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Earlier this year, Dan P. Lee, a writer on contract for New York magazine, was working on a story about the life of Anna Nicole Smith. He was trying to write and report the story of her life — her marriage to the octogenarian billionaire who she met working the day shift at a strip club, her legal battle with his family over his will, her descent into reality television infamy and, ultimately, her death. He gathered so much dialogue in his reporting that he decided to hand in his first draft to New York features editor David Haskell as a screenplay.
Haskell sent the piece back to his writer. “My editor was like ‘Are you on drugs? What the f–k?’” Lee said.
On Haskell’s advice, Lee rewrote the piece as conventional narrative nonfiction and filed a second draft. “I understood Haskell’s point — and obviously it’s [editor Adam] Moss’ too — that no matter what disclaimer they would use at the top, it’s a very jarring jump for a reader to make that they’re reading a screenplay in a magazine,” Lee said. “Screenplays, I don’t know if you’ve read many of them, but they just feel very fictional when you read them.”
But Lee was onto something with his first draft. Within a few weeks he got word that a film production company in Los Angeles was interested in optioning rights to his 8,000-word story, “Paw Paw & Lady Love,” which ran in New York’s Best Doctors issue in June. Now writers are at work turning Lee’s magazine story back into a screenplay. He declined to comment on the size of the deal.
Magazines have always sent their stories off to Hollywood — movies like “Saturday Night Fever,” “American Gangster,” “Goodfellas” and “Grey Gardens” all began as stories in New York, as did television shows like “Taxi” — but this summer they’ve become more aggressive. New York and The Atlantic have signed contracts with International Creative Management to help formalize the process of turning stories into films or TV shows. Todd Hoffman, one of the firm’s top agents, will oversee deal-making for the magazines when filmmakers take an interest to one of their stories and also mine the magazines’ archives for old stories that weren’t scooped up by Hollywood when they first came out. The New York Times has had a similar relationship with Hoffman for more than five years.
Whether these new contracts will change the role of writers like Lee, who have long fielded their own requests from filmmakers and even signed on with agents of their own, is unclear. Equally unclear is whether these deals will make any difference to the magazines, since Hollywood’s tradition of buying film rights has never been a major moneymaker for the publishing world.
The details and structures of different deals depend largely on the magazine’s rules and relationships with the writers (at The New Yorker, for example, all writers retain full copyright to their work and many of them, accustomed to spinning their stories into larger projects, have their own agents). At the Times, it’s more cut and dried: the newspaper owns everything. “The Times owns all of the content so it’s ours to represent and to do with what we want,” said Stephanie Serino, the director of domestic sales and licensing at The New York Times Syndicate.
At New York magazine, the terms of the deals will depend on the magazine’s agreement with different writers. “What we’ve tried to do in every case is be at or beyond the industry standard for what a writer is entitled to,” said New York deputy editor Jon Gluck. “We want the writers to share in any benefit we have, and that’s the simple bottom line.” New York’s decision to sign with ICM was driven by Moss, the editor, not by the business side.
“I’d love to be able to say, ‘Yeah, this is a big additional revenue stream, moneymaking opportunity,’” said Jay Lauf, the publisher of The Atlantic. “It’d be probably sexier to be able to say that, but it’s not.”
“Let’s just say it’s not a huge part of our business,” said Serino at the Times about selling the newspaper’s reportage to television and film production entities.
“It’s exciting and glamorous if you’re a magazine writer and five or 10 or 20 or 50 or whatever thousand dollars is free money,” said former New York editor and Spy Magazine co-founder Kurt Andersen. “But how big of a business is it? I don’t know.”
One source who has deep experience with magazine stories being picked up by film and television producers cited a typical example of writers receiving around $4,000 to $5,000, or even less, to option a story. If the story gets made into a film, there might be an additional $20,000 in purchase rights. More high-profile magazine stories have been optioned for closer to $50,000 with purchase rights in the hundreds of thousands, especially when multiple parties are interested in bidding on the project.
In 2007, at the top of the market, Universal Pictures paid $2 million for the rights to Warren St. John’s reporting for a front-page New York Times story, which grew out of a book he was working on while on leave from the paper, about a soccer team of refugee children in Clarkston, Ga. An additional $1 million is promised if the movie gets made. The Times, St. John, the subjects of his story and his book publishers all split the money. Deals of that size are no longer possible.
Most of the time, optioning a magazine story presents a bargain for a filmmaker, as in the case of Lee’s story for New York on Smith, which was much cheaper to option than her life rights, according to several sources familiar with these deals. Call it “‘The Social Network’ syndrome,” in which a film is based on accounts created by a writer, not on somebody’s life.
