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Hollywood screenwriters keep pulp (short) fiction alive

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The short stories in places like The New Yorker can be lovely, evocative pieces — but they don’t usually involve an insanely jealous trapeze artist or a serial killer escaping from the back of an FBI agent’s sedan during an earthquake. That’s a pity. But pulpy, plot-driven tales about circus artists and killers (and killer circus artists) are the main offering at Popcorn Fiction, a month-old literary site where a bunch of Hollywood screenwriters are trying to revive a languishing genre, one story at a time. As with most anthologies, the stories are a mixed bag. But early highlights include “Lightning in a Bottle,” a variation on the old saw about a jazz musician (this time a drummer) who sells his soul to a mysterious stranger for the perfect jam, by Craig Mazin (a co-writer of Scary Movie 3 and 4), and “A Best Friend Named Rick,” about a newly sprung ex-con struggling to stay straight, by Nichelle D. Tramble (a story editor on the NBC drama Mercy).

The idea for Popcorn Fiction grew out of one screenwriter’s love for old-fashioned storytelling. “I had been listening to satellite radio and I started listening to these old great ’50s radio programs like X Minus One, The Shadow, and Have Gun Will Travel,” says site founder Derek Haas, an L.A.-based scribe whose credits (with writing partner Michael Brandt) include 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma and 2008’s Wanted. “And I thought, nobody writes these kinds of things anymore, or if they do, they’re not easy to find. So I started knocking the idea around with some screenwriting friends and said, ‘What if I started commissioning screenwriters to write short stories?'”

Haas, who’s collected stories mostly by word of mouth and says he is not (yet) seeking general submissions, posts a new tale on the site roughly once a week. This week’s new entry: “Hours,” set in a hospital ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, by Eric Heiserer (2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot). In coming weeks, Haas promises a yarn by Emmy winner Leslie Bohem (Dante’s Peak, TV’s Taken), a “funny little vampire story” by actor-comedian Patton Oswalt (Big Fan), and a crime tale by Oscar winner Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River).

You might think that Haas and his screenwriting pals would use the site to fish for movie deals. You’d be right. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer just bought Haas’ own story “Shake,” an adrenaline-charged but implausibly over-the-top thriller about an FBI agent with Parkinson’s chasing a serial killer during an earthquake in L.A. (Check it out here.) Curiously for a website founder, though, Haas has no plans to profit from Popcorn Fiction: Authors maintain all copyrights to their material. “I’m trying to help writers push new ideas in such a tough spec market,” says Haas, whose second novel, Columbus — a sequel to his 2008 thriller, The Silver Bear — is due in bookstores this November. “Every day you read on Ain’t It Cool News or one of those sites that Hollywood has run out of ideas, that all they can do is take these old films or these old TV shows and make them into movies. And I’m like, Wait. There’s a way to get new ideas into the system.” Now the rest of us don’t need to wait for a studio greenlight to see some of these ideas come to life on the screen — our computer screens, anyway.

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