Boyd County seniors pitching screenplay to Hollywood execs

May 6, 2019

ASHLAND — Hollywood craves novelty.

It’s what anyone with strings to pull in Tinseltown looks for — from independent filmmakers to industry juggernauts — when thousands upon thousands of show pitches cross their desks and inboxes each year.

The same applies for those on the flipside: the wide-eyed dreamers with a story to share — and hopefully sell — to Hollywood’s top production company. Standing out from the competition, each with their own star-struck ambitions, is paramount to succeeding.

And in a city where dreams are built and dashed, what could stick out more than three high school kids from faraway Boyd County, Kentucky?

Justin Tackett, Carley Mooney and Victoria Dawson have a dream to chase, and the path ahead leads not simply into Hollywood, but directly to the offices of some of the world’s most powerful industry moguls. By the end of May, the three seniors from Boyd County High School will pitch their screenplay “The Begotten Solider” face-to-face with executives from MGM and Dreamworks in Los Angeles.

“We’re scared, but this is amazing for us,” Mooney said with a wry grin. “We plan to work really hard and we just hope everything works out.”

It’s an impossibly rare opportunity afforded each year to the top students in Cari Rucker’s creative writing class, who are tasked with teaming up to develop a screenplay using a complex and winding storyboard format known to them as “the crazy chart.” It’s the same used by Rucker’s brother-in-law, Los Angeles Film School professor Houston Howard, to teach professional screenwriting.

But they’re not professionals. They’re not even out of high school. In fact, Boyd County is the only high school in America to have sent students to the annual Great American PitchFest — a Hollywood expo where thousands of wannabe screenwriters pitch their ideas to production companies in five minutes or less.

No ritzy boarding school or artheavy magnet academy are getting a personal audience with Hollywood juggernauts before graduation, but three kids from Ashland are, courtesy of Howard’s personal connections to both.

“I just believe God aligned it like that so my kids could have something cool,” Rucker said in an interview last week in Boyd County’s school library.

“But these kids rise to the occasion, and they surprise me every day.”

The team lands in Los Angeles on Sunday, May 26, to spend the week revising, rewriting, practicing and finally pitching their story. It’s a business trip, Rucker said, but there will be one fun day to soak in the City of Angels.

“It’s very intimidating and nerve-wracking,” Tackett said. “But I feel like that we have a chance because we’ve had a wonderful teacher and she’s been great at coaching us.”

“The Begotten Solider” follows a boy believed to be an orphan searching for his parents during a second Civil War. Like any great work, it’s gone through a ringer of revisions and creative criticism, chiefly from Howard in Hollywood, which has gotten easier to stomach over time, the three agreed. In the end, it’s felt less like degrading it, and more like polishing it.

“The crazy chart” they’ve built their screenplay around outlines an exhaustive roadmap to story building. Stops along the way have colorful names like “Soapbox,” “Enter Bizarro World,” “Grande Success,” and “Soapbox Revisited.”

The team’s unofficial uniform — a gray shirt playing on the word “radical” with a rat’s silhouette representing the first syllable — derives from “All Hail The Rat King,” the part of a story where many points begin tying together.

That lighthearted simplicity reflects the fact that, at the end of whatever road Hollywood leads them to, they’re still ordinary high-schoolers — albeit with an extraordinary opportunity.

But they’re not the first Boyd County group to make the trip. In fact, past years have proven so fruitful, it’s more than worthy competition for the Class of 2019, Mooney added.

This will be the third consecutive trip to Hollywood for Rucker’s classes, and the first two found astonishing success.

That nervous first year, Boyd County’s students were contacted by 11 different production companies interested in their screenplay, including one impatient producer who waited for the group outside in the hallway afterward, indignant they hadn’t pitched to her yet.

Last year, producers saw the next class’s movie “L.A. Fairytales,” more as a television series, and asked for 10 episodes and the pilot as soon as possible.

“I think that being from such a little-known area surprises people, and that makes people want to listen just to see, and then we can surpass their expectations,” Dawson said.

But just as the novelty of being high-schoolers thriving in a cutthroat industry piques attention, it’s also been their biggest roadblock to success. The trips are at the end of the school year, and after graduation the seniors scatter. No one has followed up on those contacts made in Hollywood.

The task now is the get them taken seriously — maybe court a professional writer on board so executives feel more comfortable in dealing with high-schoolers — and perhaps someday sell it.

“I didn’t go into this believing that could happen,” Rucker said. “This just started as a new way to teach creative writing and it’s morphed into this.

“But I very easily believe that could happen now.”

There’s still much work to be done in fundraising the trip, which requires around $4,000 to $5,000, almost entirely from donations and sponsorships. Nearby Smokin’ J’s Ribs and Brewhouse will donate 15% of every check Tuesday, May 7 to the Boyd County creative writing class.

Interested donors and sponsors can also call Boyd County High School at 606-928-7100.