovich.
2. John Ridley– best known for his Academy Award Winning screenplay, 12 Years A Slave in addition to his work on Three Kings and the upcoming Jimi Hendrix biopic All Is By My Side.
He performed as an observational comic in the 90’s before getting his break into television where he would write for shows like “Martin” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” One of the greatest gifts from working on sitcoms, was meeting his wife, a script coordinator.
“She was gracious enough to read everything I wrote and when she thought it was ready she’d put smiley faces at the end and I knew that it was job done,” he said, thanking her from the podium at the Oscars.
- James Gunn-the writer/director of 2014’s mega blockbuster hit, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as the cult films Slither and Super.
When James Gunn interviewed for a summer job at Troma Studios, he thought he would be filing papers. Instead he landed a gig rewriting Lloyd Kaufman’s long-in-development screenplay, Tromeo and Juliet, for a cool $150.
“When Lloyd read my first draft of TROMEO, I swear he didn’t have a single good thing to say. That night I lay in bed and wept,” Gunn recounted.
Still, Gunn doesn’t consider his first screenplay a failure. “I’m not sure ‘Tromeo’ ever really helped me get ahead in this business. But I learned about every phase of filmmaking, from pre-production through marketing the video. I wasn’t paid much, but I didn’t have to pay either, like I would at film school, and I think I learned a much more practical approach to the craft.”