Hollywood hacks

pounds 500,000 for a 4,000-word story? Tired movie producers used to turn to novelists when they ran out of ideas. Now they read magazines - and find feature writers more than happy to help.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A few days ago at Elaine's, the New York bar where writers marinate their dreams in alcohol, every hack in sight was nursing hopes of a big deal and saying nasty things about Mike Sager. He's the Esquire writer who just signed a pounds 500,000 contract with Columbia-TriStar for a 4,000- word article about the Washington Post journalist Janet Cooke. (In 1985 she made up a story to win a Pulitzer Prize and gets 50 per cent of the half-million, so who says crime doesn't pay.)

It used to be novels that made writers like, say, Michael Crichton rich as Croesus when Hollywood called to buy film rights but suddenly it's magazines. Hollywood producers are descending on feature writers like a locusts and this year every US magazine writer is on the make.

In the last two years, studio executives and independent producers have purchased the rights to 14 articles from Vanity Fair, 13 from the New Yorker, four from the New York Times, four from GQ, four from Texas Monthly, three from Outside and two from Esquire.

"I don't think Sager's story was that great," says Chris Smith, who writes for New York magazine. "It sold because of the subject matter - Cooke's subterfuge and her unmasking is the material for a great thriller." Smith, of course, has a story of his own he hopes somebody will buy, about a student who went missing and is now the subject of a heavily funded private manhunt. He smiles when told it also sounds like thriller material, acknowledging there have been enquiries from several studios. Sager's deal is controversial for reasons other than the money. Big-time producer Jerry Bruckheimer (The Rock, Top Gun) tried to work out a contract that would give him an early look at all Sager's pieces for GQ, before they even reached the magazine.

Sager's editor drew the line at this obvious interference in the editorial process. He reasoned that, after an early look, Bruckheimer might try to change the slant of the story if that made it more of a movie prospect. Sager was instead given a deal that grants the producer the right to match any offer that comes the writer's way.

Elsewhere, Hollywood's foot has been stuffed much further inside the editor's door. Walt Disney has hired Susan Lyne, former editor of Premiere magazine, to assign stories on the studio's behalf. Lyne pays a journalist pounds 15,000 to investigate an interesting idea. In return, Disney will own the movie rights in perpetuity. Disney gives the journalist freedom to sell their piece to any publication willing to put it in print.

One of Lyne's assignees is Helen Thorpe, who writes mostly for Texas Monthly. Thorpe was sent to Ireland by Disney in pursuit of leads on Veronica Guerin, the Irish Independent correspondent gunned down by Dublin mobsters. The product of her trip was sold as a 5,000 word article to the New Yorker, which eventually killed the piece but only because the New York Times ran something similar. Thorpe then took her story to Vanity Fair where the editor Graydon Carter rejected it because of Disney's involvement.

"I'm not going to take a story financed by Disney," said Carter, "We don't want the tail to wag the dog." Lyne is defensive about Carter's criticsms. "I see no reason why a journalist can't write a totally independent story regardless of the fact that a film company may have paid for the research trip, " she said, "as long as the company has no involvement in writing the story, and we don't." Lyne may take that high moral tone but others seem less scrupulous.

Tina Brown, the British editor of The New Yorker is clearly less troubled than Carter. The New Yorker writer Jonathan Harr is working on a piece about a black man and a white man who team up to fight a big, bad corporate power in the Deep South. Sounds great but the idea did not come from Harr or an editor at The New Yorker. It was proposed to Harr by his Hollywood agent, CAA's Robert Bookman, who had already purchased the life rights of the two main characters. He could have proposed the story directly to a studio but by getting an article in a respected magazine Hollywood experts say he won credibility and above all put "sizzle on the steak".

That sizzle is just the point. "A story on the pages of a glossy magazine means much more to a studio than five sheets of A4," says Marshall Loeb, editor of the Columbia University Journalism Review. "The risk is that a journalist with eyes on a story becoming a movie might be influenced to write up in the piece in a more dramatic fashion, proving the first casualty of greed is often the truth."

When Andrew Corsello wrote a piece for GQ - about a man who was transformed from a conservative chiropracter into an eccentric artist by a brain aneurism - he was deluged with option offers. Technically, it is legal for movie producers to use the contents of a published article without paying the author a penny. They can just go to the subjects of the article, buying their life rights and bypassing the author. Most producers don't. They want the writer on board so they can access research and contacts. Tom Cruise didn't bother with that. He took a short cut. He had his agent go straight to the subject of Corsello's story and buy his life rights, making Corsello's original article much less valuable. "The Cruise deal has scared a lot of writers," says a Vanity Fair author. "You will see many more journalists arriving with a tape recorder and a stack of legal forms for life rights. It turns a writer into somebody's official biographer and that means they're much less likely to write something critical."

"This is already happening. Recently an American true-crime writer, Aphrodite Jones, covering the murder of a woman who posed as a man in a Nebraska town, asked that her subjects sign a contract with her, according to a New Yorker article on the murder case. Jones offered a standard contract that gives the subject a token sum on signature with a promise of much more if a film is made. According to industry experts, few subjects, unlike authors, take legal advice before signing and they often surrender their rights in perpetuity.

Either way, the magazine publisher had no share in the profits. Not any more. Conde Nast - owner of Vanity Fair and New Yorker - has established a relationship with International Creative Management which will give the publisher first film rights over magazine material. David Korzenik, a New York lawyer who represents six magazines, now has his clients include a clause in all freelance contacts asking for a percentage of any movie deal that gets signed.

And what of the films themselves? Probably nothing. "I've now sold nine articles to Hollywood," says the controversial Bob Sager. "I've never seen one of them start principal photography yet. Hollywood's magazine fever is symptomatic of a tired industry. Look at the re-releases of Star Wars and The Godfather and all the remakes. Hollywood has run out of ideas." So instead the producers have bought their corrupting chequebooks to the nation's news rooms and that does not mean all they want is facts. Those who sell stories to Hollywood quickly discover one iron law - the story that eventually appears on the screen bears no resemblance to the one they actually wrote. True facts usually have to surrender their identities at Hollywood's border, becoming film facts instead. The danger is some journalists may be tempted to ignore the differencen