Own Your Voice: Joe Ballarini
Joe Ballarini is a writer who trades in the mythical. His scripts are populated by terrifying monsters, talking ponies, and hungry zombies.
Ballarini’s resume features an assortment of fantasy filled projects such as; Dance of the Dead, Turbo and Epic.
His latest project, A Babysitter’s Guide to Monsters, will be a feature film adaptation from his own three-book series of the same title. The action-packed family story has magic similar to that of Pan’s Labyrinth.
Like many writers, Ballarini faced adversity and rejection early in his career, which began when he decided to make the journey to Los Angeles to find his way as a filmmaker.
“If you want to be a lumberjack, go where the trees are; so I went to my forest of film,” Ballarini remembers.
He was born in Rhode Island then moved to Boca Raton, FL until he graduated high school. Since he was 11, Ballarini had a keen interest in stories,
“I’ve always been energized by great movies, Stephen King novels, and Jim Henson.”
His initial plan was to be a film director like John Hughes, Steven Spielberg, and the Coen Brothers.
“I would write Spielberg on the sides of my notebook during high school instead of writing the names of an idolized sports star like the other kids.”
After much research, he discovered that Spielberg’s scoring stage and George Lucas’ building was at USC, so he decided that it was the only place he wanted to go.
Unfortunately, in 1995 Ballarini got his first taste of rejection when USC rejected him from the film program not just once, but five times. That didn’t stop him from pursuing his dream.
“Luckily, I still found a way to attend USC, not with film, but with a major in creative writing.”
While studying at USC, his curiosity in film grew as well as his group of friends. He was surrounded by people who had the same feeling about film.
“I found my inner nerd,” he said, “even if my classmates liked different genres, we would still bond over the love of cinema. As long as they had a love and appreciation for film, we would connect.”
While waiting for his big break, Ballarini split the money for screenwriting software with his roommate and ventured to the Ghostbusters’ library where he gravitated toward the eloquent words of scripts such as American Beauty and Fargo, as well as the many works of writer Ray Bradbury.
He spent his time interning at DreamWorks Studios during the summer of 1997 while also getting experience on set at temp jobs. Driven by his passion to learn, he discovered what “pay off,” “structure,” and “character arc” in a screenplay meant, which allowed him to complete five scripts by the time USC officially accepted him into the film program in 1998.
Looking back, Ballarini no longer views the rejection as a negative experience.
“You and your ideas will always be rejected unless you believe in them and fight for them. If you don’t believe that, then L.A. is not the place for you. Working on movies doesn’t mean red carpet premieres or yachts at Cannes. Imagine asking a thousand girls to the prom and they all say no in one year, then there may be that one girl who says yes. That is what it’s like to work in this industry.”
During college, Ballarini became friends with a group of colleagues that started their own management company and signed him as their second client. After a year or two he discovered that if he wanted to be a writer he couldn’t be on set.
“I didn’t think it was the way to get ahead or that there was a direct path from a PA to a director. So I decided to write my way in.”
Ballarini was introduced to Russell Hollander, VP of Production at Star Roads Entertainment, when his first spec script about a magician came across Hollander’s desk. Hollander discovered talent in Ballarini’s writing and had him create 10 other ideas from which he could choose one to polish and sell.
“Russell didn’t pay me, but he gave me notes and sent the spec script to everyone he knew in the industry. That hands-on experience was invaluable.”
After the resulting script, The Spy Next Door, went out for the first time, Ballarini became nervous.
“Once your script goes out, it’s like a murder case–if it’s not solved within 48 hours, then it’s not going to happen.”
But he received great news: The Spy Next Door was sold to Miramax within two days after a major bidding war. His script was the second highest paid spec of the year.
“That feeling of selling my first script gave me encouragement and fueled me for the next 5 years. The victory is what creates the rocket fuel, even if it’s just a buddy telling you he likes your script.”
After his victory, Ballarini continued his career by selling his scripts to such studios as Paramount, MGM, and Nickelodeon.
“People don’t realize how much true encouragement really inspires somebody.”
While working with his agents, Ballarini was able to set up A Babysitter’s Guide to Monsters with Montecito and Walden Media. Both the first book and the movie are set to make their debut in 2017.
“Paradigm Talent Agents, Dana Spector, David Boxerbaum, and Alyssa Reuben, are the masterminds that really helped me bring this movie and book idea to life.”
In addition to A Babysitter’s Guide to Monsters , Ballarini is creating a feature adaptation of the popular children’s franchise My Little Pony, which will be one of the first produced by Hasbro’s production company, AllSpark Pictures.
He is also adapting Cardboard for Fox Animation, Lockdown at Franklin High for Sony Pictures with Michael Bay as a producer, and Greenglass House with Paramount Studios.
“I love stories that appeal to kids and to people who were once. I want my work to be a roller coaster ride for the audience.”
Ballarini finds every project that he works on to be difficult yet rewarding in its own way.
“If it’s easy then you’re not working. Most of the time, it’s hard work, but it becomes satisfying when it’s finished.”
Ballarini also stresses the need to find your own unique identity as a writer:
“Find your voice and find what inspires you. Own what you write and own your voice. Do what you are doing, not what everyone else is.”