Blogs move from monitors to TV and movie screens
Sometimes the next big thing comes in a small package. A 140-character package, to be precise, in the case of Justin Halpern.
For the record: An article in Sunday’s Calendar section about blogs as a source of TV and film entertainment incorrectly referred to Chris von Goetz as head of the television literary department at ICM. Von Goetz is co-head of that department.
Just less than a year ago, Halpern sent out his first tweet about the harsh, often unintentionally funny, things his father said to him. A key re-tweet later (thanks to comedian Rob Corddry), the 29-year-old writer — whose biggest deal to that point had been developing a spec show for Comedy Central — was hearing from Chris von Goetz, head of the television literary department at ICM.
Goetz connected Halpern and his writing partner, Patrick Schumacker, with Max Mutchnick and David Kohan of “Will and Grace” fame, and this fall, "$#*! My Dad Says” will be one of CBS’ new sitcoms, starring William Shatner as the titular assertive papa.
“It’s changed my life completely,” Halpern says. “It was like I’d been playing in the minor leagues and got the call to come up to the show.”
Overnight success, or its near relation, is one of showbiz’s hoariest clichés. But with the rise of social networking sites, blogs and Twitter, the ability to be plucked from deepest obscurity and thrust in the spotlight in record time has rarely been so within reach of Average Joe and Jane Public. Well-done blogs and Twitter feeds come with solid marketing hooks and built-in audiences plus a raft of pre-written material — all elements that have lately had Hollywood agents and producers turning away from traditional script slush piles and peering closer at the Internet.
“If you can get to the right idea before or right around that tipping point — when a site like Gizmodo or Reddit or Gawker or Daily Dish pick up on it — Hollywood and certainly publishing are realizing that you can really have something there; this person is bringing a preexisting audience to the table — fans. Then it’s about translating that success online to whatever else the format becomes,” says Erin Malone, a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor.
Still, even having a primed audience is no guarantee of success. Hollywood took two shots last year at developing blogs (which were published as books) into motion pictures and ended up with box-office bookends. Tucker Max’s book, “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell,” grew from his Web chronicle of drinking and random sex — but the resulting film pulled in a sparse $1.4 million. Yet the film adapted in part from Julie Powell’s blog and book, “Julie & Julia,” pulled in $126.6 million worldwide and earned star Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination.
Somewhere in between that is Malone’s client Christian Lander, who created the blog Stuff White People Like. It made it to the New York Times bestseller list as a book, but the television rights expired without being developed. While WME works on resurrecting the concept as a film, they’ve managed to help Lander parlay his smarts into a job as a staff writer on MTV’s “Good Vibes.”
“All media is looking to bloggers as sources these days,” says Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder of BlogHer, a site that fosters community and increases exposure for female bloggers. “That’s where their customers are now. If your customers show interest in the material, why wouldn’t you fish where your fish are?”
Slowly, the entertainment industry is getting a good whiff of what is out there at ground level. Comedy Central has a site (Atom.com) that its head of original programming and development, Kent Alterman, calls a “development laboratory for short films” — and the network regularly pulls original concepts from other video websites for possible series development. Blogs are less fertile ground for the cable network, but it is developing highDEAS.com, a site Alterman describes as “a place where people put out ideas that came to them while they were under the influence.”
“Good ideas come from all directions and in any form,” he says. “We don’t rule anything out.”
Comedy, notes Alterman, is uniquely qualified to make the jump from Web to TV or film. “You can consume comedy in short form,” he says. “I don’t think people are going on the Web for one-hour dramas.”
Of course, winnowing out the good stories from the thousands of voices and blogs on the Web is nearly as challenging as diving into that old slush pile of scripts. Most ideas still come to agents, producers and executives by referral, even at ICM, which has its own head of new media in George Ruiz.
“I’m not on YouTube combing through today’s most popular videos,” he says. “Someone comes to you through referral and if you spark to the material, then you tap your colleagues: ‘Is this something you’re excited about?’ ”
“Obviously, you have a big advantage if someone has already created something,” says Alterman. “You’re seeing so much more from that than if someone came into your office and pitched an idea.”
That said, he adds, “There are some people on staff who are scouring the Internet all the time though. It’s a merging of personal and business interests.”
