Screenwriter pitches success story

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Screenwriter and UT alumnus Rob Thomas explains hte orgins of his show "Party Down" at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.

Photo Credit: Nathan Goldsmith | Daily Texan Staff

Screenwriter Rob Thomas knew early in life he wanted to be a writer and toyed with the idea of novel writing before finally settling on writing for television.

Thomas, who graduated from UT with a history degree in 1987, went on to earn his big break as a young writer on “Dawson’s Creek” before writing 64 episodes of “Veronica Mars” and co-creating “Party Down,” a Starz network comdy series. Thomas spoke of the challenges and joys of his writing career in “A Conversation with Rob Thomas,” a program presented by the Austin Film Festival and held at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum Wednesday evening.

Taylor Cumbie, director of marketing for the Austin Film Festival, said Thomas is an inspiration to film students still trying to find their way in a tough business.

“I think he’s a great role model,” she said. “He writes true to himself and has a very authentic writing style, and that’s something really admirable.”

After graduating from UT, Thomas said he realized how difficult it would be to break into television writing.

“The typical network will hear 500 pitches [for shows] in a year, and to get in the door you have to have some sort of reputation,” he said.

Landing his first job with “Dawson’s Creek” felt like a dream to a struggling writer like himself, Thomas said.

“I felt like I had won the lottery,” he said. “And in some ways I had. It paid $3,000 a week, and I’d been working as a high school teacher. I couldn’t believe there was that much money in the world.”

Thomas went on to create and write for “Veronica Mars,” which he said was a gamble from the beginning, but continued as a successful show for several seasons.

“It was a passion project,” he said. “I wrote it without any network saying they wanted it.”

His opinions of his own writing changed when he saw an early episode of “The Office,” Thomas said.

“My whole career up to that point had been writing drama,” he said.

“When I watched ‘The Office,’ I thought, ‘That’s my thing. That I could do.’”

Thomas and a few friends were inspired by the show’s comedic rhythm and decided to create a new show of their own.

“It just changed how we thought about television comedy, and so we thought, let’s take a stab at it,” he said. “‘The Office’ is a show about people who have given themselves over to the rat race, so we thought we’d write a show about people who are chasing the dream, perhaps for too long.”

This inspiration resulted in “Party Down,” a series that eventually gained a home on Starz, but first took some initial planning and a few unsuccessful pitches to television networks, Thomas said.

“We started meeting every week, trying to hone in on this idea, and eventually we were ready to pitch the show,” he said. “The first place we pitched it was to HBO, and we had a devastatingly bad pitch meeting.”

The pilot for the show was shot at Thomas’ home in Los Angeles because budget constraints and featured Jane Lynch as one of its key stars.

“We were all in awe of Jane Lynch,” he said. “She’s an actress with a very low ego. We said, ‘Hey Jane, want to work for 100 dollars a day?’ and she said, ‘Sure.’”

While “Party Down” is no longer on the air, Thomas has returned to Austin and said he has a pitch for a new television show up his sleeve.

“I would love to work here, shoot here and produce the show here in Austin,” he said. “If I could get an HBO show on the air, that would be awesome.”

Chris Lovett, an Austin-based screenwriter, said he also stumbled upon television writing and said he came to hear the way Thomas carved his path.

“I started with short stories,” Lovett said. “I was trying to find my voice and didn’t want to do novels or articles and realized that screenplays were just like short stories.”