After Earth failed. Lone Ranger flopped. R.I.P.D. fizzled. Studios' cash cow—the effects-laden, foreign-audience-compatible blockbuster—is drying up, and Hollywood is looking around for something new. What if the only thing that can save it… is another floundering industry?
Last week, in the first deal of its kind, 20th Century Fox made headlines by signing Epic, a new online literary platform from journalists Joshuah Bearman and Joshua Davis, to a two-year first-look agreement.
While optioning long magazine articles is nothing new (Bearman and Davis have 20 optioned pieces between them, one of the most famous to date being a Wired article by Bearman that turned into Academy Award-winner Argo), in the past, producers and studios dug in on specific articles, or, more recently, media companies like Condé Nast built out their own entertainment arms.
But no media companies have signed an overall with a major studio. The shift, which comes at a time when expensive effects-heavy summer tentpoles are tanking far more often than they're succeeding (the phrase "destruction fatigue" has been bandied about by one exec), can be seen as a signal that studios are ready to invest in grounded pieces that hinge on emotional engagement as their reliance on action and genre tentpoles with across-the-pond box office appeal wanes
I talked to Bearman and Davis (separately, thought the interview has been combined and lightly edited for clarity) to find out more about what this deal could signal for the future of Hollywood.
What are you looking for when you option articles for Epic?
Bearman: The idea of Epic was to do non-fiction online that has a really strong narrative, page-turner type stories. It's the types of stories we already do, but we gravitate towards narrative pieces pretty heavily: profiles with strong characters and really unusual settings.
Davis: We’re looking for extraordinary true stories. It could be anything. Sometimes, it’s a normal person in extraordinary circumstances. Other times, it’s about an extraordinary person in a wild part of the world. It’s the type of thing you know when you hear it: it gives you goosebumps. At least, that’s how I judge a story.
With Epic geared towards creating content for a Hollywood market, to what degree will Hollywood be sculpting the narrative of the stories being put forth on Epic?
Davis: We’re not geared towards creating content for Hollywood. We aim to tell great stories for everybody. We want to bring readers into interesting worlds and introduce them to fascinating people. The appeal of those kinds of stories is universal. They make great articles, great radio shows, great movies, and great campfire fodder. That’s in fact how I judge a story: Could I tell it around a campfire. A good story appeals to everybody.
Bearman: It's going to be the same as always, it's the same as doing a story for Wired or GQ, whwhatever the demands of the story require. For example, in "The Mercenary" [ed. note: Epic's first article, written by Davis] he does not solve the case. It's the same process as it would be in the magazine, not really anything different about the journalism part of it.
Davis: Part of the problem has been a pipeline issue: national magazines (the types of places that have traditionally published these pieces) only have room in each issue for a few feature stories. One might be a profile, another might be a how-to, or a cover package. That leaves room for only one long narrative piece. But Bearman and I have a ton of stories we’ve come across and want to tell. And a lot of them don’t fit in traditional magazines. There could be a story that’s amazing, but it’s 60 years old. National magazines like time pegs and will often pay less attention if there isn’t one. But we don’t care about that. All we care about is if it’s a great story. So that’s what Epic is focused on: telling gripping true stories.
Bearman: Those stories are hard to find - you poke around, pursue a story for a while, and then find out "This isn't quite panning out in the way I want." My next story is a complicated period thing, and I'm not sure it's a movie for Fox, but also it's a good story so it doesn't really matter. Or it could be for them, since Fox has all their different divisions —Fox 2000, New Regency, etc. There is diversity there at Fox and that's why they made sense as a partner.
To that end—how are you hoping to balance the line between producer and journalist? As a feature producer, there's a fair amount of fictionalizing certain story elements for sake of a more engaging film. Do you find that at odds with your role as a journalist?
Davis: Audiences are ready for something new. We aim to bring really cool true stories to readers and then, if possible, to the screen. Our role as producers is to keep the process grounded. I’m actually pretty excited that a big time studio wants journalists closely involved in the filmmaking process. I think it bodes well.
