The Nines in Austin

nines posterI’m happy to announce our first expansion outside of New York and Los Angeles: Austin. The Nines will be starting at the Alamo Drafthouse (South Lamar) on September 28th. There’s a Q&A in the works for that weekend with me and Ryan — most likely on the 28th — so be sure to check back for details.

Originally, we were going to open in Austin the same day as NY/LA, but the Venice Film Festival threw a wrench in that. The logistics of getting from LA to Austin to NYC to Venice proved insurmountable, and we didn’t want to open without a Q&A. September feels better, anyway. Classes would have just started on August 31st, and that first week of school is more about mini-fridges and freak-outs than trippy meta-movies.

I’m a frequent panelist at the Austin Film Festival, and Ryan just shot a movie there, so it’ll be good to go back and catch up with friends and colleagues. And the bats.

As previously noted, The Nines opens August 31st in New York and Los Angeles, with a special Q&A at the LA screening on August 31st at 7:30 pm, and an introduction at the 10 pm show. Tickets are on sale now.

Starting out in Hollywood

adam and johnI met Adam Davis last year. He was a student at Drake University, my alma mater, and came with the high recommendation of a mutual mentor. Adam wrote and directed a lot of short films while he was at Drake, and movies were clearly his calling. He was wondering whether he should bite the bullet and move to Los Angeles. I said yes, definitely — but he should prepare to work his ass off when he got here.

Adam took me at my word. I’ve had lunch with him a few times since he’s moved here, and after our last batch of Baja Fresh, I asked him to write up his experience so far.

Every year, a few thousand recent college grads move to Hollywood, hoping to get started. Here’s how Adam did it. He’s very much mid-process, but notice how much he’s hustling to get his next job. How you can never tell who is going to pay off as a contact. That’s how it works.

first personadam_hollywoodWith a goal of becoming a writer/director, I moved out to Los Angeles in late March with my friend from college to try to get work on sets as a production assistant. The first few days were an exhaustive apartment search, and luckily, we were able to find a place in Culver City within the week.

As we waited for our internet to be hooked up, I was able to piggyback on someone’s wireless signal and started the job hunt. I went to my three favorite websites, craigslist,, and Every day was spent sending out resumes and cover letters for any and all PA jobs I could find. Features, shorts, commercials, music videos, it didn’t matter.

The first week was terrible. No calls, nothing. The feeling of impending doom of being jobless, or even worse, having to get a regular job, was awful.

But in the second week, I started getting calls. I interviewed to be a PA on a short film that was shooting in late April for two weeks with a pay of $20 a day. Having nothing at the time, I agreed to it. But it still didn’t solve the problem of having a job now.

I had another interview for a feature which was supposed to start pre-production at the beginning of April, and got hired on in the art department. That was going to pay $50 a day, which I was ecstatic over. The day before I was supposed to start work, I got a call saying that the movie had been pushed back to August 1st.

So again, no job. Wanting to get on set and make connections, I took a job in the art department for a music video for no pay one weekend. I was told that they had more jobs that paid coming up and if you worked for free they would get you on the paying job. Since April, I still haven’t received calls for a paying gig from them. I’ve received many calls for more non-paying jobs, but none that pay.

But overall, it was a very interesting shoot where I got to spray the band members with chocolate-tinted water to simulate black rain. Just something you don’t get to do very often.

Becoming a little desperate, I started calling people that I had worked with and met last summer, when I had an internship with Marvel Studios. I had worked on a feature for a few days for free, and I called up the 1st AD, who remembered me. He said that the film he was on was fully staffed right now, but if anything came up, he’d let me know.

adam paA day later, he called saying that he needed me to be a key set PA for three days. I snatched up the opportunity, and worked on Dead Air, a zombie horror film.