The great idea found, most blog writers become book authors before Hollywood takes a real interest. And good press doesn’t hurt. A New York Times story on Powell sent her blog — a chronicle of her attempt to cook Julia Child’s entire “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in a year — into the stratosphere. Agents wanted a book, and almost simultaneously they wanted a movie.
Cooking and another major newspaper — in this case The Times — has put Ree Drummond’s Pioneer Woman blog into the spotlight. Drummond’s site details her life on an Oklahoma ranch after her move there from Los Angeles and features tips on home-schooling, photography, home and garden — and recipes. The last led to a cookbook called “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes From an Accidental Country Girl,” and its review in The Times piqued the interest of Sony Pictures’ Amy Pascal, who contacted producer Laura Ziskin.
The pair connected with Drummond and her publisher, William Morrow — which is slated to publish Drummond’s memoir, “Black Heels to Tractor Wheels” (a version of which can also be found on Drummond’s website), in February. Meanwhile, Ziskin and Columbia Pictures are in development on a film version, with Reese Witherspoon potentially starring.
“She’s a great voice and a great character,” Ziskin says of Drummond. “It’s romantic, and there’s conflict, and it’s kind of got everything; it’s a wonderful tale.”
For her, finding feature ideas on the Web makes sense.
“There are different mediums from which to get ideas, and not everything out there is worth developing,” says Ziskin. “But we’re all hungry machines, and we need to find products and stories. Blogs are just another hunting ground — we’ll take a good story where we can find it.”
Another Western woman with a story to tell is Shreve Stockton, who began raising an orphaned coyote pup that landed on her Wyoming doorstep. The life and times of Charlie Coyote (and the rest of Stockton’s menagerie) are detailed on her Daily Coyote blog. Stockton has had a book published based on the site, which receives around 30,000 hits per day, and says there has been “interest” from Hollywood in a feature film.
But, adds Stockton, “It’s taken me a long time to be really comfortable about that. I am definitely open if the right thing came along. But it’s not about me; it’s about Charlie and everything he has to share.”
Not every story picked up by Hollywood has a memoir aspect to it; Ruiz is working with clients who run a technology blog and would like to turn it into a TV show. A treatment and a sneak peek “sizzle reel” are making the rounds.
Then there’s Heather Armstrong, who has a daily blog and website called Dooce, in which she details her life with two dogs, two kids and a supportive husband. It earns her a full-time living and about 1 million unique viewers each month. But the industry came calling for her secondary blog focus on style and design — she now has a development deal with HGTV and is producing packages for the channel’s online audience.
“What this medium has done is it’s given a lot of us who wouldn’t have been paid attention to, whose resumes or transcripts would have been tossed aside, and given us our own platform to say, ‘I have something to say and I want to see what happens if I put it out to people,’” says Armstrong.
Not every popular site on the Web works for a mass audience. Producers and agents looking to develop concepts are still looking for the same traits as they would from non-Internet-based creatives: artistry, consistency, talent and innovation. Internet content creators can sweeten the deal by coming to the table with a couple hundred thousand loyal readers.
“I want to work with people who are pushing boundaries and using new tools to tell stories in new, exciting ways,” Ruiz says. “If we can help them create relationships with more traditional companies, that’s what gets me excited.”
Nor is the blog-to-book-to-film-or-TV model likely to stick around for long; the agencies are learning how to adapt more directly based on the individual project, Malone says.
“Now more people are recognizing that great new voices can come out of the Internet, so they’re exerting more conscious, thoughtful effort into what is the next best step for this blog or Twitter feed. Sometimes, it’s more than one thing,” she says.
Whatever that next step is for a blogger or Twitter feed owner, no one has become independently wealthy from their one great story; it remains mostly a stepping stone to projects. Powell is the first to say she hardly got rich off “Julie & Julia” — but that success did lead to a second book and a regular writing career for her. And Halpern, who will be co-executive producing and writing "$#*! My Dad Says” with Schumacker, notes that ideas like his are likely to continue to provide fertile ground for idea-hungry networks and studios for some time to come.
“It seems like Hollywood is behind the curve with this,” he says. “I see stuff that kills me every day on the Web — it’s such a good breeding ground for ideas. But now that I’m here with CBS and Warner Bros., I can see all of the things they’re doing to stay ahead of the curve. Nobody knows which way the Internet is going and how to get the most out of it. The thing is most people don’t even know what the curve looks like.”