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?' "