March 29, 2020

The Media Equation: Magazine Writing on the Web, for Film

To many writers, to almost anyone for that matter, Joshuah Bearman and Joshua Davis are living the dream. As accomplished practitioners of big, nonfiction magazine writing, they regularly publish articles in Wired, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and many other A-list titles. Perhaps more important, they have, between them, optioned 18 of their articles for films, with two more in negotiation.

Most notably, Mr. Bearman’s 2007 story in Wired about the mission to free hostages in Iran from the Canadian ambassador’s residence was turned into “Argo,” which won Best Picture honors at this year’s Oscars. More recently, Mr. Bearman scored similar success with a tale about a group of 20-something surfers who joined with a former high school Spanish teacher to form a successful pot-smuggling operation. The article, “Coronado High,” appeared in GQ and Atavist, an online publisher, and was optioned even before it was published.

Mr. Davis, who has a contract with Wired as a contributing editor, sold his article about the flight of the software pioneer John McAfee to Warner Brothers, and an article he wrote about the world’s largest diamond heist is being adapted into a movie for Paramount by J. J. Abrams.

In Hollywood, options on magazine articles represent a long shot — most never get made into films — but the money for the rights can range into six figures for a highly coveted article.

The two men have found a way to make magazine writing work for them. But for most writers it can be a perilous existence at a time when the publishing industry is under significant pressure.

Now the Joshes — “we take turns being ‘good’ Josh and ‘evil’ Josh,” Mr. Davis said — say they believe it is time to try another way, especially with some publishers like Condé Nast offering contracts to writers that require sharing the money from film options.

On Monday, Mr. Bearman and Mr. Davis are introducing Epic, a kind of online literary platform that will commission and publish big, nonfiction narratives that might also make good movies.

They are trying to build a model for long-form journalism where the revenue generated over the entire life of a story — magazine fees, sales on and Amazon Kindle Singles, ancillary film and television rights — can be used to finance the costs of reporting.

Writers, even ones with custody of a great story, can get lost in a thicket of pitches, edits and reselling. Mr. Bearman and Mr. Davis have cracked the code a bit and have the skills to help authors exercise some control in a changed marketplace. Whether or not it can work as a business is yet to be determined, but it could begin to change the way business is done and authors are treated.

Mr. Davis and Mr. Bearman were in Los Angeles last week talking about Epic with film executives and said they found that the appetite for great nonfiction in the wake of “Argo” — and several big sci-fi flops this summer — seems to be growing.

The story got more interesting when Mr. Bearman and Mr. Davis told me that the partner and backer in the effort will be Medium, a content platform that is just getting started as well.

You may not have heard of Medium, but it was co-founded by Evan Williams and Biz Stone, two of the creators of Twitter, and Jason Goldman, formerly of Twitter, so it may not be off your radar for long. And at a time when charging for content is all the rage, the stories on Medium will be there for the scrolling, gratis, on whatever device a reader happens to be using.

Mr. Williams isn’t talking about his involvement with Epic for the time being. But sitting in Bryant Park on a July afternoon, Mr. Bearman suggested that Medium was underwriting magazinelike projects because for a relatively small investment, the site can bring attention to a Web-based platform for content.

“My sense is that what they are looking for is high-quality content from us that will show what the platform can do,” he said, munching on lamb pita from a cart up the street.

“I think that in a lot of ways that the revolution that has taken place in film and Web production is just now coming to nonfiction,” he said. “Now writers have all these amazing digital options like Byliner, the Atavist and Kindle Singles. People are beginning to take production into their own hands.”

Epic is joining that fray. At the park, Mr. Bearman swiveled around a MacBook and showed off a working prototype of the kind of story that will wind up on Epic. It is Mr. Davis’s account of a troubled American mercenary who was hired to investigate a double homicide at a gold mine in the Peruvian Andes and falls in love with his translator along the way. The visual narrative is gorgeous, with big photos and artfully arranged text that would look good on almost any device.

