Writing Science Fiction: Spotlight On Jon Spaihts

Are you writing science fiction screenplays? Then listen up.

In 2006 John Spaihts sold the first script he ever wrote, Shadow 19.

His next script, Passengers, placed near the top of the 2007 Black List.

Eventually, he wrote the script for Prometheus and became one of the hottest writers in the genre of science fiction.

Writing Science Fiction Successfully: How did Jon Spaihts do it?

Build A Fan Base Of Decision-Makers

After selling Shadow 19 and gaining notoriety for Passengers, Jon Spaihts was a hot commodity and had a lot of people interested, but struggled to find work.

I took meetings for more than a year, and everyone was incredibly complimentary, everyone was flattering, engaged, keen to work with me, eager to be in the Jon Spaihts business, and then I went more than a year without getting a job. Most of them were never going to be jobs, even on their best day. They’re just people getting to know you — seeing what you’re like and what it’s like to talk to you.

You have to adjust yourself to that notion and realize that you’re building a constituency; you’re meeting everyone, you’re learning what it’s like to talk to these people, and they’re learning what it’s like to talk to you. If things go well, you’re building a fan base. I actually think it’s a very important point in your career.

In a very real way, when I did start getting jobs, to some extent I owed them to whatever pitch I made in the room that day, to my take on the story, and then to some extent to the reputation I accumulated just by chatting with people.” (via Filmmakermagazine.com)

Jon Spaihts understood a key point about general meetings: most of them will not result in a job. However, by focusing on building rapport and gathering information (Stages 2 and 3 of the meeting), he was able to keep these meetings productive and stay on the minds of decision-makers.

Demonstrate Expertise

One way Spaihts impressed decision-makers was by demonstrating his expertise.

I read science fiction and fantasy voraciously for the first 16 years of my life. I read a lot of classic Cold War science fiction, which is much of the best science fiction, so I speak the language well, which is a commodity that’s not easy to come by in Hollywood. The science fiction I write comes from a pretty deep pool of literature, not just from the reflection of other science fiction films, and I think that gives me somewhat deeper roots.” [via Collider.com]

Work In One Genre (For A While)

For emerging writers, the genre of the first screenplay you sell is critical because it impacts what genre you’ll be expected to write in for the next several years.

Because I sold a big science fiction epic, it was easier to get in the door talking science fiction the next time. And then, you sell a second, a third and a fourth, and pretty soon, people say that that’s what you do. But, I love these stories and I love writing them, so I’m happy to follow the path of least resistance because it goes to a place I enjoy. Down the road, when I’m more firmly established as a writer, I am sure that I’ll exercise that liberty to write more broadly.”

Remember, the best time to sell your second project is right after you sell your first, and the best time to sell your third screenplay is right after you sell your second.  So if you have a lot of material stockpiled in the same genre, your first sale can quickly lead to other sales.

Seize The Moment

After working on several sci-fi assignments, Jon Spaihts had a career-changing meeting at Scott Free, Ridley Scott’s production company.

As is often the case in general meetings we shot the breeze about a lot of different possibilities. They owned the rights to certain books, they wanted to rewrite certain movies. Late in the meeting, they said that Ridley had been thinking for a long time about returning to the Alien universe and they asked whether I had any ideas.

I hadn’t been asked to prepare anything for the meeting or really thought about it before but I talked for maybe 45 minutes and when I was done I had outlined a story, main characters, set pieces, a mythology and sort of fleshed it out in the room. Something like ten days later, I was sitting in a room with Ridley Scott and the co-chairs of 20th Century Fox, and we were doing a deal.”

Subsequent to the success of Prometheus, Spaihts has become an emerging go-to name for sci-fi and fantasy. His current in development projects include a reboot of The Mummy franchise and an adaptation of World War Robot for Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

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Discussion About Writing Science Fiction: Spotlight On Jon Spaihts

  1. William Xifaras

    Building a fan base of decision makers is perhaps one of the most trying accomplishments. Building trust with decision makers takes time, something many of us ignore. Hats off to John for his success. Thank you for sharing his story with us.

    Stephanie, I honestly can’t say enough about your book, Good in a Room. Each night I’ll read a couple of chapters off of my Kindle. It’s the perfect end of my day. High level pitching rarely crossed my mind previous to reading your book. Now it’s an ambition.

  2. PRESIDENT MAO

    After watching the fiasco that was Prometheus, it is clear that writing a good script is not a requirement for success in this town.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      I think a lot of people would agree that Prometheus wasn’t as good as they were expecting. However, let’s be fair–watching the movie isn’t the same thing as reading the script. Here are a couple articles which address these differences:

      -http://collider.com/prometheus-script-damon-lindelof/
      -http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/opinions/the-8-worst-parts-of-prometheus-explained-in-the-original-script-jsarg.php

  3. JC Mercer Jr.

    Way to go Jon Spaihts!

  4. Derek Short

    Wow! Great story! I hope that I can succeed like that. Science-fiction is one of my favorite genres and I loved “Prometheus”. Congratulations!