Work Your Win: A catch up interview with Big Break winner Ben Johnson, Jr.
March 25, 2022
When television and film writer Ben Johnson Jr. found out he won Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest, he was thrilled but also hit with a sudden concern: How does he get from South Africa to Los Angeles? “It happened at the worst possible time for me,” Ben explained, “because financially we were in such a bad place. So, then I won and I was like, ‘Well, how am I supposed to get to the awards ceremony?’—which is a big part of it because of meeting people. One of the prizes is being introduced to managers and agencies and things like that, and that’s what I was after because I couldn’t rep myself. I couldn’t promote myself from Africa, but my strategy was if I could get a manager or agent, then that person could champion me.
“Nobody from South Africa has ever won a competition with the prestige of Big Break, so that was huge,” he said. “But then came this problem: How do I get to LA?”
He continued, “I started a GoFundMe and people are amazing—I mean, absolute strangers. Within two weeks, I had the money to go. It was just the most kind, phenomenal thing and I’ll never forget it.”
At the Final Draft Awards, Ben got the red carpet treatment and was ecstatic to watch 2020’s Hall of Fame Award recipient Quentin Tarantino give an inspirational speech. However, his most significant takeaway would later come from Final Draft’s Brand & Marketing Manager, Kala Guess.
“Everybody that I met was just amazing,” Ben said. “Kala especially went out of her way to make me feel welcomed.”
”Just being able to attend the award ceremony, to listen to Quentin Tarantino… and just to be sitting a few feet from him was like a dream come true.”
Fittingly, Ben and the other Big Break winners were treated to lunch at an iconic location from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: the legendary Musso & Frank Grill. This is where Kala Guess gave Ben and the other writers some advice that has stuck with him. As he sat with agents, companies and Kala, he received the true opportunity of Big Break.
“‘This is such an awesome thing and congratulations, guys. But understand that the win only gives you an opportunity. You have to work your win,’” Ben recalled Kala saying. “And it was something about her saying those words, ‘work your win,’ that settled deep in my heart and mind, and I thought ‘I’ve got to make the most of this opportunity.’”
“It’s not about the awards night and people seeing you and clapping and walking the red carpet, but what happens after that,” he added. “What do I do with this bit of leverage that’s been given to me? And a lot of people had said to me, ‘It’s not always the winners that end up having a successful career. It’s people that really want it and pursue it.’”
“That’s what I took to heart and that’s what I did,” he said.
“So while I was in LA, I phoned people that I had met at the lunch and tried to make as many appointments as I could to chat with people and tried to get them to read my screenplay. And that really paid off for me,” he said. “I probably had about six meetings in the first week. I just jam-packed them.”
Ben said he continued to set up meetings with people in the industry. Finally, one of the other Big Break winners set him up with their manager, Plain Text Lit, and was introduced to Mark Finley.
“The moment he walked in the first thing he said to me was, ‘I love your script. I love your writing. I absolutely love it.’ And the moment he said that to me kind of confirmed that this is a person that I should be involved in because he’s excited about me and he’s excited about my writing,” Ben shared.
After Ben returned South Africa, Plain Text Lit management signed him, taking him one step closer to creating the career trajectory he had been hoping to create when he entered the Big Break contest.
“It’s been such a fruitful relationship since then,” Ben said. “I feel like I made the right choice and I have the right manager. So that was great.”
Ben also mentioned that he was also on the lookout for a fellowship. However, being new to screenwriting presented challenges to making that happen.
“I was very unsuccessful,” he said. “I had tried three or four times from South Africa. And that’s why I went for Big Break because one of the prizes was a fellowship with the New York Film Academy. So, when I did that, I went in like all out. I worked super, super hard. Number one because I always feel like I’m behind everyone and I always feel that, I always have this thing in the back of my mind, because I latched onto screenwriting quite late in life. I don’t have a film degree or anything like that. It’s just something I fell in love with. So I constantly have this drive that I need to catch up, I need to make sure that I’m there. I took a hold of that and I learned so much.”
“It was such an amazing journey for me,” Ben said. “We workshopped one of my pilots and one of my features, so I got the best of both worlds. It gave me double the work to do, but at the same time, I got double the benefit. So that was something that was really a dream come true for me:
“Coming from [the South African] industry, I didn’t understand how [Hollywood] worked, what they were looking for, how to pitch properly, and this really, really, really boosted me,” he continued.
Immediately after winning Big Break, Ben experienced a career boost and was hired as the head writer for a South African adaptation of the Ugly Betty television series. In addition, Ben also scored work for several other regional projects, but it was finally landing an international writing job that proved to be his biggest achievement yet:
“I got a call from a writer in South Africa saying, ‘Listen, one of the ex-directors of BBC’s Doctor Who is looking for somebody to write a screenplay, but he wants somebody from Africa because it’s an African story,’” he recalled. “We hit i-t off, so I got hired to do that job.”
“I’m quite excited because I had done some work in Southern Africa,” he said. “I was hired to write a show for Nigeria which ended up on Netflix, but I wanted to crack borders. Big Break had opened the door to that first international job. I’m getting paid in dollars and things like that has really made a difference.”
This project has since lead to other international projects Ben is currently working on, but he knows it’s essential to keep on pushing himself and he hopes to one day be a showrunner for a premiere streamer.
“If I can get there in the future,” Ben said, “that’s where I really, really want to be because I love television.”
Ben and his manager have a game plan to reaching that goal and they appear to be moving in the right direction: Step by step and with a lot of hard work. Like Ben said, he always viewed winning Big Break as a means rather than a goal, and he thinks others should do the same.
“You may win something but then what are you going to do with it?” he questioned. “I know people who have won [screenwriting contests] who are in the same position that they were when they won. They have not leveraged that win into anything. The win will give you opportunities, but what are you going to do with your opportunities? And I’m just one of those people that I grind, I just grind. I don’t regard myself as the most talented writer—there are far more talented writers than me—but you’ll have to go a very long way to find a harder working writer than me.”
Ben has truly adhered to the “Work Your Win” philosophy, and thus far it’s been taking his career to new and well-earned heights.
Written by: Edwin CannistraciEdwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.