Magazine article Insight on the News

Hollywood Scavenges Magazines in Search of Plots and Story Lines

Magazine article Insight on the News

Hollywood Scavenges Magazines in Search of Plots and Story Lines

Article excerpt

Producers are buying rights to magazine articles that seem ripe for movies, and some companies actually are commissioning stories. Director Francis Ford Coppola even has started his own publication.

With the average cost of a Hollywood movie nudging toward $60 million, nervous studio heads desperately are casting about for "hot properties" they can take to the bank. What's hot at any particular time, of course, may turn tepid six months later. At one point, production houses scrambled to buy the rights to novels; when novels no longer were fashionable they put out the word for original screenplays (known as spec scripts). Broadway dramas occasionally have found favor and extinct TV serials (The Flintstones, Mission: Impossible, Star Trek) always are in season, at least for so long as they exude a nostalgic glow.

These days, however, Hollywood executives are poring through GQ, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Outside magazines in search of stories that can be transformed into commercial films. Some observers attribute the interest in "real-life" articles to the confessions routinely gushing from guests on TV talk shows. Others in the business have a different explanation. "Unfortunately, it boils down to attention spans," says Suzanne Patmore, an executive at an independent production company. "You can fax articles around and everybody can read them in 20 minutes."

This isn't the first time that Hollywood has scavenged magazines in search of material. The phenomenon can be traced back to the early seventies with the release of Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy, both spawned by articles in New York magazine. The movies made John Travolta a bankable star, but his luck ran out with Perfect, a film about an upscale health club inspired by a Rolling Stone article. Perfect's failure also soured Hollywood on magazines.

Like generals who fight the last war, however, producers again are snapping up options on magazine stories. (Options essentially are rentals on material for periods that range from three months to a year; in the large majority of cases, the movie is never made and the option is dropped.) In the last two years alone, studios and independent producers have purchased rights to 14 stories from Vanity Fair, 13 from the New Yorker, four from the New York Times Magazine and four from GQ, as well as several from several less-obvious periodicals including Allure, Smithsonian and Air & Space.

A select group of writers are profiting from the trend. GQ's Mike Sager, for instance, is splitting an option worth $760,000 with former Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke (Cooke had concocted the fraudulent story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that won a Pulitzer Prize). If the movie about the ersatz journalist ever is made, the two will share an additional $1.6 million.

But few writers can expect such lucrative deals. Disney typically pays $20,000 to $25,000 for rights in perpetuity; a nine-week option on a backpage story in the New York Times Magazine may command as little as $1,000.

Though the trend may seem innocuous, critics point up possible conflicts of interest. "The good news is it makes freelancers more money," Variety Editor in Chief Peter Bart says. But if journalists spend "all their time working on a movie deal, then journalism will suffer." Marshal Loeb, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, echoes Bart's concern: "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 actually are. …

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