Writer and Showrunner Greg Johnson on Breaking In and Staying In
When a writer breaks in, it's worth learning how. But when a writer breaks in and stays in—adding titles of producer, showrunner, and story editor to their credits—we dive in further to glean insights for our readers who strive to do the same.
Greg Johnson is a filmmaker and long-standing animation writer who has been a crucial contributor to the development and success of many beloved superhero franchises.
After being given his first "big break" by Bob Forward on the series Biker Mice from Mars, Greg went on to work many years as a writer on such Marvel series as "Wolverine and the X-Men" (co-created with Craig Kyle), "Ultimate Avengers," and "The Incredible Hulk," as well as Netflix's “Pacific Rim: The Black." He also wrote the screen story on Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow and Thor: Tales of Asgard and served as head writer, story writer, executive story editor, story by, and producer on "X-Men: Evolution."
Greg continues to give back to the next generation by making his knowledge and unique journey accessible to the emerging writer eager to find their own break.
Most writers stick to one career path, but yours has grown to include showrunning and producing. Did you always imagine this trajectory as part of your career? Do you think being a writer first made it harder or easier to produce and showrun?
Greg Johnson: When I started in animation writing, I had vague and, if I’m being honest, quite naïve ambitions of being a producer on the various shows I was writing for. Being a “producer” or “executive producer” or “showrunner” seemed to be an important position. But I didn’t truly understand what went into such a position, and if I’d been handed that responsibility back then, I would have done a horrible job.
I certainly had the creative vision as head writer (or Story Editor) on a project, but I was lacking the expertise needed to oversee all the steps to get from script to screen. I needed more than strong opinions. I needed experience. And to get that experience, I needed directors and producers willing to invite me into their process.
In the early days of my animation career, many of those directors and producers were too territorial to agree to such an open working relationship. Possibly because of bad encounters with prima donna writers or an ingrained history of departmentalizing. Whatever the reason, there were definite walls up between the writers and the rest of production. Over time, these walls have started to come down. And over the years, I’ve been more and more involved in the design, storyboard, voice recording, animatic, and music reviews, and getting to watch true professionals at work had helped me understand what kind of input was helpful and what kind was not.
My personal belief is that writers come with very important elements needed to be a good showrunner: organic insight into the story, characters, and theme. Not to say that others don’t come to the table with those same sensibilities, but the writer is typically the first to do so. From there, though, we must develop the skills and earn the wisdom needed to lead others to share in a singular vision, and that’s when you can call yourself a good showrunner.
Every produced writer has a unique story of how they managed their first big break. Could you relay that story and perhaps add a word of advice to other writers still looking for that opportunity?
Johnson: What can be frustrating about trying to get into this business is that there is no roadmap to follow. No application to fill out. No college degree that guarantees you a spot. What works for one person may not work for another. I also think that the “big break” often comes in the form of smaller, sometimes imperceptible “micro breaks.” It’s a mistake to overlook those.
Overblown expectations can lead to disappointment. Refusing to work as a production assistant because you’re a “writer” will mean missed opportunities. And if a writer thinks their material is superb and everyone who criticizes it is an idiot, those micro breaks will feel like insults, and you’ll inevitably turn your back on them.
“Writer’s write” is an oft-said truism, but I firmly believe it is the very foundation for becoming a successful writer. Paid or not, we write because we can’t not write. We learn to channel our imaginations onto the page in ways that allows others to clearly envision it.
My advice: get all your cringy writing out of the way early on so your own authentic style can start to form. And the only way to do that is to finish one script and start another. None of them are precious but all of them are important. It’s exercise on the treadmill.
Ultimately, you’ll end up with good spec scripts. Because, at the end of the day, your goal is to get it read by someone in a position to hire or recommend you, and you want it to be as professional and as engaging as possible. Also, spec scripts have a short shelf life. File them away once they’ve made the rounds, and always have fresh material to hand out.
A quick mention about spec scripts. It is good to have one based on an existing show and one based on your own idea. However, based on my experience, avoid showing your ‘existing show’ script to the people actually producing that show. All they’ll see is where you got it wrong. Take that for what it’s worth.
My particular journey involved getting to know a story editor who was willing to read my sample. He saw enough ability in that sample to let me pitch on the show he was doing. One of my pitches got approved, and I went through the premise, outline, and script process—addressing notes at each stage—until I had my first produced credit.
If I hadn’t been writing ceaselessly on my own, I never would have had a sample with enough promise to get me my first assignment.
More and more, I see that a solid way to break in as a writer is to work first as a script coordinator. That’s not a creative role (so check egos at the door). Rather it’s the hub of all the writing materials going in and out, and that lets you learn the series better than any freelancer. More and more, story editors are willing to give hard-working script coordinators a shot at contributing in the writer’s room and ultimately at writing an episode. As for landing a script coordinator job, I don’t really have advice other than to be very practiced at all the skills needed.
Screenwriters often talk about being pigeon-holed into one style or genre. Since you’ve stayed within the world of animation writing for most of your career, do you feel that attempting another path would meet resistance or support from your industry partnerships?
Johnson: I believe an animation writer might find it challenging to get a live-action assignment based solely on their animation credits. However, if those credits accompany a really good live-action spec script, then your spec would have a far better chance at getting read than a script by someone with no credits at all.
Most animation writers I know hope to someday sell a great live-action script. But writing for animation is their first love, and that’s important. I’ve come across new writers who are clearly marking time until they get their live-action break, as if they’re slumming in the animation world. It’s an elitist mentality that will not serve them well, at least not with me. Most often, their animation scripts need the most work.
What do you feel are the major differences between animation and live-action writing?
