Creating a hit television show is not an easy feat, but successful birthing two hit shows makes you somewhat of a creative writing genius, and that’s exactly what Jeff Davis has done.
In this I Am Entertainment exclusive, Jeff shares how one comes up with shows like CRIMINAL MINDS and MTV’s TEEN WOLF, and why he chose writing for television over film.
Where are you from and what led to your interest in a career in the film business?
I’m from Connecticut and I started writing in high school. I used to say if I had a social life I probably wouldn’t be a writer. [laughs] I started by writing short stories and even a novel in high school. I remember clicking away on the keyboard of an old Brother Word Processor that my step-father bought me. When I began screenwriting I started reading William Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” a book every screenwriter should read. That really inspired me to start writing scripts. Also, like Quentin Tarantino, I worked in a video store and I was able to
get every movie I could get my hands on for free. I watched everything that I could find. I went to USC for grad school and got my Master’s in screenwriting. I started out in the film world and gravitated toward TV because I was getting a little frustrated with the development process. There’s so much more power to be had in TV for writers and it’s a very different universe from film.
What was your first job in the film business and how did you land that opportunity?
For other writers, I would definitely recommend they write as much as they can, as often as they can. Don’t worry so much about selling a script, but be more concerned with writing a great story. I remember coming out to LA and one of my first jobs was as a script reader for a production company at FOX. I would read scripts all the time and do coverage on them. I would think to myself, “How in the world did this writer get representation? These scripts are terrible.” [laughs] What people don’t know is that Hollywood is yearning, dying for a good script. If you spend more time on how you’re going to craft a great story and a script that keeps the reader turning the pages, the rest is pretty easy.
Funny story, I remember 12 years ago while I was at USC grad school, I read a script that I had gotten off the internet and I tore through it. I had heard that this writer/director had sold this script for $3 million. That script was The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan. A year later the movie came out and it was a blockbuster hit. If you read a script like that and you can’t put it down, there’s no way that script isn’t going to sell or get made. So as a writer if you write a script that people can’t stop reading and they have to know how it’s going to end, then that script is going to sell.
I wrote a script and got it optioned through a small production company and I got very little money to do a rewrite but that was my first step. A lot of writers read about the million dollar sales and it doesn’t really happen that way. Even when there’s a big sale that’s $500,000 for a script, the writer actually only gets about $40,000 for the option on the script and then maybe another $36,000 to rewrite it and then you get what’s called a production bonus which is the large check of around $300,000. But they don’t cut you that check until principal photography has started. So there are a lot of steps along the way.
How were you able to get your first literary representation?
I got my first manager by entering a screenwriting contest. One of the managers was a reader for the contest and she called me up afterwards and said, “Hey I read your script and I’d like to read more.” I then got another manager by applying for an assistant job. They said, “We don’t want you as an assistant but we heard you write screenplays and we’d like to read your work.” Those are the managers I’ve been with for the longest time now. They’re called Magnet Management. I also think a lot of writers need to be out in L.A. This is where you’ll meet the people who will read your script and get it to the decision makers.