One day recently, Tobin Addington, a University of Montana media arts professor and screenwriter, was visiting his in-laws. His son, who was scrolling through the cable channels, hollered to let his father know his movie was on TV.
Addington’s script, “A Christmas Stray,” had been produced by the Oprah Winfrey Network for its 2021 slate of original holiday movies, and now it was piping into households everywhere.
“I love Christmas — and it’s one of my favorite holidays, and I love Christmas movies,” Addington said. Two years ago, he began “a real attempt to try something new” and work on a script in the popular genre, which has its own conventions and beats, not unlike the mysteries and thrillers he usually writes.
“The trick for me was to figure out how/if I could fulfill the formula but also make it new and different enough” to get produced, he said.
Then the image came to him, which became the film you see: Ethan, a somewhat uptight young executive (Andra Fuller) gets run off the road by a stray dog, and gets stuck in a small mountain town for a few days over the holidays. In keeping with the holiday spirit — Christmas movies lend themselves to a love story — he meets Foster, a local veterinarian (Rhyon Nicole Brown).
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OWN filmed his script earlier this year and premiered it last week. It’s also available on demand through Discovery Plus.
A screenwriter at heart, Addington said it’s “so cool” to see one of your ideas “brought to life by this whole crew.” Some aspects of the completed film “are different than I imagined, and there are some things that are just as I imagined they would be,” and “I'm really proud of it, and it's nice to be able to finally share it with other people.”
Love of filmmaking
Addington is an adjunct assistant professor of media arts and digital filmmaking in the UM School of Visual and Media Arts, where he teaches screenwriting courses, an upper-division directing class, and more.
The Missoula native discovered his love of filmmaking when he first got his hands on a shoulder-mounted VHS camcorder around the seventh grade. He made movies through his time at Hellgate High School and continued in college — first at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and then at the Columbia University MFA filmmaking program in New York City, where he stayed for some 15 years.
He counts the first feature film he worked on among the highlights of his time there. He was director’s assistant for “The Night Listener,” a 2006 thriller starring Robin Williams. Not only was he on set with an actor he’d seen on screen since he was young, he said it was eye-opening to see how a professional movie was “not really that different from what we were doing in school, and they just had more resources.”
He was hired to do some uncredited writing work on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny,” a 2016 sequel distributed by Netflix. The filming was already completed, and he assisted with restructuring and dialogue.
While he’s worked in many different capacities in film, scripts are his main passion. He loves writing for “actors and directors and cinematographers and for other people to take a project through to the finish line. I find that really, really satisfying.”
He always wanted to find a way back to western Montana, and after he and his wife had two young children, they moved back to Missoula so they could have the same kind of upbringing he did.
While “A Christmas Stray” is set in Colorado (and filmed in Canada), he thinks anybody from Montana will recognize elements, such as annual gatherings in small towns. In the film, the residents come together for a party on Dec. 24 in the heart of town, a communal effort not unlike First Fridays in Missoula or St. Patrick’s Day in Butte.
Meanwhile, Addington is working on several pitches for films set in his home state.
“Like any screenwriter from Montana, I’m always trying to get projects made here,” he said. The level of productions now make the prospects “more and more likely,” and as a professor he said it’s “tremendous” when they’re able to give students a chance to work on professional sets, much like he did in New York.