After that, work on the short film started. It was called The Legend of My Heart-Shaped Anus, a quirky comedy being submitted to Sundance. It was great working with such a small crew because I got to learn a lot about lighting and cameras. And instead of being a PA, I turned into a grip and electric. Wrangling cables, setting up lights, carrying stands, everything. In one scene, I got to drop heart-shaped poo, made out of chocolate, onto two puppets fighting. It sounds strange, but it makes sense when you see the movie. I started thinking that perhaps the mark I would be making in Hollywood is to drop various incarnations of chocolate onto people and things.

Then May rolled around. I applied to more jobs and had a few more interviews, one with Lionsgate in the office of the CEO. They were looking to groom future studio execs, and since I expressed my interest in the creative side, I was told that perhaps a desk job wouldn’t be the best thing for me. I knew that to be true, and I’m very glad they picked up on that and let me know.

Then I had an interview scheduled with a guy who needed a personal assistant as well as a PA on his TV show. I went to the coffee shop we selected to meet at and he never showed and never answered his phone. So that was another one that didn’t work out, but it was for the best because I had an interview to be a PA on a shoot for Fox Reality’s Average Joe: Reality Revealed. I got the job and got to help the producers out with some pre-production for the shoot. We shot the interviews that weekend, and apparently I impressed them enough because on Monday they brought me on board to be an assistant editor since I know Final Cut Pro.

The editing job lasted from May through early July, and during that time I was given enough freedom to work other PA jobs as they came up. The 1st AD that got me on Dead Air, called me to work on a PSA, so I worked as a PA during the day, then went straight to the office to edit through the night. I did that for three days, and luckily my brain didn’t explode due to lack of sleep.

Later in June, a contact that I met last summer during my internship called me with an opportunity to work on the new Judd Apatow produced film, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I jumped at the chance, and got to work on my very first big studio flick. That single night on Forgetting Sarah Marshall was the most fun I’ve ever had on a set.

I then got a job as a PA on an indie feature that’s hopefully going to Sundance, Thunder Geniuses, so I had to end my time at the editing job. Thunder Geniuses shot at a studio, a school, and then in the woods for two weeks and it was the most demanding shoot I’ve been on so far. But it was also extremely rewarding since I was able to make some great connections with a lot of people that can hopefully get me work in the future.

After 18 grueling days, we wrapped and I got a call from the editor of Average Joe: Reality Revealed, asking if I could come back and help out with some more editing to finish up the project. That’s what I worked on last week, and this week I’m not sure if I’ll be working on it again, since we’re almost finished.

I also got a call from my contact to work on the new Will Smith movie, but I had to turn it down because of my previous commitment with the editing job. But my roommate was able to take my place, so that’s a benefit.

I’ve been applying for more PA jobs, but hopefully I’ll get to rely on applying less and less since my network expanded greatly after Thunder Geniuses. But as of right now, I’m back to updating my resume, searching the internet for jobs, and debating whether or not to bug my contacts for work yet. But that’s what I like about the job and the life in Los Angeles. The uncertainty and the excitement of never knowing what’s going to happen next or who might call with the next awesome job. I’d prefer nothing else.

Cannibals in canoes

Honestly, I feel like I’m cheating on all of you when I guest-blog for But I did it again.

And then there are the non-Nines variables: babysitting grandparents, geriatric pugs, and the Tim Burton retrospective I want to attend. Plus eight more lessons of Pimsleur Italian, so I can politely explain why I’m throwing myself in a canal.

Click here to read the rest. I can only hope you’ll forgive me once all this Nines business is over.

Me in Men’s Health

men's healthI have a long essay in this month’s Men’s Health, the one with Jamie Foxx on the cover. It’s not specifically about The Nines, but that’s the main reason I agreed to do it. To buy a single-page ad in the magazine would be more than our entire marketing budget. But for a four-page article, they actually pay me.1

The piece I wrote, “My Glorious Defeat,” is about television, student government, and winter driving:

My D.C. debacle, as miserable as it was to live through, has become a cherished memory. It’s a small scar that invites a big story, with big personalities. At first, I framed myself as the innocent victim in the drama, but over the years I came to view the whole thing as more of a hurricane that we all weathered together.

