What Happens to a Reddit Thread When It Becomes a Hollywood Movie?

A movie idea from the social website is getting the full Hollywood treatment—and its creator has attempted to quell the fury from online fans

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James Erwin's original 'Rome Sweet Rome' response

Unless you’ve been following the story of the in-the-works movie Rome Sweet Rome on Reddit, the social news site, the genesis of the film may surprise you. The short version of the story is that on Aug. 31, 2011, the Reddit user James Erwin stumbled across a post that consisted of an intriguing hypothetical question: “Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion or MEU?” (MEU stands for Marine Expeditionary Unit.) Erwin responded with a detailed hypothetical answer, in the form of a tale of the men on the mission and the events of their first day post-time-travel. “DAY 1 The 35th MEU is on the ground at Kabul, preparing to deploy to southern Afghanistan. Suddenly, it vanishes,” he began.

As explained in a detailed March 2012 Wired story about what happened next, it took only two weeks for the initial post and the follow-up he wrote—eight days in the story’s timeline—to become part of a Hollywood movie deal. (Erwin told Reddit readers that he sold the idea for an unspecified lump sum and a portion of the profits.) The same month, Erwin—a man of many talents but a first-time screenwriter —told Mashable that Warner Bros. had accepted his treatment of the screenplay and that he had been given a month and a half to rewrite the draft.

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Fast-forward nearly a year:

On Jan. 14, after Erwin had teased a big announcement on the thread-slash-movie’s Facebook fan page, a new twist in the story emerged in Variety: Brian Miller, the screenwriter behind 2011’s Apollo 18, would be stepping in to bring a “fresh approach” to the draft written by Erwin. Miller, Variety reported, had never read Erwin’s script when he was hired. The Marines in the original Reddit query would also be replaced by U.S. Special Forces.

There had been warnings that this was coming. In an Aug. 1, 2012, Facebook post, Erwin told readers that he was disappointed to learn that a rewrite would be required: “This is tough. It really is. I put a lot into that draft. But this is how this industry works. This is what I signed up for. The best way to protect my work is to work hard, play fair, and stay visible.” Still, the news did not go over well when it broke; Reddit’s populist ethos seemed to clash with perceptions of the workings of a big studio. A popular comment on a link to the story is “Ouch. Tough break Erwin.” “Leave it to Hollywood to botch this great idea,” said another. And: “Ruined…wont [sic] even bother.” Facebook reaction went in a similar direction: “Cripes, don’t like that at all” and “Miller is going to ruin this movie” and, again, “Ouch.”

But Erwin, the person who might have been most upset by script’s handling and who confirmed to Reddit readers that he has no creative control over the project at the moment, spent much of the day calming those upset by the announcement.

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“You guys, 99% of what I’m feeling is simply relief that the other shoe has dropped after eight months of waiting,” he told followers on Facebook, reminding “naysayers” to keep in mind that Brian Miller had succeeded in Hollywood—the $5-million budgeted Apollo 18 has made five times that much in grosses, according to Box Office Mojo—and was working with a smart team. Erwin’s name would still be on the finished product, which meant that his happiness about the script’s progress made should be taken at face value. “Please join me in staying excited and hopeful. Longwinded rant over,” he concluded. And in a Reddit response, Erwin’s zen outlook continued:

Also standard procedure to have a completely fresh second draft, so the studio and the producers have a lot of ideas to pick and choose from as they push toward a final draft. This is a slow, collaborative process, and I knew all of that going in.

So: Not upset. Not disappointed. And not necessarily done. Second draft does not equal shooting script.

Erwin tells TIME that he was not surprised by the negative reaction to the news when it broke on Jan. 14. “I would like to say it’s because every word I produce makes angels weep, but a vastly bigger part of this is just that it’s a very seductive narrative: ‘One of us nerds makes it big and Hollywood sucks out his soul.’ It’s more complicated than that,” he said in an email. “I’m not angry; it’s business, and it’s not necessarily the end of the road for me on this project. If I can stay engaged with my fans on Reddit and Facebook and Twitter AND defuse any misplaced anger while keeping people happy and interested, then I have no reason at all not to do that.”

But no matter what Reddit-based fans want, when Rome Sweet Rome hits the beg screen it won’t be exactly same story they read back in 2011. For one thing, it will be longer. Erwin—who told a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” forum that he had returned to his day job working on financial-industry software manuals, as of Oct. 2012—stopped writing the story on Reddit shortly after the possibility of a movie deal became clear, leaving his Marines stranded in Rome and only just having made contact with the Roman higher-ups. Erwin has expressed excitement about returning to the story when it finally qualifies as fanfiction; although he did exchange notes with the author of the original Marines-in-Rome query when Rome Sweet Rome took off, it’s been some time. (He doesn’t know whether that curious Reddit user still keeps tabs on the story’s progress.)

And Erwin says the film won’t even be called Rome Sweet Rome—that for all the ongoing developments, that one thing at least was made very clear to him: “I am 99.9 percent certain, by the way, that the title will be something different and more fitting to the plot,” he said. “‘Over my dead body this will be the title,’ in the words of one of the producers.”

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