Rising Through the Ranks: Jonathan Barger
May 21, 2020
Jonathan Barger has only been in Los Angeles for six years. Still, since the move he’s optioned an original script, been hired by a production company to do a rewrite, and had a management company attach itself to a feature he co-wrote. It may seem like luck was on the 37-year-old's side; but hard work, perseverance and education helped Barger get to where he is today. He’s been hustling since he decided midway through studying design and architecture in college that he wanted a career in film.
Barger, an Austin, Texas native, attended The University of Texas at Austin with the intention to become an architect. But in his sophomore year — ironically, in one of his design classes — a professor Barger describes as a “cinema junkie” exposed the class to “unique and artistic” films. Films like Playtime, directed by Jacques Tati and The City of Lost Children, a french movie directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, ultimately inspired Barger to want something different for his future.
“They were production design-focused films, and they just blew my mind," Barger said.
“They were artistically engaging and satisfying and I was like, ‘I want to get on the artistic side of film.’”
But to change his major would mean starting from scratch; none of his architecture credits would count. Instead, Barger decided to take only film classes for his elective credits and get involved in what was a new graduate program at the time called Film Institute.
Film Institute was only in its second year, and it provided hands-on experience to students as they wrote, produced, directed and experienced a live production from beginning to end. Barger says the program catered to students who hoped to be directors, writers, producers and actors.
“I pitched the head of the program on wanting to build sets for his productions if he let me take the courses,” Barger said.
“So I built sets for them and spent a couple of semesters working on student shorts from the art department, which was a fantastic experience.”
Thinking outside the box helped Barger get a base understanding of the film and television industry. He graduated in 2007 and took a job at an architecture firm but still worked on the side in his passion — film. He was hired to do production design on a few shorts, which ultimately led to an offer to be an art director on a feature film being shot in Indiana.
“Coming off that film, I had two to three offers to work on productions but they were in Louisiana and New Mexico,” Barger said.
“I was looking at how much I had gotten paid for the last feature I did and made the practical decision to not abandon everything in Austin and to work a day job for a while.”
Barger left his job in architecture and moved into IT/consulting. When he wasn’t there, he was still working on shorts and indie films on nights and weekends. But realizing production design wasn’t a feasible or realistic career path in the short term, Barger decided to start writing — something he had always enjoyed but never thought to do professionally. It provided a creative outlet and still allowed him to work full-time outside of the industry.
In 2009, Barger decided to enter his first original feature into the Austin Film Festival. It didn’t win; but it passed various rounds, encouraging Barger to think he might have some natural talent. He entered a few more scripts in following years that didn’t place as high as his first. This made him realize he needed more education in the art of screenwriting.
“I devoured everything I could about writing, and I got rid of all my other hobbies and spent every minute of my life writing when I wasn’t working my consulting job,” Barger said.
Then in 2014, Barger and his wife decided it was now or never: The pair moved to Los Angeles so Barger could try to live out his newfound dream of being a professional screenwriter. After the move, Barger was cranking out scripts and attending every screenwriting workshop, meeting and event.
In 2017, he attended a pitch fest (basically, speed dating for people in film). It was a weekend event where attendees had only a couple of minutes to pitch their movie idea to a dozen or so executives out of about 200 that were in attendance. It led to life-changing events for Barger, who received his first general meetings and real contacts in the industry.
Then in 2018 one of Barger's scripts, Station Zero, became a quarter-finalist in the Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest®. He didn’t advance beyond quarter-finals, but the competition sent his logline to various industry professionals. Zorg Studios, a company based in Paris, bought the rights and optioned the script. It was Barger’s first time as a paid professional writer. It would completely change every conversation for him moving forward.
“Everyone I talked to and had meetings with before, when I followed up and told them someone paid me for an option deal for a script, they were like, 'Oh, why don't you come into the office and talk to us again,?’” Barger said, laughing.
In the same year, Barger was commissioned to do a rewrite for another script. And then another feature Barger co-wrote was picked up by Zero Gravity Management, an entertainment company that attached itself to production.
Barger has advice for future screenwriters that he received and, he says, helped him along the way: Use social media like Twitter to follow screenwriters and industry professionals. According to Barger, there are a lot of people online who are generous with their knowledge and wisdom.
Barger also decided to “pigeonhole” himself, meaning he chose a genre and writes strictly in that space.
“Before moving out here, I wasn’t just a horror writer. But since moving out here, I am an unabashed horror obsessive,” Barger said.
“I focus entirely on horror now because I want to be the guy who is easy to sell to someone else. It’s a lot easier to say, ‘I write horror and here is why I love it,’ than being like, ‘I have a comedy, action, etc. script.’ It’s just a lot less easy to sell.”
Despite his success, Barger hasn’t obtained representation; proving that everyone’s path in Hollywood is unique and that there is no one way to become a professional screenwriter.
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!