A double play for Johnston, Russo brothers


Local TV reporter-turned-writer Phil Johnston and Emmy-winning directing brothers Joe and Anthony Russo have teamed to sell two projects within the past two weeks.

On the film side, the trio have set up "A Friggin' Christmas Miracle" at Universal Pictures, with Imagine Entertainment on board to produce.

Johnston and the Russos also are working on "Life Is Super," a single-camera comedy for Touchstone TV.

"It was a wacky couple of weeks," said Johnston, who has been pursuing a career in screenwriting since graduating from Columbia University's film school last year. "I wasn't at all expecting both things to hit at once."

"Miracle" revolves around a father who forgets his son's present on Christmas Eve and has to drive through the night with his archenemy, his own father, in order to save Christmas.

It is based on the true story of a holiday that almost went wrong a few years ago at Johnston's parents' house in Wisconsin. At midnight on Christmas Eve, his sister and brother-in-law realized that they had left their daughter's presents at their house in Chicago. With all the stores closed, Johnston and his brother-in-law drove to Chicago and back in 22-below-zero weather.

The sale for "Miracle" puts the Russos back in business with Universal, for whom they directed "You, Me and Dupree." That film, starring Owen Wilson and Kate Hudson, grossed $75.6 million this summer.

Holly Bario is overseeing for Universal. Erica Huggins is shepherding for Imagine.

"Super," which is close to landing at ABC, centers on a lovable but attention-starved woman who has spent much of her adult life adopting children — five and counting — with the hope of finding a prodigy. However, she only has ended up with a houseful of uniquely unexceptional kids.

"Somehow I'm attracted to unstable characters who have good hearts but are profoundly misguided," Johnston said.

If the project goes to pilot, the Russos are set to direct it. They also are executive producing.

Johnston began his career in broadcasting, spending eight years as a reporter at local TV stations in the Midwest, most recently at NBC affiliate KARE in Minneapolis.

"They typically sent me out to cover cold temperatures and natural disasters, telling people not to go out while freezing my ass off," he said.

By 2001, with three local Emmys and two Edward R. Murrow Awards under his belt, Johnston felt like he couldn't continue knocking on people's doors to ask them how they felt about relatives who had just been killed. What he liked best about the job was storytelling, so he went for a career change to screenwriting with a fellowship at Columbia. His thesis short film, "Flightless Birds," and a spec script got the attention of Eryn Brown and Brad Mendelsohn of management/production company Industry Entertainment. They helped develop his feature script "Jeremy Orm Is a Pervert," to which the Russos sparked for their collaboration with him. The project is being packaged for Johnston to direct.

Johnston and the Russos are repped by UTA.

Johnston is additionally repped by attorney Andrew Hurwitz.

The Russos, who won an Emmy for directing the pilot of "Arrested Development," are additionally repped by attorney Karl Austen.