The great thing about surviving a storm is that you’re much better prepared the next time the winds start kicking up. You recognize the early warnings. You stock up on essentials. And, most crucial, you go in knowing that no matter what happens, you can always rebuild.

Failure makes you ready in ways that success never could.

I’m really happy with the article. It feels kind of commencement-addressy, not unlike the talk on professionalism I gave at Trinity last year.

There’s an online version, though I’m not crazy about the reformatting. If you have any inclination, pick up the print edition. As a bonus, you’ll also get 10 secrets to better abs.

  1. Why Men’s Health, and not Esquire or GQ? MH [vastly outsells]( them. It outsells Entertainment Weekly. (Hi, Whitney!) Plus, it has a very good chance of hitting the “people who think Ryan Reynolds is awesome” demographic.

The big Fox deal

In addition to Shazam! and The Nines, the other project that’s been keeping me busy for the past few months is a new deal over at 20th Century Fox, in which a group of 12 screenwriters will be getting first-dollar gross and a range of creative rights on their scripts. It was just announced.

The twelve writers (some of whom are teams) are:

  • Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”)
  • Me (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Go”)
  • Stuart Beattie (“Collateral”)
  • Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Shrek”)
  • Derek Haas & Michael Brandt (“3:10 to Yuma”)
  • Tim Herlihy (“The Wedding Singer,” “Happy Gilmore”)
  • Simon Kinberg (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “X-Men: The Last Stand”)
  • Craig Mazin (“Scary Movie 3 and 4″), and
  • Marianne & Cormac Wibberley (“National Treasure,” “National Treasure 2″)

The deal isn’t unprecedented. Producer John Wells put together group of screenwriters who made a similar deal at Warner Bros. earlier this year. We followed the trail they blazed, and we’re indebted. What’s different about our situation is that we’re not a production company. There’s no one “in charge,” and we’re not sharing profits among us. We’re nine writers (or teams) making the same deal.

And what is the deal? Here’s the short version.

We’re each committing to writing an original (i.e. not an adaptation) for Fox — our next original script, in fact. For it, we’ll take a greatly reduced upfront fee, in exchange for our full quotes plus first-dollar gross when the movie gets made. If the movie get made — that’s the gamble the writers are taking.

Helping to ameliorate that risk, we are producers on our projects, and can’t be rewritten except in fairly narrow circumstances. We consult on the major creative decisions (like director, stars, other producers). Lastly, if the project isn’t getting a greenlight, we have the ability to take it back in a timely fashion. 1

Note that when I say “we,” I’m referring the writers individually. There’s no group decision process. No production company. We’re each autonomous entities.

It’s in each writer’s interest to write a really commercial movie that (a) Fox will want to make, and (b) will earn a bazillion dollars.2 To me, that’s the secret of the deal. While there are protections for both sides, the key ingredient is mutual benefit. Both sides have a lot to gain from making it work.

It sounds relatively simple, but Great Zeus, it was complicated. Of all of us, Craig Mazin deserves the biggest props. If I had 10 phone calls a day about it, Craig had 30.3 It was a super-heroic effort, for which he’ll be repaid in alcohol.

And now for the backstory. The day the John Wells deal was announced, Craig called me and asked what I thought about it. I thought it sounded terrific, and so did many other writers. Craig had already had conversations with Ted Elliott about doing something with a group of screenwriters, but the Wells deal was specific and tangible. It provided a focus, a template. Within a few weeks, a group of writers met at my house on a weekend afternoon to discuss the possibilities.4

After phone calls with all of these writers’ representatives, Craig and I met with several studios, explaining why we thought the deal was good for them. There was a lot of interest from most of the studios,5 but Fox stepped up in the biggest and most enthusiastic way. To put it politely, they pursued it very aggressively. To put it less politely, they pursued it with a vigor that sometimes frightened me. But their zeal was genuine, and the deal ended up happening much more quickly than any of us anticipated, through the combined efforts of many attorneys, agents, and executives. I’m loathe to start naming names for fear of leaving off someone who worked their ass off on the deal — some at the cost of family obligations — so I’ll just extend a public thank you to all of them on both sides.

