Showbiz nerds turn blood lust into an opening to network

Times Staff Writer

It was dark and drizzling when screenwriter Justin Marks did what many in Hollywood have fantasized during their bleakest career moments: He attacked his agent with a chain saw.

Marks hunched behind a wall, revved the chain saw motor and leaned forward. Next came the grinding, spinning sound of metal cutting through bone, the blood spattering, the agent’s arm and head flying off. Marks grinned, unsheathed a shotgun and went in search of his next target: a reporter for Variety.

Marks was just doing his job -- kill or be killed -- in the video game Gears of War, which he plays from the comfort of a brown leather couch in his Los Angeles home. Every Thursday night, he and dozens of other up-and-comers in Hollywood turn on their Xboxes to engage in violent killing, mock each other and sometimes even talk shop.

The online gaming session, which the organizers call Nerd Poker, has become an opportunity for networking that has led to dozens of business meetings -- and even a few deals.


“While the aim was not necessarily to do business, I think the casualness and the lack of pretense made us all really close,” said Kevin Chang, an executive at Misher Films. “And who wouldn’t want to do business with friends?”

Two years ago, Chang and Variety reporter Ben Fritz were discussing their frustration over the players who challenged them in Gears of War via the Xbox Live online service.

“It was a bunch of teenagers who were better than us, calling us names,” Fritz said.

They called Marks and Derek Douglas, who is now a William Morris agent in the video game department, and the four decided to sign on for weekly gaming sessions together. They began inviting friends, and soon dozens were showing up. The group now has about 95 members.

In Gears of War, scaly alien creatures take on human soldiers in dark landscapes littered with bombed-out vans, dingy columns and bloodstained stairs. Players choose from an array of weapons such as sniper rifles and avoid hazards that include flesh-eating bats, then run around trying to annihilate the other team. They wear headsets to coordinate with teammates and talk trash with opponents.

The ease of communication has turned the game into a networking vehicle for some, and not just in Hollywood. Church groups sometimes hold Xbox Live nights, families stay in touch through the games and people have even gotten married after meeting while playing, said Marc Whitten, general manager for Microsoft Corp.'s online service.

“It’s that couch experience -- chatting around the game is as much fun as the game itself,” Whitten said.

Still, chatting while deploying an arsenal of weapons to destroy one other is different from most Hollywood networking, which is often “of the boring, drinking variety,” said Justin Wilson, director of alumni relations at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.


Wilson says people can break into Hollywood or get ahead in many ways. He plays basketball with Hollywood types every Tuesday night. His friends play in poker games. USC holds film screenings and receptions, during which students can talk to alumni.

“It’s about getting yourself in front of someone so they’ll remember you, and find some point of connection,” he said.

Marks, the screenwriter, made that connection by excelling at blasting rivals in Gears of War. He frequently battled another sniper, and soon found out that this sharpshooter was Zach Schiff-Abrams, a producer with Michael DeLuca Productions.

Marks’ agent had been sending his scripts to Schiff-Abrams, who gets dozens a day, for a potential project. So Marks introduced himself one night during Nerd Poker. Two weeks later the two met face to face, and they are now looking for a project to work on together.


The meeting wouldn’t have happened as quickly without Nerd Poker to facilitate it, Schiff-Abrams said.

“It’s a great arena to meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said.

Douglass, the William Morris agent, said he’s had about 15 meetings with Nerd Poker players or their friends. He calls them his “Nerd Poker specials.”

For example, through Nerd Poker he and Marks became close to an executive from game publisher Capcom. When the executive revealed the company was looking to write a comic book version of its game “Bionic Commando,” the three agreed Marks should write it.


Fritz has developed sources through Nerd Poker and written a story about his experience for Variety.

“I’ve blown up lots of people I’ve worked with,” he said.

Nerd Poker has expanded beyond the Thursday night sessions. The group has breakfasts and dinners at major gaming events such as the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and at ComicCon. In June, the group held Nerd Fest: a weekend of nonstop gaming that culminated in a party, attended by 130 people, at Schiff-Abrams’ house.

“It’s kind of a support group,” said Chang, the film executive.


Of course, like poker and basketball, this type of networking has its flaws. Few women play, for instance. And there has been the occasional add-on to the Nerd Poker e-mail list who’s just there for the job connection and doesn’t do much game playing. It can also be addicting: Rather than miss Nerd Poker, one member took his Xbox to Mexico when he was out on a multiweek film shoot.

Some of the founders say that Nerd Poker can be so demanding that they sometimes unplug their Internet connections so they can play games by themselves in peace. They’ll have even less peace when the new version of Xbox launches this winter -- it enables players to chat with friends even when they’re playing different games.

But playing video games to get ahead in the working world hasn’t gotten old yet.

“Networking at a certain point becomes a roll-your-eyes, can’t-wait-to-get-out-of-it affair,” Marks said. “This has never felt like that.”