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Hollywood finds kernels for movies in This American Life

Originally published in Current, Sept. 22, 2003
By Mike Janssen

A deal between Warner Bros. and public radio’s This American Life has started to bear fruit, with several of the show’s stories destined for screenplay drafts in Hollywood and more in the pipeline.

The lucrative deal, struck last year, gives the studio “first-look” rights to TAL ’s extensive collection of stories, which grows by 100 to 150 a year. With some guidance from series Executive Producer Ira Glass and his staff, the studio has begun plucking stories from the program’s archives and attaching some movie-star names.

Given the odds of the Hollywood game, most of these ideas may never be filmed, as Glass is well aware. “We don’t expect there to be movies, but we hope there’ll be movies,” he says. “But if you go in expecting a movie’s going to come out of it, you’re not looking at the facts.”

Screenwriters are working up drafts derived from four TAL stories:

The films use TAL ’s material only as a launching pad, Glass says: “We don’t expect that they’re going to stay true to what we’re doing.” Four more ideas are in the pipeline, says Senior Producer Julie Snyder.

TAL staffers pitched Zora and Act V in their first meeting with the studio, along with other pieces that failed to spark interest, Glass says. He envisioned a great romantic comedy about frustrated lovers on a U.S. aircraft carrier, but found no takers.

The other two burgeoning projects, Niagara and Unaccompanied Minors, came from writers and producers unaffiliated with Warner Bros. who later teamed up with the studio. Glass serves as e.p. of the film projects, while other TAL staffers get producer credits.

Development of the scripts brings TAL thousands to tens of thousands of dollars per project, Glass says. That adds to the six-figure amounts TAL already gets from Warner Bros. for two years as part of the first-look deal. Those sums might impress, but TAL still had to raise $150,000 recently through live performances to meet its budget, Glass says.

If the scripts conquer the odds and become movies in the end, TAL could stand to make millions more.

For TAL, however, gains are more than monetary. “I’ve been doing the same job in one version or another since I was 19,” Glass says. “It’s nice to think about making stories in a different way. It’s just fun.”

Posted Sept. 25, 2003
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio in the United States
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