Hollywood vs. Online Dating

This morning, NPR Morning Edition ran a story called, “Why Hasn’t Online Dating Made it Onscreen?” Of course, as the story discusses, online dating has made it onto TV screens, and studios have made tons of tech-that-kills sci-fi and horror movies. But, the story points out, “[T]here’s one movie genre that’s still struggling to incorporate the everyday tech of contemporary life into the stories it tells: the romantic comedy. Which is notable — and very, very odd — because online dating…is, for millions of people, a simple fact of life — the New Normal.”

Turns out, I’ve got a little insight into this, since I actually wrote an online dating script almost a decade ago, and it got *this close* to finding a happy home at one of a number of production companies, before simply disappearing into the ether.

NPR spoke with film producer Christine Vachon, who said that the problem was visual, since it’s cinematically boring to watch people swipe right and swipe left, etc. That’s probably true, but it’s also not what generates the drama in a story, so hopefully nobody would be spending a ton of screen time on swiping left and right.

The NPR story also spoke to TV writer Guy Branum,  who I think is closer to the problem when he says any script you write has to get past studio execs to greenlight it. NPR reporter Glen Weldon said, “Let’s say some future screenwriter…”

And that’s when I decided to write this post. Because I was that screenwriter in…like, 2007?…and I guarantee that there have been more like me and, frankly, who are better than me, that have come up with compelling scripts, but they’ve not been made.


Here’s what happened with mine:

In 2007, I wrote a script called Backwards Compatible about a data guy who is engaged to an artist, and has to sign up for a profile on an online dating service that is a client. It’s assigned work research, but among his matches he finds “the one that got away” — the girl he had a crush on growing up but always seemed unattainable. He gets some questionable advice and decides to try to meet this woman.

On the surface, the guy and his fiancee don’t have that much in common, but they bring out the best in each other. They’re not the couple you’d expect, but they make a good team. But this other woman represents the “what if…?” in life. His meeting with her, which he at first refuses to call a date, goes really well and they see each other more. He starts asking himself about all the other roads he never traveled, all the things he was too scared to try to do, and he winds up getting way into the weeds and kind of losing any real sense of himself. Meanwhile, he’s trying to keep his engagement on the rails, and all this other stuff secret…you get it.

The script got me a manager and a bunch of meetings. I’m not going to mention any names in this account, but I had the head of development at a very active company belonging to an A-list romcom kind of actress tell me that they’d been trying to crack the nut of an online dating script for over a year, and my script was the best take they’d seen. Backwards got set up at a different company, though — a big, Academy Award-nominated producer’s company, where they had one woman in charge of comedy in an otherwise all-male development office focusing mainly on action movies. I went to that exec’s birthday party, and had *another* exec from another company, also a woman, come up out of the blue and tell me that Backwards Compatible was her favorite romcom script she’d read since she’d been in development.

Then the writer’s strike happened. When the dust settled, my exec had been moved over to TV, and the management company I’d been with went kaput. Nevertheless, Backwards Compatible found a new home at a different company. I did a few more drafts, and finally it went up out of the hands of a female development exec to her boss, and he killed it. Said he, “didn’t get it.” There was also a potential actor attachment, but that guy burned some bridges and hasn’t been heard of much since then. Nevertheless, another producing team got a hold of the script, and we started developing it as a TV movie for a cable channel that wanted the location changed from Los Angeles to Nashville, so I did that. That was in 2011 or 2012. I’d been working on the script, not exclusively, but actively, for four years, and I was just done with it after the network finally passed. You can read that final version here, if you want.  There are things I’d do differently today, but that’s where it was left.*

Here are some factors to which I attribute the slow demise of perhaps my most-loved original screenplay:

  • Like Guy Branum said in the NPR piece, to get a script through the studio system and greenlit, you have to get it past guys in their fifties who have never had to deal with online dating. That’s true, but those guys also…
  • Probably don’t give a shit about romantic comedies, nor are they…
  • Often willing to take the advice of women who work with or for them.
  • The demise of the “$30 million-dollar movie” hit the romantic comedy harder than possibly any other genre
  • A bunch of shitty romantic comedies (many with one particularly unlikable actress) got made and didn’t do much at the box office, so it scared execs away

So in the end, I don’t think a studio’s going to make a great romantic comedy about online dating because there’s no incentive for them to do it. In fact, they’ve been actively dis-incentivized against making romantic comedies at all. Even if a lot of the real-world stuff you can point to might undermine that argument, I know the word in town at the time got to be that romantic comedies were unwelcome as development properties.

By now, since online dating has become such a staple of everyday life, the novelty has worn off, and there’s no reason to make an online dating romantic comedy, to tell the truth. The thing I liked about my script wasn’t the online dating aspect — that was only used as a vehicle to get to the “what if/grass is always greener” struggle. That’s something that I think is universal to the human experience, and worth making a movie about. If you try to make a movie based on any technology, that technology’s going to become obsolete, and quite possibly, your movie will be dated by the time it comes out.

I don’t think you need a new visual language for “some future screenwriter” to figure out, you just have to figure out a compelling human story to tell that the technology helps you unlock. TV’s already doing that, so this feels like a puzzle no studio is interested in solving.

*I don’t want this to come across only as “my script should’ve gotten made!” lament. I’d have liked that, sure, but there are issues with the script, and I understand that. This is about the larger point of why this topic is a particular challenge for movies, written based on personal experience, rather than academic conjecture. That’s all. 