New York’s and The Atlantic’s deals with ICM are a far cry from the grandiose vision of East Coast-West Coast synergy in the Nineties with Talk Magazine. Editor in chief Tina Brown at the time described Talk as a sort of “cultural search engine” for Harvey Weinstein’s then-studio Miramax, which was financing the magazine.
“If you’re Harvey Weinstein and you’re Tina Brown or if you’re anybody who runs a magazine, it’s a very tempting vision,” said Andersen, who has split his time over the last decade between creative work, like his three novels and screenplays — he’s sold two of them in addition to a joint collaboration on a pilot for HBO with Lawrence O’Donnell — and nonfiction work for magazines and newspapers. “Oh, look all these writers out in the world finding these fascinating narratives; it’s this vertical integration we can create and we can get the stories before they’re stories.” Andersen continued: “That sounds good but the difference between saying it and doing it is obviously more difficult.”
“If you look at the magazine articles that made really good movies, they’re generally speaking using the article as a point of departure,” said W editor at large Lynn Hirschberg. “It’s a fun idea to feel like one idea is feeding the other, and I wish it was more than it is, but really I think it’s more of a fantasy that the magazine business is going to feed the movie business.”
On the other hand, there’s Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter, who has managed to edit a magazine that covers Hollywood while producing his own films, throwing the quintessential Oscars party and collecting consultant fees. In 2004, Universal Pictures reportedly cut Carter a check for $100,000 after he suggested that “A Beautiful Mind,” which was based on a book excerpted in Vanity Fair, be made into a film.
The deals that have cropped up this summer are much smaller than that. Gluck, whose role as deputy editor at New York has recently grown to include the new effort to get the magazine’s content onto other platforms (“movies, TV shows, books, apps, podcasts”), said that he spends a few minutes every week reading the magazine through the lens of what could be optioned in the issue. He said the biggest incentive behind signing with the agency was “getting every story its greatest possible audience and exposure. That’s why we do this in the first place — we like people to read our stories.”
So far this summer only one piece from the magazine, Robert Kolker’s cover story about the still-at-large Long Island serial killer, has been sold to Sony under the ICM arrangement (ICM also brokered the deal to sell Lee’s story, but that wasn’t through the magazine’s arrangement with the agency). Gluck declined to say how much Sony paid for Kolker’s story.
New York has also recently hired Frank Rich as an editor at large. Rich, like Tina Brown, signed on with HBO in 2008 as a creative consultant, but in the last three years only one project he has consulted on, “Veep,” has made it into production. According to an HBO spokesman, Brown’s relationship with the cable channel has not produced any projects that made it past the development stage. The Atlantic hasn’t sold anything through the ICM deal yet, although, according to Lauf, there has been interest from the film world in the past to option stories like Lori Gottlieb’s “Marry Him! The case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” and Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men.”
“I think it’s a function of the climate we’re in, the same with all over media,” Gluck explained about the new crop of deals, emphasizing that signing on with ICM was not a big move for the magazine. “The Talk era was an era of excess so you had people launching very grand ambitious plans and this era is an era of smart strategic bets. We’re not spending a penny to do this and certainly Talk spent a lot to do what they were up to.”
Not that East Coast magazine editors and writers ever give up on the Hollywood dream, even if it is mainly a mirage.
“Hollywood is essentially in the business of not making movies,” said Henry Finder, editorial director of The New Yorker. “They only make a movie when they run out of reasons not to make it.”
But packaging, one of the things magazine editors spend the most time thinking about, happens to be a very useful commodity for filmmakers in the early stages of getting their projects off the ground.
“It’s not that the audience is all excited because it used to be an article in Vanity Fair,” Finder explained, “but if I’m trying to get talent attached it might be easier for me to say, ‘Hey look, Brad Pitt, there’s this really cool story that was in Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone’ — it’s going to be based on that.”
He continued: “Unless I have an actual screenplay, what am I giving you, an idea? An idea feels very vaporous. A two-page treatment? That’s not very appealing. But here’s a real factual article that has appeared in a national publication. It gives it some sort of solidity.”
Actually Finder, Andersen, Slate editor in chief Jacob Weisberg and New Yorker writers David Grann and Tad Friend have started a private collective of their own — a writers’ bungalow of sorts. They meet about once a month, usually at a cafe in the afternoon, to come up with film ideas, separate from their work as editors and journalists. They haven’t tried to sell any of their ideas yet.