When he was in college about 30 years ago and came home to Buffalo in the summer, Nick Bakay worked a minimum-wage job as a security guard.
He has turned that experience into a $100 million movie, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," that he and star and co-writer Kevin James sold to a studio in about 45 minutes.
"The idea sort of hatched between the two of us," Bakay said in a telephone interview. "Once we had the log line, which was basically 'Die Hard' in a mall with a fat security guard, Kevin was on the phone and we were in the process of getting it sold within 45 minutes."
Of course, Bakay and James had no idea that the family-friendly film -- which had a $26 million budget -- would become No. 1 at the U.S. box office for two weeks while playing in theaters opposite Oscar-nominated films "Slumdog Millionaire," "The Reader," "Milk," "Frost/Nixon" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." "Blart" remained the No. 5 movie last weekend and has now grossed $97 million in four weeks. It has grossed more than all the nominated movies except for "Button" and is assured of going past $100 million this weekend.
"It is always a thrill that the thing just gets made," said Bakay, who worked with James for several years as a writer on the CBS comedy, "King of Queens." "The odds are against it even being filmed. Of course, having Kevin made that a lot more of a sure thing. I didn't know what to expect. I know it was going to do OK when I saw how strongly they were marketing it."
In the film, James plays an insecure, romantically starved mall security guard in New Jersey who lives with his mother and teenage daughter and becomes a surprising hero after a hostage situation at the mall.
"Everybody thought if it did $20 million over the Dr. Martin Luther King weekend, it would have been big, big thumbs up," said Bakay. It hit $34 million on opening weekend.
"No one expected this, and it is really exciting," said Bakay, a Nichols School graduate.
Some critics certainly didn't expect it. Roger Ebert was kind, ending his three-star review by cracking: "should Daniel Craig someday retire, I am supporting Kevin James for the next James Bond." But the film has been slammed by critics, too.
"They think we were trying to make 'Revolutionary Road' or something," said Bakay. "It's crazy. We made a funny, big comedy that you go to with your kids and laugh and not be uncomfortable. Some people seem to be incensed that it has done so well. It's a family PG movie, and people love it. We were laughing about how funny it is that we read some guy from the Idaho Potato Picker calling us morons and it made $100 million."
He said that "Blart" came out of the frustrations looking at other scripts that were pitched to James, who was a supporting actor opposite Will Smith in "Hitch" and a co-star with Adam Sandler in "Chuck & Larry."
By movie standards, it was a rush job. It was written in three months instead of the normal 18 months or so. James and Bakay e-mailed a rewrite to the studio (with the input of Sandler, who is one of the producers) just in time to beat the deadline before the writers' strike of 2007.
It was filmed in about three months, too, so it could be in the pipeline at a time that movies would be needed due to the paucity of projects because of the strike.
Bakay said talking about his summer experiences as a security guard with James played a role in the film's creation.
"It was a real back and forth, the two of us really came up with it together," said Bakay. "I didn't use anything specific, but we certainly mined the general contempt the public has for security guards -- the feeling of alienation and loneliness."
The plan was to pitch the movie to James' fan base, which has expanded with his movie roles since he left "King of Queens," and that sitcom has found more viewers in syndication.
"King of Queens is a very underestimated show," added Bakay. "It never got any accolades when it was on the air ... I think Kevin only got nominated for an Emmy once, which is a sin ... When the show syndicated, all of a sudden I know so many people who totally missed it and have caught up with it and realize how good it was and realized Kevin is a real comedy star."
And what does he think is the key to James' popularity? "He's really funny," said Bakay. "He's enormously talented. He makes me laugh harder than anyone I've ever worked with. He's lovable. He's very relatable."
The movie's success hasn't made Bakay rich -- yet -- though he said there is some profit participation. "I'm sure there will be the usual Hollywood bookkeeping adventure," said Bakay. "This is my first go-round with something like this. If history serves, I'm sure [getting his share of the profits] is not going to be for a long, long time."
However, there are some side benefits to co-writing a $100 million movie.
"I don't have anything specific lined up, but I'm taking meetings with producers and studios that certainly weren't there a month ago," said Bakay.
He also is involved with " 'Til Death," the Fox sitcom with Brad Garrett that has run for three seasons and needs a fourth for syndication. Bakay said it will be back for at least a year even though it isn't on the schedule.
Bakay, who does segments for NFL Network, writes for NFL.com and occasionally does pieces for ESPN during the football season, also sounded intrigued with an upcoming Fox pilot, "Warlosky," about a Buffalo mall security guard and Buffalo sports fan that was co-written by a younger Nichols graduate, Brian Gatewood.
"Reading the premise, this is a Buffalo-obsessed sports fan," said Bakay. "I thought, 'This is my wheelhouse.' It made me laugh just reading about it. I have lived every part of this. Long-suffering Bills fan. A security guard in Buffalo. I should go over there [to write] and dump 'Til Death.' "