RIP Chris Cornell

In 1992, I had a page cut out of a magazine hanging on my wall with a picture of Chris Cornell onstage with Soundgarden, and the caption, “It takes a big heart and a healthy set of lungs to be the voice of a generation.”

This one hurts a lot.

Chris Cornell pretty much got me through high school. That he took his own life after giving hope and solace to me, and people like me, for thirty years…it’s just, it’s is a fathomless loss.

I saw Chris perform with Temple of the Dog in Los Angeles in November. He was magnetic and playful and sounded unbelievable. I didn’t expect him to sound as good as he did post-50, and post so many years on the road and everything else. It was kind of breathtaking.

My heart breaks for his many bandmates, and his family, especially his kids. 18 months ago, he performed Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” with his daughter Toni, and it’s wonderful, but highlights what a loss today represents.

When I started Sci-Fi Romance, people asked me what we sounded like, and I always told them, “You ever hear that time Johnny Cash covered Soundgarden? Like that.”

I have performed one of Chris’ songs — Temple of the Dog’s “Wooden Jesus.” But nobody can sing like he did, so I changed it up. Doing a shitty cover where I tried to ape a legendary voice didn’t seem like any fit way to pay respect.

Peace, Chris. You are missed already.


A Letter to Trump Voters

You won, and everybody in America wants to know what happens next

It always feels good when your side wins, and you won big. You now control the White House, both houses of Congress, your guy will appoint potentially several Supreme Court justices, and you’ve got a big lead in state governors and legislatures. You’re in charge.

But a lot of Americans are really, really worried, and they have a right to be. The president-elect said a lot of really divisive things on the campaign trail to get where he is right now. And I heard a lot of you on television and radio saying, “I don’t agree with *everything* he says.” Maybe you voted for him because of economic issues, or because you wanted to throw a brick through the windshield of status-quo electoral politics. If that’s the case, I don’t understand personally why you sent so many incumbents back to Washington, but it’s your ballot.

Now that you are in power, I ask you to use that power wisely.

One reason why so many people are so scared right now is because maybe you don’t agree with “everything” the president-elect said on the campaign trail, but folks don’t know which parts you like and which you don’t. When people listen to 59 million Americans saying “Make America great again, like it was in the 1950s,” they don’t hear “…when there was a strong middle class,” they hear instead, “…when we had Jim Crow laws and African Americans had to use separate facilities.” A time when minorities needed a Green Book to know how to simply stay safe on family vacations. For millions of survivors of sexual assault, having a president who says of women that “You have to treat ’em like shit” feels like an existential threat. For people who simply believe in America, the idea of throwing our political opponents in jail conjures Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy, and Hitler in Germany. And these people are not wrong in hearing those things in the president-elect’s words. Those are, in fact, the same things those dictators said, and people who lionize those dictators supported the president-elect and voted for him, just like you did.

Paul Ryan himself described some of the president-elect’s comments as “the textbook definition of racism,” and in less than 48 hours since the election results were announced, the country has seen swastikas spray painted on schools, students lining up to threaten their fellow, Hispanic students with deportation, and strangers verbally attacking minorities in public. So people have legitimate, founded-in-reality reasons to be worried.

If you don’t agree with that kind of behavior, you have to stand up and be a voice against it, too. You must, and right now. Today. If your kids are chanting “Build That Wall” at their classmates or telling Black students to go back to picking cotton, you need to sit your kids down right now and get some things straight with them. Because your silence is an endorsement, and it’s terrifying to the people who believe America is better than that, and whose lives are now under open threat.

There are a lot of eyes on you now. Like Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” You must be vigilant. You must make sure that those incumbents you sent back to DC stand up for what is right, and speak up against disenfranchisement, and bigotry, and hate speech, and you must raise your voice to guarantee that is never again enshrined in the laws of this country. You need to prove the fears of millions of Americans wrong. Please. You must do this.

Because I also heard a lot of you say about the president-elect that, “he tells it like it is.” He empirically does not tell it like it is. This is a fact. It is not how I feel, or how Hillary supporters feel, it is a fact. No matter how much you dislike the man, President Obama was not born in Kenya and is not a Muslim. Those are simply untruths, and it’s up to you to hold this man who has said all of these things to a higher standard now that you have elected him to the Presidency. You must hold your Senators and Representatives to that standard, as well. You must seek out the truth, and not settle for hearing reinforced what you only believe to be true. We all have to do this.

And if your elected leaders don’t live up, you’ve got to get them out, regardless of party. Remember that when Republicans got carte blanche in Kansas, it didn’t go very well. Like Stephen Colbert said, for too long we’ve been “worrying about winning and not what the consequence of winning is.”  Nobody can wave a wand to bring jobs back, and reality is fluid. You can’t step in the same river twice, and the time for some things, some jobs, certainly, has passed by and will not return. We all have to figure out the future and adapt together.

All eyes are on you. You are in the lead, and you must now lead by an example that doesn’t push people to the margins. If you feel marginalized, you know better than most how awful it is, and vulnerable people across the country are worried you now seek to visit that same hardship on their heads.

Don’t do it. Empathy will bring us together. Not payback. And silence in the face of injustice is complicity.


– A folk singer and videographer from Texas, living in California.