James Erwin, 37, didn’t have Hollywood in mind when he started writing Rome, Sweet Rome. He was just taking a break from writing software manuals at his home in Des Moines, Iowa, when he saw this question posted on Reddit: “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 [Marine Expeditionary Unit]?” His response led to a movie deal with Warner Bros.
Wired followed up with the writer –as well as Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and also Adam Kolbrenner, who runs the literary management and production company that first discovered Erwin–to find out how and why Hollywood would turn to Reddit to scout for talent, especially when said talent was hidden behind the handle Prufrock451.
Unlike a YouTube star or a self-published author on Amazon, Reddit users are not creating entire bodies of work and putting them on a website hoping to get famous; they are simply engaging in dialogue with each other.
But that may be part of the appeal. In Erwin’s case, his one-page pitch intrigued the other users so much that they literally asked him for more. When Warner Bros. asked him to adapt his story, RomeSweetRome, into a screenplay, the company already knew he had a market.
It might have been Erwin’s attention to detail that got them hooked:
The 35th MEU is on the ground at Kabul, preparing to deploy to southern Afghanistan. Suddenly, it vanishes.
The section of Bagram where the 35th was gathered suddenly reappears in a field outside Rome, on the west bank of the Tiber River. Without substantially prepared ground under it, the concrete begins sinking into the marshy ground and cracking. Colonel Miles Nelson orders his men to regroup near the vehicle depot—nearly all of the MEU’s vehicles are still stripped for air transport. He orders all helicopters airborne, believing the MEU is trapped in an earthquake.
Nelson’s men soon report a complete loss of all communications, including GPS and satellite radio. Nelson now believes something more terrible has occurred—a nuclear war and EMP which has left his unit completely isolated. Only a few men have realized that the rest of Bagram has vanished, but that will soon become apparent as the transport helos begin circling the 35th’s location.
Within an hour, the 2,200 Marines have regrouped, stunned. They are not the only moderns transported to Rome. With them are about 150 Air Force maintenance and repair specialists. There are about 60 Afghan Army soldiers, mostly the MEU’s interpreters and liaisons. There are also 15 U.S. civilian contractors and one man, Frank Delacroix, who has spoken to no one but Colonel Nelson.
Miraculously, no one was killed during the earthquake but several dozen people were injured, some seriously. All fixed-wing aircraft and the attack helicopters were rendered inoperable by the shifting concrete, although the MEU did not lose a single vehicle or transport helicopter.
As night falls, the MEU has established a perimeter. A few locals have been spotted, but in the chaos no one has yet established contact. Nelson and his men, who are crippled without mapping software and GPS to fix their position, begin attempting to fix their location by observing stars. The night is cloudy. Nelson orders four helicopters back into the air at first light, to travel along the river in hopes of locating a settlement.
Would you put your story ideas on Reddit? Let us know in the comments. To read the rest of the Wired story, click here.