EXCLUSIVE: 20th Century Fox has made a two-year first-look pact with Epic, a fledgling online platform designed to be a catalyst for film-centric investigative longform journalism that had formerly been the domain of national magazines. The venture was launched by Joshua Davis and Joshuah Bearman, who between them have made 18 movie option deals for their magazine work, with another two in negotiation. Most memorably, Bearman wrote the Wired magazine story that became the basis for the Ben Affleck-directed Best Picture Oscar winner Argo; and I just wrote recently about Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski signing on to script a Warner Bros movie about software pioneer John McAfee for John Requa and Glenn Ficarra to direct, based on a Wired story written by Davis after he spent weeks with McAfee on his compound in the Belize jungle before the computer wiz was accused of killing a neighbor.
After Davis and Bearman smartly christened their new venture with a column last week by influential New York Timesman David Carr, it put studios in hot pursuit. According to the guys, five studios and one monied indie company met with them before Bearman’s UTA agents and Davis’ agents at Resolution closed the Fox deal with Circle of Confusion’s Rick Jacobs, who manages both journos. I’m told this pact will include first looks on articles that Davis and Bearman do on their own, even those not on the Epic site. The deal gives Fox first dibs on any articles published on the Epic site. In exchange, Fox will pay the journos an overhead fund; they won’t take up lot of space because neither lives there. The overhead will help defray the costs of generating original content in the form of journalism that often takes half a year of travel and reporting to generate a single piece. The site is underwritten primarily by a partnership with Medium.com, which is funded by two of the founders of Twitter. Fox executives Mark Roybal and Mike Ireland were the executives who brought this one in, and they will manage the relationship.
The deal intrigues me for several reasons. While somebody in the past might have made a deal with a guy like Aaron Latham (whose articles led to Urban Cowboy and Perfect), I’ve not heard of a studio essentially making first-look deals with journalists for first look at their articles. Fox wants more than that; the studio wants these guys to develop their skills as producers. They are different from any studio-based producers. Lot-based producers are there to beat the bushes for specs, pitches and movie ideas; these guys actually will generate them either themselves or through the network of writers who’ll generate Epic’s mandate to publish a minimum of six longform pieces per year.
That effort began last night, when Epic published its first piece titled The Mercenary, and simultaneously submitted it to Fox. The article, written by Davis, is about a grizzled Vietnam vet who, before heading off on what seemed like a suicide mission to track Al Qaeda through Southeast Asia, recounted the various highs and lows of his life.
There are numerous examples of publications taking an active role in the dispensation of article rights, and usually it is so that the publishers can wet their beaks with option cash. They include The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Conde Nast Entertainment, whose movie head Jeremy Steckler suggested to Davis spending a month living with McAfee, figuring there might be a movie in the story of a zillionaire who sold his Silicon Valley trappings to remake himself as a gun-happy survivalist in the Belize jungles.
The deal makes sense for Fox. The studio has been trying hard to make itself more inviting to filmmakers and high-end writers, and edgy nonfiction is catnip to them. Davis and Bearman, in turn, liked the idea that Fox producers they might work with included Steve Zaillian and Ridley Scott, filmmakers who know what to do with a good yarn. They also liked not having to go through the chaos that happens each time Hollywood sparks to an article. The relationship with Fox is reciprocal; the studio can suggest topics to Bearman and Davis that might make for a good movie — and since the two are editing and assigning all the pieces, those ideas will get strong consideration. Davis and Bearman tell me there is a pre-negotiated option price for the journalists whose Epic articles get bought for film or TV. Without being specific, they described it as “substantial.”
“Being journalists who’ve done this before, we set up a system where the deals are very favorable to journalists,” Bearman said. “We used our own clout within the system to make sure that the option fee is very high, and all of it goes to the writer. We do not take a cut of it.” There are potential riches down the road for Davis and Bearman in producing fees, which only come if films get made. I’ve been writing about option deals for magazine pieces forever, and seen a lot of journos cash six-figure checks that dwarfed the money they were paid to research and write their pieces. Actually seeing that work translate to screen is a different story — it’s borderline rare — but there is evidence Hollywood is looking closely again at nonfiction. This renewed enthusiasm comes after the success of prestige films from Argo to Zero Dark Thirty, and even last weekend’s top-grossing film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. That film came from a Wil Haygood Washington Post article about a man who served eight administrations and was invited back to the inauguration of Barack Obama.
The Fox–Epic deal becomes the latest wrinkle in a changing journalism business where an Internet entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos could buy the Washington Post for a distressed asset price. It seems another example where, after whipping print into submission, the web is now subsidizing the medium. What that does to journalism I don’t know. When I ask Davis and Bearman what this means philosophically for journalism when their priority will be to allocate resources for pieces whose subjects have film potential, they acknowledged their limitations, but felt it was a step in the right direction.
“There has been this feeling for a while that longform journalism has been under threat, with word counts going down and magazines belt tightening,” Bearman said. “We feel this is part of a renaissance of digital nonfiction that is pointing a way forward. We are experimenting, trying to find new ways to save something important. We don’t believe this craft is declining because people aren’t interested in reading these kinds of stories.”
Said Davis: “It’s true we are looking for an editorial identity that pushes toward a certain kind of story. But if this catches on and becomes self-sustaining, we could publish other kinds of narrative stories that aren’t geared for film and the only requirement will be that they are page-turners.”