How to Work Your Win: Catching Up with 2020 Big Break Winner Ben Johnson Jr.
May 8, 2023
Writer Ben Johnson Jr. had a very specific goal when entering Final Draft’s Big Break – to get repped. “Because I live in South Africa, I knew I needed a manager or agent to champion me and my work in the American market,” he shares. “So I researched competitions that specifically had meetings with talent agents and managers as part of the prize package.”
He also sought out an affordable but prestigious competition that would open doors and look good on his CV. “Big Break ticked all the boxes, so I entered,” he says. Already a working writer in South Africa, Johnson Jr. entered the competition with his script, “Canaan,” which he believed was highly polished and written at a standard that could compete internationally. He was right – it nabbed the diversity category of the contest back in January 2020.
“My experience was fairytale-like, to be honest,” he says. “I was quite taken aback at how much support I received and how well the prizes were tailored to afford the writer every opportunity to move their career forward.”
However, he says, while Big Break gave him the opportunity to advance his career, he says stresses to people who ask about his experience that he still had to “work my win and make the most of the opportunity.”
For example, he reveals that out of all the winners, only a few of them made use of all the prizes. “I grabbed everything and made the time to maximize every lifeline,” he shares. “I took contact details at the networking functions and set up a bunch of meetings with reps. I completed the New York Film Academy Fellowship in both feature and TV. I used my consultation sessions with business consultant Lee Jessup. I inquired, I followed up, I listened to advice. I think that’s what made the difference.”
Johnson Jr. says his trajectory since winning the competition was a little different since he wanted to break into the American and overseas market. “So the key for me was putting my writing in front of eyes that mattered through the competition, and finding a rep. Once I was repped, people took me far more seriously.” After getting repped, his career started to take off, although it wasn’t automatic. “I had to learn about how the overseas industry operated and I had to carve out time and capacity to work on my own projects outside of the paid South African work I was doing,” he says.
His hard work has paid off. He’s currently finishing the final draft of a project with one of the directors of BBC’s Doctor Who. He’s also in the final draft stages of a second feature called, Calabash Diplomat, that received development funding from the U.S. and his third feature, River Run, is being shopped by his manager, with interest from some major studios and we have 2022 Oscar Winner, Troy Kotzur, attached as the lead. And if that wasn’t enough, Johnson Jr. was also hired by Netflix to create an original series for them of which he’s handwriting and runs the writers’ room.
As for his advice for those who are interested in entering the Big Break Contest, Johnson Jr. shares the following advice.
- “Be clear about what your goals are, and what you hope to gain by entering. That could be anything from landing a rep to simply taking the first, courageous step of putting your writing out into the world.”
- “Do your due diligence and make sure you enter your script in the most suitable category.”
- “You don’t have to win the grand prize or a category to gain value and move your career forward. A placing from quarter finals upward can do that for you.”
- “All that Big Break can do for you is give you an opportunity. You still have to work your win.”
- “Whatever you do, don’t enter a script that is anything less than polished and ready. Make sure you get professional notes and implement those notes. Go over your script with a fine tooth comb. When you’re competing against 8000+ writers, many of whom are experienced and professional, details matter.”
And while, of course, his career opportunities are a definite standout from his experience with Big Break, he says the highlight for him, “without a doubt, were the people I met on my trip to the awards ceremony like the other category winners and organizers. We have remained friends and they have been a constant source of encouragement and generosity. I regard them as family. They are what made my experience special. I was all alone, just a guy from Africa, feeling out of place in LA, and they made me feel like I belonged and deserved to be there. I am where I am in my career, because of them.”
Written by: Brianne HoganBrianne Hogan is a freelance writer currently based in Prince Edward Island. A film studies graduate from NYU, her byline's been featured in Creative Screenwriting, ScreenCraft, The Huffington Post, among others. "Jurassic Park" is unashamedly her favorite movie (at this moment). You can follow Brianne on Twitter via @briannehogan