Three years ago this week, I started a website called Popcorn Fiction. The idea arose from a conversation with my buddy Craig Mazin, in which we were both lamenting that Hollywood never looks at contemporary short fiction anymore for inspiration. A slew of movies had popped up in the aught years based on sci-fi short fiction from the 40s and 50s it seemed, but if contemporary genre stories were being published, Hollywood wasn’t paying attention.
I turned to my brother, Austin, who is a programming whiz, and even though it was beneath him, I asked him to design a website where I could launch a new story each week. He enlisted his wife, Yoko, and they came up with both the code and the look. With that in place, I just needed material.
I hit up all the screenwriters I knew and asked if they were interested. Most were. They had prose itches they wanted to scratch, and the idea of penning something original – instead of working on the latest adaptation – intrigued them. They wouldn’t have to worry about budgets or set-pieces or notes or focus groups; they could just run wild on the page. I asked them to keep it under 8,000 words, and everyone but Les Bohem listened. I paid twenty bucks to make it official, because writers deserve to get paid for their work. ($25 now, because that’s how much you need to be eligible for contests.) I said to write anything you want as long as it wasn’t the type of story that would appear in the New Yorker. Comedy, horror, sci-fi, western, crime… make it count. Just write me the kind of story that would make a good popcorn movie.
At first, twelve stories was the goal… publish a new one each month. Then Larry Doyle told me that one a month was death in the Internet game. Ambitiously, I thought one a week could work. The stories started to pour in. Most of the first wave of writers I knew, but some I just solicited because I liked their writing. Patton Oswalt’s tale about an effete vampire, Brian Helgeland’s crime triangle, Jeff Lowell’s poor hotel maid, Nichelle Tramble’s character study, the aforementioned Mazin’s riff on a blues legend, Scott Frank’s carnival murder, and Eric Heisserer’s heart-wrenching story about a newborn in a hospital during a flood were some of those early stories that sucked readers in, and all of a sudden, I had subscribers asking me to email them when a new story came out. Most of the email addresses had the names of Hollywood studios following the @ sign.
A year and a half into it, Mulholland hit me up at Bouchercon and asked if they could help with Popcorn Fiction. They had a cool literary website going and liked PopFic’s content. I told them my biggest regret was that I simply didn’t have the time to look at general submissions, and I had a keen desire to discover new talent, the way some of those magazines from the 50s and 60s discovered Dick and Asimov and King. They said they would put up a submit button and manage the incoming stories, but I would keep final say in what went on the site. And they said they’d take over the contracts and the $25 payments. That sounded great to me. So much thanks to Miriam, Wes and John for seamlessly transitioning PopFic into their fold, and for opening it up to writers I never would have reached.
We’ve now published over 130 stories, have over 1,300 subscribers around the world (and subscribing just means I’ll email you each Monday and tell you very briefly about the latest story), and 80 thousand page views in the last year, with an average time spent by the user of nearly 3 minutes per page, which again, I’m told is unheard of on the Internet. We don’t put up ads, because we only care about the stories. The authors keep their copyright and can do whatever else they want with their work. If they ask us to take it down, we will. If they want to turn it into a movie, have at it.
I’m proud of the site, and not just because a bunch of the stories have been optioned or sold to Hollywood, and not just because some of the authors have been hired to write other material after a studio exec discovered them off the site, and not just because new authors have been published for the very first time on these pages, and not just because I get to publish incredible stories from names like Lawrence Block and Charlie Huston… no, I’m proud of the site because readers write in each week and tell me how much they dug a particular story, and how much they think our taste is strong. Heidi, Ron, Jack, Chris… all of our regular (and vocal) readers, thank you so much for coming back each Monday.
As long as you keep reading, we’ll keep popping the Popcorn.
Derek Haas is the author of the The Assassin Trilogy: The Silver Bear, Columbus, Dark Men. Derek also co-wrote the screenplays for 3:10 TO YUMA, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, and WANTED, starring James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, and Angelina Jolie. Mulholland Books will publish his fourth novel The Right Hand in October 2012. He is also the creator and editor-in-chief of the acclaimed website Popcorn Fiction. Derek lives in Los Angeles.