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A Profile: Jim Jennewein

movies and-tv


Fordham University


A Profile: Jim Jennewein

We talked to a successful screenwriter about making it big in Hollywood


You may not know his name, but there is no doubt he shaped your childhood. With writing credits on kid-classics such as The Flintstones (1994) and Richie Rich (1994), Jim Jennewein most definitely made you wish you had a McDonald’s and rollercoaster in your house.

And if you’ve never seen Macaulay Culkin’s prolific portrayal of the richest kid on earth then I’m sorry you didn’t get to have a real childhood.

Jennewein, who now teaches his craft at Fordham, speaks with The Rival for a discussion on making it in Hollywood as a screenwriter.

When did you first realize you wanted to become a screenwriter?

I started out as an artist, as a painter. But I really loved movies even when I was in high school. I made films all through high school. When I was in college, I was getting a BFA and I was a painter, but I also continued to make films in college.

It was about sophomore or junior year where I started feeling that there was something missing from painting...that writing stories was more satisfying, and I could go deeper into exploring human nature and storytelling. I was really drawn to that.

I finally decided I was either going to move to New York and try to be a painter, or go to LA and try to be in the movies.

I had a friend who had a job with a movie producer in L.A., so we made a plan: “Come to LA and we’ll figure out how to write movies.”

So I started as a painter who made films, and then discovered in making films, “I think I like story. I think I really love story.” I love creating a narrative journey - that’s what I fell in love with.

How did you go about making that dream a reality?

I had to teach myself how to write a movie. I read scripts. This was back in the dark ages before the internet, where it was really hard to get your hands on screenplays. They weren’t mainstream.

I was lucky, I was in a writer’s group. One of the writers that I meant and became friends with ended up becoming my roommate and he was a reader with all the major studios.

He would always bring scripts home after working all day.

I would read all these scripts that were being written by writers who had deals with major studios. That was my grad school.

I was reading screenplays of films from the Paramount vaults. He wasn’t even supposed to let me read them.

As I tell my students in class, it was really about reading as many screenplays as possible and looking at the engineering of them. It started to teach me about structure and form, and how to create subtext and dialogue. It taught me how to make moments count, how to build moments, how to build a scene, what tension is, and how to orchestrate it, how to escalate tension and complexity, and how to escalate stakes as you go deeper into the story.

How long was it between the time you moved to LA and the time you sold your first screenplay?

It was about 13 years...10 years? Yeah, it was 13 years.

And the first screenplay you sold was Stay Tuned?

Stay Tuned.

Was that the first screenplay you had written?

No. I had written two or three other full screenplays, and I had written a lot of treatments along the way, and co-written things, and I had tried to write a novel that was a complete mess that I never finished. I had tried to write things, and I had successfully written some things that had never gotten anywhere.

How did you support yourself while trying to get your break in screenwriting?

I moved into advertising, and became a copywriter, and that’s how I made my living. Because I did that, I became friends with another copywriter, Tom Parker. He wanted to be a screenwriter as well, and he had been writing scripts on his own, and I had been writing scripts on my own, so we would exchange material every once in awhile.

We’d get together for lunch, or for beer in the evening, talk story, and help each other with our scripts.

With another advertising friend of ours, we wrote and produced a parody issue of the advertising trade magazine, Ad Week. We called it Mad Week. We duplicated the exact look of the trade magazine, and wrote all these really funny / spoofy stories about the advertising business, and we sent it to all the advertising agencies around the country and hand delivered it all over LA on April Fool’s Day in 1989. It was huge hit. We got interviewed in the New York Times.

We did it because we thought it would help us get jobs in advertising. It did get us a lot of interviews, but it didn’t really lift us that high up. What it did do, however, is that it awakened Tom and I to the fact that we collaborated really well. After that we looked at each other and said, “we did this spoof issue. We should write a movie together.”

How did it you get it sold?

We really believed in the story and we spent an entire year and two months working on three different drafts of the screenplay. And we had many smart people read it. I went to the one friend I had who had some film experience as a successful screenwriter, and he read it and was happily surprised. Long story short, he called three different agencies - a large one, a medium sized one, and a small one. He said, “my friend wrote this script I think you should read it.”

I hand delivered the scripts to those agents, and then we didn’t hear anything. For two weeks we didn’t hear anything, so then I started calling back the assistants to the assistants of agents.

So even though it had come in with a recommendation, people still hadn’t read it.

Finally it was like three and a half weeks or four weeks later, a super junior assistant at the smallest agency, told me, “oh yeah, that script...I’lll read it tonight.”

That was on Monday. On Tuesday, he had his boss read it. On Wednesday, I get a call from this junior agent saying, “I read your script. I loved it. I think we can sell it, and we want to represent you. On Thursday we got that agent. On friday, they sold the script for a ton of money. On Saturday, we quit our jobs. And on Monday, we had meetings at all the major studios.

Was there any point in your career in advertising where you thought, “I might not make it as a screenwriter.”

Completely. Yeah. Most of the time.

As a Fordham professor, what’s the one mistake you think young writers make most often?

They just don’t work hard enough. They think that it’s easier than it looks, or they think that everything they write is great.

They’re not disciplined enough. And that’s a natural result of just being young and inexperienced, so you don’t know really how high the bar is yet because you haven’t read enough scripts. You haven’t internalized the level of craft by reading scripts and writing stories. Sometimes people just don’t yet understand the real depth of quality that needs to be woven into a story.

Would you say it’s easier to break into Hollywood now, or when you got your first big break?

I think that it’s easier now in some senses and harder in others. I think it’s easier now because the tools of creativity are really available to anybody. Not just screenwriting software. I really mean there’s all these books, and you can get MFA’s in screenwriting, and there’s so much more knowledge that’s acquirable now.

Also with the digital revolution, you can create your own work. You can shoot your own movies. You can write and shoot your own little shorts or your own little web series. You can demonstrate your creative abilities to people and distribute them to the world and build a fanbase, while writing original material to try to attract agents managers and buyers. That’s a major marketing tools that didn’t exist ten or twenty years ago.

Because of the explosion of what I guess is still called television -- with so many series on the air and streamable, there is so much more buying going on than ever before which is really good for writers.

So how is it harder?

There’s more people trying to do it. It’s a little harder now because very often selling something takes a lot more work now. Studios don’t buy as many scripts as they used to unless they have elements attached. Which means the script has to be great, but it also has to have a director attached to it that they think can do a great job, and even a star that works for the part. Your people [agents] have to move it [your script] around town and get a director or a star...or both attached, or even some production money committed to it.

There are still spec scripts that do sell. Not as many as when I came up. There was just a window of time in the business where there had been a writer’s strike and there was a lack of material at the studios and for a period of five or ten years there was a really robust market in spec scripts. Not so much anymore. There’s more expectation on the writer.

With that in mind, what would your advice be to a young writer trying to break into the industry today?

Think original. Have something interesting and fresh to say. Make your story emotionally relatable and gripping in some way. Make us care. Make us turn the page.

So in other words, don’t try to write for an expectation of what you think Hollywood is.

Yes. don’t try to chase market trends. Don’t try to write what you think other people want. Write what you’re passionate about. Write what excites you. But discipline yourself to make sure your stories are as fresh and original and alive as they can be. And if it excites you, it will probably excite someone else.

Prof Jim will be hosting the annual Screenplays Live! event this year in the Blackbox. Come celebrate the creativity of our screenwriting students as student actors perform a live staged reading of their film & TV works in progress. Comedy. Drama. Zombie Apocalypse films. You'll hear them all! RH Wednesday, April 5 (5:30-7PM) & LC Friday, April 7 (6-8PM)