So. Will it work? Will it change anything?

I don’t know. I think it’s best to classify it as an experiment. We’re each committing to one script, so if it simply doesn’t work out, no one is particularly worse off. And it’s hard to say whether the basic idea could (or should) be expanded to include the other kinds of movies screenwriters are hired to write: adaptations, sequel, remakes, and everything else that relies on underlying property. Without the ability to take the project back, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for a writer to reduce his upfront money. Even among this group, most scripts don’t become movies. The gamble might not make sense.

What I will say is that as an A-list screenwriter, it’s become increasingly difficult to set up an original project at the studios, who (understandably) want to save their development budgets for the movies they’re pretty sure they’re going to make — largely sequels, adaptations and remakes. I’m very excited to write an original for Fox, a movie not based on anything other than what I think would be great idea. So while this deal is largely about rights and money, I think it has the potential to lead to some better, more original movies. If so, that’s a win for everyone.

Update: Craig has his thoughts up at Artful Writer

  1. That’s why it’s important that these are original scripts. For adaptations or sequels, the underlying rights would make reversion difficult or impossible.
  2. The deal memo doesn’t specify “bazillion,” but it’s a useful benchmark.
  3. I can now explain that the reason I had to [bail on the screening]( for Student Films Across America was that the deal was closing that Friday. My phone was ringing every two minutes as the negotiations kept spinning.
  4. There was no magic process in coming up with these specific writers. There’s at least another dozen who would make just as much sense on a list. A lot of us knew each other, and the few people we didn’t know had great reputations. My hope is that other writers and other studios would see this as something to try, either as a group or individually.
  5. Here’s the pitch: “How would you like nine original scripts by some of the top feature writers for less than what you’d pay for one of them normally? But wait! There’s more!”

INT. BOOKSTORE, or something better?

questionmarkI am a fifteen year old living just outside of Washington, D.C. I hope to one day be a television producer, but also a film screenwriter. Thanks for your advice about writing the scenes I want to write (not necessarily in order) on paper before typing them on the computer. I felt stupid not thinking about that, but once I used that technique, the first draft of my screenplay came together in about three weeks!

Anyway, I’m not really trying to give a testimonial here, just asking a question and giving my thanks, so here goes: I’m writing the second draft of my screenplay, and I have a slugline situation. For the master, could I write “INT. BARNES AND NOBLE – NIGHT” instead of “INT. BOOKSTORE – NIGHT”. I thought that maybe giving a specific location, even if it wasn’t shot there, would add more of a realism, or connection, with the reader. Even if there’s simply a little bit more of a connection. Is there any con-side of doing this?

– Tim

Your instinct is right: being a little more specific helps the reader immediately understand the location, and saves you from having to throw a line of scene description explaining what kind of bookstore it is.

The only case where the comes back to bite you is when the line producer calls you, frantic: “We can’t get Barnes and Noble! It won’t fit the schedule! You have to rewrite the scene!” And so you end up spitting out colored revision pages that waste everyone’s time.

That’s why I tend to split the difference when I can. Instead of “BOOKSTORE” or “BARNES AND NOBLE,” try “CHAIN BOOKSTORE.” The reader gets what you are trying to say, and the line producer won’t hyperventilate.

For Shazam!, I just wrote a scene that takes place “INT. STARBUCK’S-LIKE COFFEE SHOP.” It should be clear to the line producer, production designer and everyone else that it doesn’t have to be Starbucks. It just needs that vibe.