Big Break Welcomes Newest Judge: Development Exec, Neil Thomas
May 6, 2020
Neil Thomas, TV executive for MRC Studios, wants a more diverse Hollywood. The TV development manager, who is of South Asian descent, uses his platform to uplift, embolden and champion diverse voices and writers in the industry. It's why he was the perfect fit to be a judge for Final Draft’s Big Break Screenwriting Contest®.
Thomas, who has been a development executive and manager for almost two years, signed on as a Big Break judge this year. He, along with 23 other Hollywood professionals, will be the final stop in the screenwriting contest, deciding who should win the various competition genres and prizes.
Thomas has read many scripts during his career and helped develop some popular television favorites, including HBO's The Outsider. He was also involved in the development of two new shows announced earlier this year, The Terminal List and The Shrink Next Door. Both series don't have a network or streaming service attached yet.
In his position, Thomas sources new content, including both intellectual property and original material. Once MRC has a show set up with a network, he, along with his team, assists in finding writers to staff the room.
When a script comes across Thomas's desk, there are a few key things he looks for, including structured character and story beats, multidimensional and dynamic characters, witty dialogue, and a unique voice.
"I notice writers who have a very distinct and authored voice," Thomas said.
"It could be an action script, rom-com, pure drama, thriller, whatever it may be; but for me, it's always enticing to see someone's distinct voice and personality in their script."
When reading, Thomas is looking for an inventive and imaginative plot.
"The scripts I respond to, whether it's a drama or comedy, have a very subversive feel to it; it feels like it's something that challenges the norm of whatever genre it's playing in."
Thomas himself has experienced a unique rise in Hollywood, where he began on the finance operations side. He attended the University of Southern California, where he studied international relations and global business. While in college, Thomas interned at Lionsgate on their international sales side. After graduation, he worked at Creative Artists Agency in their film finance group and as an analyst at Lionsgate until MRC hired him in corporate development and strategy. After about two years, he realized he wanted to be in a more creative role.
"When I worked in strategy I was working in Excel and on financial models and I liked it, but I found myself at the wee hours of the night picking up a book or a script and combing through it and seeing what notes and changes I had," Thomas explained.
"And I thought, ‘If I'm going to stay up late at night doing this, I think this is what I want to do.'"
When MRC had an opening in their TV development group, Thomas jumped at the chance to switch roles. He started as an assistant and worked his way up to an executive.
Thomas's process for finding and evaluating content differs, but some aspects stay the same. He typically reads a script twice. The first time, he wants to see how the text makes him feel. Then, he'll reread it, but this time with a closer eye to break it down.
"I break it down in various ways. I look at the characters, the story, plot, the dialogue, and I go through it within those buckets of themes. I figure out what I like about it and what I don't like about it, and that's how I construct the notes," Thomas said.
"Then, from there, I can drill into specific notes about what I think is working and not working."
Thomas's advice for writers? Keep writing.
"No one really knows what works in television," Thomas laughed.
He added that, “Anyone who says that they cracked something or they have the formula is probably wrong.”
"I think the most important advice for writers that I would give is to continue writing. Continue to have that work ethic. If you continue to write, write and write, you're just going to get better at it, and you'll find people along the way who believe in your vision and want to champion it."
Written by: Allison NorlianAllison Norlian is a three-time, Emmy-nominated journalist who has worked as a television reporter and anchor in markets around the country. She has covered a variety of stories from the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia to President Trump’s travel ban in the fourth circuit court of appeals. Allison has also won AP awards for her work and a Catalyst For Change award from the Arc of Virginia for her reporting on the disabled community. Allison just moved to Los Angeles with her screen writer husband and two cats and is excited for all LA has to offer!