Magazines Step Up Hollywood Pursuits

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.

Harvey Weinstein Henry Finder Jacob Weisberg Kurt Andersen Tina Brown and Adam Moss

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.”

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