It's a sunny 83-degree afternoon in unglamorous Studio City, Calif., but 30-year-old screenwriter Evan Daugherty can't tear himself away from his computer. He's too busy giving himself carpal tunnel refreshing Rotten Tomatoes to monitor the reviews for his first movie, "Snow White and the Huntsman," which is being released in 3,772 screens on Friday.
"No one prepared me for the stress and insanity of a week leading up to a movie," he told The Huffington Post. "Years and years of work come down to three days."
But even if "Snow White" bombs, Daugherty's success seems all but assured -- right now, he may be the single most popular young screenwriter in Hollywood.
He sold "Snow White" in 2010 for $3.2 million to Universal after a fierce bidding war, and just wrapped shooting on his second movie, "Killing Season," which stars Robert De Niro and John Travolta. It's the kind of career that inspires thousands of kids to move out to Los Angeles to toil for years in poverty and obscurity in pursuit of their dreams.
Indeed, until recently, Daugherty was one of those kids. He's always loved movies; he traces "Snow White and the Huntsman" back to "primal memories of seeing one of the re-releases of Disney's 'Snow White'" as a toddler. In 2004, he emerged from NYU Film School having written several feature-length scripts, including "Snow White." He moved to Los Angeles, got a manager and started showing "Snow White" around. But no one was interested in it -- or in anything else he had to offer.
"I failed miserably. I hit brick wall after brick wall," he said.
So after a year of disillusionment, he moved into his parents' basement in Dallas. But he didn't give up his cinematic aspirations; rather, he just shifted gears. In Hollywood, he'd been pitching scripts for movies filled with special effects -- the type that require "a $150 million budget," he said. He was called presumptuous. So once he got home, he decided to go for something more bare-boned.
He ended up writing "Shrapnel," a thriller set in the middle of the woods. He sent it around to agents and managers, who were encouraging, and it then won first place in 2008's Script Pipeline contest. It was also included on the 2008 edition of the "Black List," an annual list of excellent, not-yet produced scripts compiled by producer Franklin Leonard. Scripts with Leonard's imprimatur almost always get produced.
Daugherty decided to give Los Angeles one more try. He now had an agent and a manager, but it was still hard to get paying work. He said that, for the first "year and change," he ate only bologna sandwiches and slept on an air mattress on the floor of a friend's apartment in Koreatown. He made some money working on scripts that never got produced, but he didn't get a real bed until Phil Schaeffer, a close friend from Dallas, moved to LA. They agreed to split a two-bedroom apartment in Studio City.
Early in 2010, after Daugherty had been in LA for almost two years, Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" was released and grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide. Daugherty sensed an opportunity. He'd already written a screenplay that, like "Alice in Wonderland," reinterpreted a classic fairy tale for the 21st century. And it too had made it onto the "Black List." So he had his agent send the script to Joe Roth, one of the producers of "Alice in Wonderland." Roth loved it. He attached a director and started shopping the movie around to distributors.
Then the bidding war began.
"Those are the two best words in English," Daugherty joked. "'Bidding' and 'war.'"
One evening later that summer, Daugherty was driving through Cahuenga Pass to a business meeting at ritzy Japanese restaurant Katsuya when he got a momentous call. An assistant told him that an army of lawyers, agents and executives was on the line, and Daugherty learned that Universal was planning to buy the movie in a deal that would net him $3.2 million. But as excited as he was, he knew the deal could still fall apart, so he drove on to Katsuya.
"I didn't even tell the guy that I was having the meeting with that I had just gotten this call. So I had to talk about whatever the project was that we were talking about, act cool and try not to jinx it," he said.
His superstition paid off and the deal worked out. Though he said he's been too busy since then to spend much of his paycheck, he has given in to a few luxurious items. He replaced his old Honda with a Range Rover. He bought the biggest TV he could find: a 67-incher with 3D, which now dominates his small bedroom. He still lives in the same apartment -- but he hired his roommate to be a full-time assistant.
"It's sort of like 'Entourage' -- Turtle and E and whatever," he said. "Tomorrow will be the release of the movie -- so I'll do the cost-benefit analysis on whether to keep him as my assistant."
He may end up needing that assistant, as he still has more work on the horizon. "Shrapnel" became "Killing Season," the DeNiro-Travolta movie, and it will soon hit the festival circuit in search of a distributor. And Lionsgate hired Daugherty to write an adaptation of the young adult novel "Divergent," which he compared to "The Hunger Games."
But for now, Daugherty is focused on "Snow White and the Huntsman." And until the box office receipts come in on Sunday, all there is to look at are those reviews. Refresh, refresh, refresh.
"I'm trying to step back a little and enjoy it. The Tomato Meter is a bit under 'fresh' right now," he said. "But it was nice to see a pretty darn positive A. O. Scott review. He's maybe the toughest critic, and one of the most respected critics, out there. And I'm starting to see some tweets and stuff from people who've seen the movie. And it seems like the people are enjoying the movie. Fans of this kind of movie are enjoying it as well, which is the most important thing."
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