Bearman: Josh and I are already producers on our projects. We already essentially do that and that comes out of us being involved so heavily as producers on the creative side and the dvelopment phase. It stems from the fact that these are true stories, so when it comes time for the writer to come or the network or studio people to say "What can this be?" we often are there as a resource to keep it grounded and provide the real detail that is available for the story and the writer's inspiration. Research can form the basis for story points that may not even have been in the article.
The true story has to be adapated for narrative purpose, but often there's so much more texture, subtley, nuance and shades of character that you saw while reporting it—you know, meeting the real guy, seeing what they talk like, all this atmosphere—so that's how Josh and I both wound up working heavily with the writers and directors. Obviously the needs - it would never have occurred me to in the Argo story to have a chase down the tarmac, but that's why it was great that Chris [Terrio, the screenwriter] did it, because that's what made all the attention at the end. That was a fanciful ending that was earned by the whole rest of the film being so true to the source material - so those things can coexist creatively and effectively I've found.
Do you see this as a way to solve some of the revenue problems journalism has faced in recent years?
Davis: Long form non-fiction has been under threat. You just don’t see that many luxuriously long non-fiction pieces in print. The reasons vary. In the print world, every page printed costs a lot so editors tend to err on the side of cutting words. It’s also expensive to send a writer around the world to dig into someone’s life. At the same time, some argue that attention spans have gone down – that people don’t want to read long pieces anymore. I don’t believe that. I think people have always liked a really interesting, in-depth article. So, with Epic, we’re experimenting with ways of supporting those narratives and feel that there’s maybe some other ways of bringing them to readers. Luckily, the options are proliferating: Medium, Amazon, Apple, Audible, subscription models, donation models, sponsorships, ancillary rights (film/tv), syndication, and even print (i.e. a story could appear both on a digital platform and in a traditional print magazine, like Bearman’s Coronado High article). Hopefully there’s some combination that will support long form narrative non-fiction.
Bearman: I mean that is the hope—on a very small scale, that's the hope. Josh and I have already been doing that on an individual scale. Josh is a little more stable having been on contract with Wired for more than a decade. As a freelancer I don't have that and if it wasn't for movies and ancillary revenue, I woudn't be a magazine editor, I'd have to do something else. Especially to do these stories, since they take three, four, five months. My current GQ story took a solid year, I'd say. No matter what your magazine fee is on that, it's not worth the effort. You couldn't really pay for that time. What we're imagining is we can develop some very modest scale or insitutionalize this in some way, the idea that you can generate revenue from your stories in other places. Historically there's nothing new about this—you would deal with books, publishing. You would write a New Yorker piece and it would open up a book contract—a handsome $300,00 book contract was not atypical—that's how people paid for themselves.
But now that's harder and it's not that easy in the movie business either. The first option of mine was Argo and that was as big a surprise and dramatic for me, but I've optioned only 10 stories and only once have I gotten near the amount of money that I got for Argo. The movie business is under pressure and not freewheeling with money either. Even they want to find the value of stories in other media and everyone is just trying to figure that out and this is a place where we can try and figure it out as well.
What do you think a deal like this says about the future of the studio system and Hollywood? We're in era of big blockbusters and now you have Fox stepping up and asking for these very realistic and grounded ideas. Do you think movies like Argo, or the upcoming Fifth Estate have started to move the needle back towards interesting real-life stories?
Bearman: Well I think that they are realizing that was the lost audience—the serious audience, let's say—and Lincoln did it better than anybody thought. It was basically a procedural about the 13th amendment, a souped up PBS special, but it was deeply compelling. My favorite movie of the year was Bernie, and it was based on a magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth. Now American Hustle, etc.—there's also a demand for it. These movies aren't exactly ordinary people, I don't think Oridnary People is going to come back. You think about the time Last Picture Show was a huge commercial hit and that's probably not coming back exactly, but these true stories that have real humane motion to them that also are big dramatic stories like Argo, and I think there's an audience for them. Argo was heavily marketed around it being a true story, and that got the audience engaged. The same year the Bond franchise broke $1 billion for the first time—which is exciting, I like all the Bond movies—but nobody applauds at the end of a Bond movie. At the end of every screening of Argo, everyone applauded, these were lives of chracters they knew to be real people and that's who they were rooting for.