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From Concept to Congratulations: The Big Break Journey

March 25, 2020
5 min read time

Todd Goodlett has been “on cloud nine” since finding out that his original script, The Arsonist’s Handbook, was Final Draft’s Big Break 2019 TV Grand Prize Winner. A feat, he says, he once never imagined, and that has already taken him to places of his wildest dreams. 

The road to cloud nine began in 2015 with an idea prompted from reality. Goodlett’s fascination with arson investigation began with his brother, a firefighter. While researching, Goodlett came across a story about a former arson investigator for the Glendale Fire Department, who was accused of arson for allegedly starting over 2,000 fires between 1984 and 1991. The story began to percolate in his head; the next step was putting pen to paper.

With nothing but a few ideas, Goodlett began jotting down notes on index cards, which ultimately led to the story outline. The outline typically informs the first draft of the script. Yet, when Goodlett started writing, he decided to take the story in an entirely new direction—uprooting his original narrative idea—and ultimately starting from scratch. 

“After I finished the first draft, I submitted the script to friends for feedback,” says Goodlett. “I wrote a new draft based on their notes, then I submitted the second draft to a different set of friends and just kept repeating that process over and over.” 

“At some point, I used a paid story consultant, Jen Grisanti, who helped improve the overall structure of the story tremendously.”

The first draft took Goodlett about a month to write, but his revisions persisted much longer. In May 2019, The Arsonist’s Handbook was complete. The final product, a story about a female fire investigator whose hunt for a deadly serial arsonist in Los Angeles threatens to expose her unhealthy obsession with fire.

But would other readers become immersed in the story, too? Goodlett decided to submit his script to the Final Draft Big Break screenwriting competition to find out.

“Big Break is one of those contests that I have on my calendar every year,” Goodlett admits. “It’s one of the most respected contests in the industry. The exposure it provides for the winners and finalists is unparalleled.”

After Goodlett hit the ‘submit’ button, entering his script through the Final Draft online store, director of the Big Break screenwriting competition, Kala Guess, assigned it to a reader.

“The script itself goes into a separate system that includes just the title and the script,” Guess says. “There is no personal identifying information about the writer because we need a blind read.”

Guess, who has been directing the script competition for four years, says there are between 30-40 competition readers this year, all who work in the industry and who have been adequately vetted by the Final Draft team. The readers, who include writers, script analysts, producers, etc., are auditioned for their screenwriting competency and to ensure diversity behind-the-scenes. They get assigned scripts based on their expertise and interests.

“We want our readers and judges to reflect the voices that are missing from the industry,” Guess says. “That’s important to Final Draft, and it’s important to Big Break.”

There are four rounds for a script to get through to succeed and each script is going up against thousands of other entries. Goodlett’s was one of approximately 8,000.

Each round, one person reads the script and provides a score based on a point system. The reader then decides whether to advance it or not. They base their decision on multiple facets of the script, including story, character, originality and execution. If the script makes it to the final round, two people will then read and evaluate it before passing it on. 

“Many scripts get knocked out in the first round because the first round is where we determine the scripts that… are not scripts,” Guess laughs.

“Round one is also a bit more lenient; the readers are looking to see if the writer understands screenwriting or if the idea or concept is relevant or has legs. Round two and beyond, they are looking more closely at granular details like character, arc, etc.”

Once a script has made it to the fourth round, it is in consideration for the ‘Top 3’ of its respective category genre. In the end, there will be a total of 33 scripts that qualify as category winners. 

For Goodlett, who entered The Arsonist’s Handbook in Big Break’s one-hour TV pilot drama category, discovering he made the Top 3 was exciting. But nothing could beat finding out he won right before the 2019 holiday break. 

“Kala sent me an email to let me know that I had won my category before the winter holidays, and it took a few hours for that to sink in,” Goodlett recalls.

After the announcement of the three category winners, Guess and three readers have what she calls a, “throw-down phone call,” to decide who of the top three in each genre category should win. After that decision is made, the winners have their scripts sent to Final Draft’s judges, a select group of managers, agents, development execs, TV coordinators, etc. The judges decide who will win the top two grand prizes; the overall for TV and feature. 

“Kala called me to give me the good news that I had won the grand prize for TV and I believe my first reaction was, ‘Are you sure?’” Goodlett laughs. “You know, imposter syndrome kicking in. After that, it took a lot of restraint not to scream in her ear.”

But the best part for many writers is that throughout the competition, it feels like they are winning before they’ve even won. Guess will periodically send script loglines to industry professionals, and often those industry insiders hope to meet the writer before they’ve won anything. 

Once a writer wins or advances to the Top 3 in their category, the advice, industry traction, and assistance from Final Draft and their connections seemingly never stops and only continues to get better. 

“Final Draft introduced me to managers and helped set up meetings before the awards ceremony. They also put me in touch with Lee Jessup, an industry career consultant. She was so helpful and prepared me for meetings, as well as the awards speech,” Goodlett says.

Lee Jessup is a screenwriting career coach who works with all Big Break finalists and winners. When a writer’s script wins a spot in the Top 3, part of their prize package includes advice and time with Jessup. She hosts a one-hour webinar for the finalists, where she coaches them on general meetings, calls and navigating the industry. Jessup’s primary goal is to help each writer learn how to capitalize on their placement. When a writer wins their category, Jessup provides one-on-one sessions with them to help them prepare even further.  

In addition to the big awards ceremony itself, held in mid-January, grand prize winners dine with a former grand prize winner for tips on how to capitalize on their win. On the morning of the ceremony, the winners have breakfast with Pen Densham, a British-Canadian film television producer, writer and director who helps them prepare for their acceptance speech. 

“The winners get on stage in front of 600 people and give a speech," Guess says. “Pen can ground them, center them, get them ready and provide confidence to get up there."

Following the breakfast is a luncheon where the winners get to meet the judges who chose them. 

In the evening, a limo picks the grand prize winners up at their hotel and takes them to Paramount Studio in Hollywood, where they walk the red carpet with the other category winners, fellow writers, celebrities, and industry professionals. The winners are interviewed on the carpet and then give their speeches at the Big Break ceremony, followed by a cocktail reception.

This year's speeches were given in front of industry greats, including Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Steven Canals (Pose), and Quentin Tarantino—all of whom received honors for their accomplishments in the industry. 

“It was a surreal experience. There were so many talented people in that audience, and I was so worried about my speech,” Goodlett says. “Normally, when you’re on stage speaking to a room of five hundred, you see the blur of an audience—but Tarantino was in the front row, and he has such an expressive face that I could see his reaction to everything I said. When he laughed at one of my jokes, the anxiety went away.”

Most importantly, after all the glitz and glamour is over, Big Break helps its writers further their careers. Since the competition, Goodlett has signed with agent Joel Millner at the Larchmont Literary agency.

“Since the contest, there’s been a flurry of meetings and so many people reading my script who would have never read it before. Final Draft set up lunches with very prominent people in the industry, such as [story editor] Christopher Lockhart,” Goodlett says.

While Goodlett continues down his path of success, the Final Draft Big Break competition is already gearing up for next year. They are hoping to crack 10,000 submissions and to find the next industry talent and success story.

The Final Draft Big Break is open to submissions now through July 30th, 2020. Is this your year? Enter here!

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