Industry Pro: Writer-Showrunner I. Marlene King
Writer I. Marlene King initially broke in as a screenwriter, selling pitches and then writing the script, and spent some time in “development hell” before having a film produced. Her early days of filmmaking involved collaboration with an established actress, a process which, for her, proved to be highly instructive and rewarding. Crossing over to television has also proven to be hugely rewarding. A great meeting with some network executives has turned into her dream job on a show which has become must-see TV for a certain demographic. Her story is one of paying her dues, doing the work, and being prepared when the right opportunity comes along. Read on for details…
Current position or projects: Head Writer, Executive Producer & Showrunner (with Oliver Goldstick) on ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars.”
College & degree: Pepperdine University, BA with a major in Broadcasting
What inspired you to want to be a writer and/or to be in entertainment? From the time I was twelve or thirteen years old, I knew I wanted to do something involving television or movies. In college, I had an amazing writing teacher, Marilyn Becker. It was a broadcast writing class. She truly inspired me to embrace the process and, during my sophomore year of college, I knew I wanted to write movies.
Did you have a pre-entertainment career? No. When I graduated, I got a part-time job (in the LA sales office of a manufacturing company) and wrote a lot of scripts. About three years into it, I optioned my first one. So that’s how I got into the business.
What was the project you optioned that got you started? At the time, I had a writing partner, Roger Kumble. (He’s gone on to have a lot of success as a writer and director on his own.) We wrote a spec called SOME ENCHANTED EVENING that got optioned to Disney. We then spent a year rewriting it. It didn’t get made, but it was definitely a great introduction to the business. There is a writer/producer named Jim Kouf who mentored us on that project. We went to his ranch in Montana and spent two weeks with him. He was really kind and generous and taught us how to interpret studio notes and really become professional writers.
Over the course of three years, Roger and I sold and optioned about ten projects together. None of those movies got made, but we were constantly coming up with pitches, mostly for comedies and romantic comedies. We had great success at setting up two or three a year at various studios. We sort of became a product of development hell on every one of those ideas, but we were gainfully employed for three or four years. That was our big learning curve on how to find our voices and be writers and we were fortunate enough to get paid at the same time.
I then wrote a spec on my own called NOW AND THEN, which was the first feature I wrote that got made. That was a big turning point in my career. I had gone out there on a limb by writing it on my own, not setting it up a pitch. The script fell into the hands of Demi Moore, who fell in love with it and decided to produce it and it really took off after that.
So would you consider that your big break? Yes. Definitely. I went on to write several movies for Demi. We had a great collaboration for many years and that was definitely a turning point in my career.
What the best piece of career advice you ever got? There’s a manager named David Kanter, who was then an agent at UTA where I was represented. He told me to write characters that actors would want to play, that at the end of the day, the way you got your movies made was attaching great talent to them. I never forgot that and it’s proven to be true.
So after your collaboration with Demi, what was the next phase of your career? I concentrated on features for quite a while and was fairly successful at that. Then I had two kids and I really concentrated on them for probably five years. I decided to take a chance on television and I had my agents send me on a couple of general meetings. I had one with the executives at ABC Family and the next day, they sent over a book called “Pretty Little Liars.” I fell in love with it. I read it without putting it down and I called them and asked them to please send over the next book (in the series). I met with them several days later. I sort of got in through the back door that way. Normally, you would meet with the producer, which was Alloy Entertainment, and then the studio and then the network, but I had a meeting of the minds with the network and they hired me right off the bat and then I met with the producer and the studio and thank god we all got along.
What would you consider your eureka moment? I think for me, “Pretty Little Liars” was a huge eureka moment. It was the first thing I’d done since I wrote NOW AND THEN that I just had joy writing. I had a smile on my face the whole time I was writing that script. It just felt so right and so organically perfect. It was the right book, the right material, the right sensibility for what I knew how to do almost effortlessly.
I don’t want to say it was just a case of being in the right place at the right time, because you have to be prepared to be in the right place at the right time, but I think finding this source material that was so true to my sensibilities and working with a network that is so in line with my sensibilities and finding an audience that is so in line with my sensibilities. It just felt like a win-win situation and it’s turned out to be true.
Describe a typical work day in your current position. I get to work anywhere between six and nine in the morning. I get home between eight and ten at night. It’s sort of non-stop. I write and then I’m on the stage producing. I am involved with every facet of the show being made. It’s a lot of balls in the air, a lot of juggling. But I just get this adrenaline going from the time I drive onto the Warner Brothers lot until the time I leave. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a very full day.
Worst job (or day) in entertainment industry: I can describe my worst day. It was when I was partnered with Roger Kumble. We had written SOME ENCHANTED EVENING on spec, the one which we eventually got set up. It was packaged with Arnold Schwarzenegger. This was at the time when he was doing those fun comedies. We met with Arnold and we were so excited. We were sure we were going to make a million dollars. And the script went out and I remember getting calls from our agent every half hour. “Well, Warner Brothers passed… Paramount passed.” I think I had told my parents we’d arrived, we jumped ahead so fast. And the script was passed on by every studio. We were devastated. Our expectations were so high. I think it took about two months for Disney to option that script. But it was a devastating day for us. Since then, I have never had any kind expectations whatsoever. Lesson learned on that day.
Best job (or day) in entertainment industry: Best job is the job I have now. Creating and producing “Pretty Little Liars” is completely rewarding. This is a first for me to work in television. I’ve been working with these people for a little over a year, the same group, and we have become a family. Spending this time with these people is remarkably rewarding, and becoming truly good friends is a special experience. You don’t get that on movies because it’s so temporary. So this is definitely the best job and the icing on the cake is that people are watching it and enjoying it and that’s it’s successful.
So would you say the best thing about your current job is the people? I really think it is about the people. We have new directors constantly who come through every other week, and we get such amazing feedback on what a special sort of group we are. We are ‘the little show that could.’ We don’t have a lot of money. We produce our shows in seven days, not ten or fourteen like some of the bigger budget shows. So we are lean and we’ve become this special sort of family.
Worst thing about your current job: The lack of time I get to spend with my family. That’s definitely it. Your life as an Executive Producer on a TV show becomes very isolated. That’s probably why the relationships at work become so important. Ninety percent of your waking hours are spent with these people.
Brush with greatness (can be a celebrity encounter or just being exposed to someone being brilliant at what they do): When I first worked with Demi, I understood her insight, that specialness she had that helped to make her so successful. She had an energy level I’d never seen before. And I can honestly say when you spent time with her, she elevated you to that energy. You are inspired by her constant focus on creating and being a creative person. That was very inspirational and I learned a lot from her.
Secret of your success/advice to the newbie: Never give up. I wrote ten screenplays before I made a penny on any of them. You continue to get better as you write something. Just write.
Next move: Hopefully, I’ll be here producing this show for several years, but I would love to produce a second show for the people I’m working with now and do two at a time. That would be incredibly challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. I want to keep doing more of what I’m doing. And I’m also trying to develop a movie with Alloy Entertainment. They are the people who created the book series, “Pretty Little Liars,” and they have a lot of amazing book series. I’d love to work with them again, too.
Know anyone who could use an entertainment industry insider? Encourage them to sign up on the YII home page to receive our Mogul Mindset eBlasts today!