As the film business accelerates its strip-mining of magazines for movie material, publishers and writers are finding new revenue streams and new ways of establishing brand identity. But this frenzied, increasingly symbiotic relationship brings up several troubling issues.
* As more producers hire journalists to “report” stories to be developed into films, the distinction between actual pieces of investigative journalism and treatments for film can get blurred.
* As magazines become more involved in deals, the gulf between staff writers and freelance contributors becomes greater: Magazines are ensured at least some revenue participation from a staff-written work, which could lead to their taking a story or an idea from a freelancer and giving it to a staffer.
* As publishers sign up with Hollywood agencies for representation of their material, serious conflicts could arise because many writers (both staffers and freelancers) have their own agents.
* If a writer publishes a profile of an unusual figure, it’s possible for Hollywood to step in and sign rights from the subject, cutting out the writer. This is leading to scribes getting the person to sign over their “life rights” in the early stages of the magazine piece — potentially compromising the writer’s objectivity in covering the person.
* Publishers want an increased role in the story-to-film process, while grappling with their ability to maintain editorial independence.
In short, the potentially beneficial situation is loaded with land mines.
“There seems to be more interest in magazines than ever before,” states GQ editor-in-chief Art Cooper. “There are so many more avenues that are hungry for material, including the numerous cable channels like HBO and Life-time, which are all doing projects based on original material — so they’re looking for places from which to get their substance.”
Major consumer magazines, such as GQ, Vanity Fair, New York, the New Yorker and Esquire, have been inun-dated with calls from producers and agents asking about upcoming stories and how they can get in touch with writers directly.
It has been proffered that magazine articles are the only literary format that matches Hollywood’s collective attention span — what other source material is readily available in your plastic surgeon’s office?
But, according to agents and producers, magazines owe their current popularity as film fodder to a combination of sophisticated, narrative journalism with a strong sense of the prevailing zeitgeist.
“We’ve exhausted the spec market. We’ve exhausted the book market — this frenzy over magazine articles seems to be the new thing,” says Suzanne Patmore, senior VP of development at Bedford Falls Prods. “Unfortunately, it boils down to attention spans. You can fax (magazine) articles around and everybody can read them in 20 min-utes.”
She adds, “Many of the books that we’ve been seeing lately may be well-written and have great situations and characters, but are without an incident. Magazine articles, by their nature, are usually about incident or cultural phenomenon, both of which can be great springboards for films.”
The authorial tradition
According to one agent active in the mag-to-pic deal process, the tradition has been “essentially, to represent the author, then the life rights; but, usually, the actual publisher is involved very little.”
However, as competition for this material heats up, publishers are seeking more active roles and the battle for underlying rights becomes increasingly important.
Recently, Tom Cruise’s Paramount-based Cruise-Wagner Prods. inked a deal to develop a movie about Jonathan Sarkin, who suffered a brain aneurysm at age 35 that transformed him from a conservative chiropractor into an eccentric artist.
Interest in the story stemmed from an article by Andrew Corsello in the January issue of GQ. ICM was handling the magazine piece on behalf of publisher Conde Nast.
But rival CAA, sparked by client Cruise, was able to negotiate an option directly with Sarkin for his life rights. C-W subsequently struck a low six-figure deal for Sarkin’s life rights only.
C-W’s studio home base, Paramount, then inked a deal for the mag piece, most likely at a lower price than what would have been paid otherwise.
This particular deal was to mark a long-term working relationship between Conde Nast and ICM, but be-cause of the CAA/C-W deal for Sarkin’s life rights, negotiations were extended until last week.
New Yorker editor Tina Brown says, “I have been asked on several occasions to forge an alliance with movie studios, and I looked into it.
“But in the end, it just didn’t seem possible for two reasons: First of all, you have the agents of writers you have to deal with; and two, it was too complicated for the editorial process. I’m very much against discussing whether a piece makes a movie, until the editorial procedures have been done.”
Writer Jonathan Harr, whose recent New Yorker article about TWA Flight 800 gained widespread attention, is penning a piece for the magazine about a black man and white man who team to fight a big, bad corporate power in the Deep South.
The story behind the story is equally compelling: The idea for the piece did not originate with Harr or an editor at the magazine, but with Harr’s Hollywood agent.
The pitch process
CAA’s literary czar Robert Bookman, who already had wrapped up the life rights of the story’s two subjects, brought the idea to Harr. The writer in turn pitched the idea to Brown, who subsequently commissioned Harr to write the story.
To most editors, including Brown, this sequence of events doesn’t cross any editorial lines. However, if the writer, aiming for a movie deal, was the one seeking the life rights from the story’s subjects, this would present a problem.
“I don’t want my writer to do that,” says Brown.
“I’m not much acquainted with this, but I can see problems,” says Marshal Loeb, the editor of the Columbia Jour-nalism Review. “If you have eyes on a story becoming a movie, you might be influenced in the way you write it to make certain things more dramatic than they are.”
Producer David Permut has two projects in development based on magazine articles. One story appeared in the New Yorker about a prisoner on death row. The other has a murkier background.
A few years ago, the L.A. Times ran a story about two recent film-school grads who were inadvertently lured into being pawns in an FBI sting.
Permut tried to pitch the story to the studios, but admits, “I hadn’t had much luck selling a studio on it, so I decided to use a magazine article to create some sizzle for the steak. It worked.”
Permut had someone in his office pitch the story to a writer for Details magazine, who consequently wrote a piece about the filmmakers’ hijinx.
“We were able to choreograph the magazine article in order to sell the film project,” says Permut. “There’s no question that that article helped sell the project, because it adds credibility.”