Mr. Bearman and Mr. Davis see Epic as a vehicle for writers, including themselves, that frees them from the narrow needs of a specific magazine. The writers will retain movie rights, but if they want help in setting up projects for Hollywood, Epic will function as a producer.

“This business model is an experiment,” Mr. Davis said by phone from San Francisco. “I think that Josh and I have demonstrated that we know what a good page-turner looks like. Those kinds of stories, the kind that gives you goose bumps, is what we both love about nonfiction, and the partnership with Medium is one way more of those stories might be seen by more people.”

There are other players in the mix. Condé Nast has formed Condé Nast Entertainment, a division intent on using the company’s editorial properties to create or be a partner in television and film projects. In fact, the tip for the article about Mr. McAfee came from that division, and after Mr. Davis wrote the story, he worked with Condé Nast to sell it to Warner Brothers. “They did an amazing job,” he said.

There was some strife at the company as some writers signed contracts that surrendered any movie rights, while others, including Mr. Davis, declined to do so. But that seems to have quieted down.

The business model, both for Medium and Epic, is a bit murky, but it would not be hard to envision a case in which Epic becomes a hothouse for a certain kind of story with cinematic elements, and a studio or a production house cuts a first-look deal for it. Medium’s approach is tougher to game out, but Mr. Williams demonstrated at Twitter that if you build a compelling platform for content, a business will eventually emerge.

In his more optimistic — or grandiose — moments, Mr. Bearman sees Epic as a journalistic version of the original United Artists, which was formed in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith as a way of using their leverage as artists to cut a better deal in the marketplace.

“Maybe this is a moment, with all of these different platforms opening up, with new tools and new ways of telling big stories, when writers can get some control in the kind of work they do,” he said.


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McAfee Antivirus Software Pioneer Arrested in Guatemala City

The interior minister, Mauricio Lopez Bonilla, told The Associated Press that Mr. McAfee, 67, had been arrested on charges of entering Guatemala illegally. He said that Mr. McAfee had been arrested at a hotel in the capital and taken to a detention center for migrants who are in the nation illegally.

Mr. McAfee had been on the run for almost a month since his neighbor, Gregory Faull, on the Belizean island of Ambergris Caye was found dead at his home on Nov. 11. Police there cited Mr. McAfee as a “person of interest” in their investigation, but Mr. McAfee disapppeared.

But he did not disappear from the Internet. He kept up a continuous stream of comment on his blog and on Twitter, accusing the Belizean authorities of persecuting him.

On Tuesday, he resurfaced in Guatemala, dressed in a suit, his blond curls dyed dark brown.

Accompanied by his 20-year-old Belizean girlfriend, Samantha Venagas, and his Guatemalan lawyer, Telésforo Guerra, Mr. McAfee said that he would seek political asylum in Guatemala. Mr. Guerra, a former Guatemalan attorney general, told reporters at a chaotic news conference outside the Supreme Court that his client was being persecuted because he refused to pay Belizean authorities off any longer.

Mr. McAfee has not been associated with the software company that bears his name since 1994, when he sold it and began to pursue his other interests. He ran a yoga retreat and then built a complex in New Mexico to indulge his hobby of flying motorized ultralight airplanes.

He moved to Belize about four years ago, buying properties on the mainland and on Ambergris Caye. It was there that he clashed with Mr. Faull, who complained about the unleashed dogs that Mr. McAfee kept on his property.

On Nov. 9, several of the dogs were found dead. They had been poisoned.

During his time in Belize, Mr. McAfee had apparently become interested in developing a designer drug called MDPV. He posted extensively about his experiments on a Web site.

But he attracted the attention of Belizean authorities, who raided one of his properties in April. He spent a night in jail, but law enforcement officials found no evidence that he was producing methamphetamine and dropped the charges.

After that experience, though, Mr. McAfee appeared to become increasingly convinced that he was being persecuted by the Belizean government. Officials deny that they are persecuting him.

Mr. Guerra told Guatemalan reporters late Wednesday that since there was no warrant for Mr. McAfee’s arrest and since his client was not a fugitive, he would seek to have his client released and returned to the hotel where he would remain under guard.

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