You’ve probably never said a word to Jason Byers, but if you’re a moviegoer, he’s said a few to you. Byers, 35, is one of the most sought-after tag-line writers in Hollywood; his job is to furnish film advertisements with the witty one-liners beneath the titles. If you smiled when you read “Let the ex games begin” on the ads for last year’s “The Break-Up,” you’ve already appreciated Byers’ work. He has also made funnies for television shows, including the “Iron Chef” (“Put some iron in your diet”) and “Six Feet Under” (“Every day above ground is a good one”).
This summer, America’s box-office dollars will go to several films that Byers is helping pitch, including “The Simpsons Movie;” the Nicole Kidman thriller “The Invasion;” “Evan Almighty;” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” and “Surf’s Up” (“A major ocean picture”).
Sometimes Byers’ tag lines are more memorable than the films for which they’re written, like “Shift happens,” a slogan he devised to boost awareness of the poorly received Jessica Simpson vehicle “Employee of the Month.” But for every popcorn comedy his pithy prose has promoted, there is a lauded art film on Byers’ résumé. If you were drawn to “Pan’s Labyrinth” when its trailer asked, “What happens when make-believe believes it’s real?” then he has earned his paycheck. His work on that film also earned a nomination for a Key Art Award, the profession’s Oscar.
Like many people who hold niche jobs in show business, Byers arrived in Los Angeles aspiring to appear on-screen. “I wanted to be an actor,” the University of California Berkeley grad confesses. “Actually, no. I just wanted to be famous.” He also tried his hand at writing screenplays, something he still hopes to do, but has put off as major studios continue to ask him to wordsmith their marketing copy. “I was surprised by how much writing tag lines pays, so I have a little bit of a golden handcuffs problem,” Byers admits sheepishly.
The first step of his methodology — a blinking cursor on a blank computer screen — will be familiar to writers of all strains. After reading a script or viewing a preliminary cut of a film, Byers brainstorms twists on clichés and clever double entendres. If he’s pitching an adolescent comedy, he mines raunchier veins: Some of his favorite, ultimately unused creations were for “Borat” (“Things are going to get hairy”) and “Flushed Away” (“Potty animals”). He says that his mind goes to darker, dirtier corners when he’s working on a campaign bound for the Internet, which is subject to less stringent content standards than print and broadcast media.
This story first appeared in the June 20, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Byers often derives inspiration from tag lines of older, classic films. On the walls of his home visitors will find posters from “Annie Hall” (“A nervous romance”) and “Alien” (“In space no one can hear you scream”). He also has an appreciation for unintended camp, exemplified by his admiration for “A fearless feminine creature with a heart full of love!” — the slogan of the 1938 Bette Davis vehicle “Jezebel.”
While Byers’ formulations are often the linchpins of movie marketing campaigns, he himself receives little glory save his fees. For example, he is rarely invited to the premieres of films he helps to market. “Oh no, I’m long forgotten by then!” he says with a chuckle.