Johnson: There are many stylistic and procedural differences in an animation script vs. a live-action script; the cadence of speech, the duration of scenes, the amount of dialogue, all can vary wildly. In series animation, for instance, you limit long speeches because, frankly, animated characters talking at length not only eat up your runtime, but those scenes also tend to be boring to watch if the animation isn’t topnotch.
“Episode length” is the biggest challenge for animation writers, as far as I’m concerned. Most productions impose a page length to help regulate this. That does help, but only if there is a standardized method of formatting used in each script. Some writers pack too much action into one paragraph as opposed to breaking out the action beats. Or stack too much dialogue with no indication of what is visually happening.
These kinds of shortcuts get your script to the right page count, but once it’s boarded, the episode is way too long.
If I’m the head writer, I make sure all the scripts conform to my style of writing. Not because mine is so great, but because that’s the best way for me to judge episode length.
What do you wish you knew about being a staffed writer at Marvel before you worked on your first project? How has being a staffed writer changed your prior expectations of working with a team of other writers on future projects?
Johnson: For most of my career, particularly with Marvel, back in the day, I did not have a "writer’s room" with a staff. I wouldn’t even have an office at the studio. I’d work from my home office and hire freelance writers. Some of them would get multiple episodes if they delivered well (i.e. made my job easier) and some would not.
In recent years, especially working for Disney, I have had—or been on—writing staffs. The obvious benefit to this is that writers have a better chance at getting to know the series since they’re privy to most of the discussions that lead to decisions. They’re present for all the pitch meetings, notes reviews, and table reads, and become part of the conversation from beginning to end.
You have worked on several well-known IPs within Marvel. There is a unique skill to adapting yourself as a writer to a world already known by audiences. What have you found to be the most challenging part of jumping into established universes and creating whole new narratives?
Johnson: Adapting comics to animation typically comes with a lot of expectations. And opinions. Passionate opinions. I have found that the best way to approach this is to be true to the characters first and foremost. I did a series called “Wolverine and the X-Men” and the title alone ticked off portions of the fandom who were either tired of Wolverine taking center stage or disliked the idea that Wolverine would ever be named leader of the X-Men. But to me, putting a person in charge who should never be put in charge was a great place to start. The interpersonal conflicts that arose because a loner like Wolverine was unwillingly put in a leadership role provided for some dynamic storytelling.
As long as I was true to Wolverine’s character, the results felt genuine. Ultimately, those vigilant fans did come aboard and enjoyed the series.
Being a writer is a skill of craft, but there is an emotional resilience that you also need to find success in what can be a rollercoaster career. Can you share what anchors you and helps you handle the setbacks?
Johnson: Like artists and others working in animation, writers are always facing unemployment after a job is done. Sometimes those jobs can be years long. Sometimes much shorter. And the gaps in between can be trying. Just keep writing what you love. Write to your strengths. If it’s action, master it. Or comedy, or preschool. Though you should practice writing genres that aren’t your strengths, get really good at where you shine the most.
Ultimately, if your output is consistently good, people notice, your name gets passed along, and you get the next job offer.
The pandemic has changed the landscape of the entertainment industry. Do you believe that writers outside of Los Angeles will have continued opportunities to work remotely or does re-location to a major industry hub (like L.A.) still hold weight when trying to edge into a writers’ room?
Johnson: There was a time in the early nineties when you no longer had to hand-deliver hard copies of your script to the production office. You could simply email them, and many writers thought they’d try working out of the area. That basically backfired. If you couldn’t attend a meeting in person, you were less likely to get an assignment. And many pitch meetings still required you to be there in person. If you couldn’t make it, you were just sort of forgotten. Those writers who had moved away then realized they couldn’t afford to move back, and their careers never recovered.
But now, it’s all different. Wonderfully so, in my opinion. The pandemic hit while I was in production on “Pacific Rim: The Black” and we all went home to work. Productivity actually went up, our series got produced via Zoom, and I don’t think things will ever fully go back to the way they were.
However, some showrunners still prefer to have writers in-house, and there are definite benefits to this, so chances are that a writer living elsewhere will miss out on some opportunities.
Do you find that there is a growing need for creators to expand their skillsets and become multi-hyphenates in order to stand out in such a competitive field? Given the opportunity, would you choose screenwriting over the other roles you have taken, or do you enjoy being a producer and showrunner just as much creatively?
Johnson: My personal opinion on multi-hyphenated creators is that there are too many out there claiming to be a writer-producer-director but without the credits to back it up. And I mean serious credits that would convince someone else to hire them for any of those jobs. So, no, I don’t think it helps you break through if you’re just starting out, unless you have a sample so terrific that employers can’t help but notice. Job offers for auteurs are not that plentiful. Each one of those disciplines should be earned through experience, usually separately, before you can add them to your title.
If being in total creative control is your goal, you’ll need to prove you’re not only capable but worth it. That’s hard to do if you’re dependent on someone hiring you. So my advice is to create something yourself and make sure it stands out because of its quality.
Personally, I consider myself a writer first and foremost. I get the most creative pleasure out of it and will continue doing it in one form or another long after I’m retired from television. Showrunning, to me, is really only creatively fulfilling if it’s my work being produced.
Your long list of accolades speaks for itself, but if you were to point to only one project from your portfolio … What would you want to be known for?
Johnson: I would say that Netflix’s “Pacific Rim: The Black” remains a project I’m most proud of. The worldbuilding, the emotional character arcs, the sheer spectacle, all of it came together because so many people shared in a singular vision and brought their A-game to the project. And that’s what you hope for in this business, isn’t it? That your creative vision becomes shared by those who join you on the journey.
Everyone involved should feel ownership in the end result, because it would not exist in its finished form without the many people who have touched it.
*Feature image Pacific Rim: The Black (Netflix)
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