Journalism Feeds the Movies

I like non-fiction and most of what I write is non-fiction. There wass an interesting (to me) article in a recent issue of the WSJ’s magazine about how more and more non-fiction is becoming materials for movies. Here it is below. (Sorry about the formatting or lack thereof. I was in a hurry.)

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Welcome to Journalism’s Reel World

Hollywood has long adapted magazine articles into films, but recent productions like Argo, Spotlight and Todd Phillips’s upcoming War Dogs reflect an unexpected upside for a risk-averse industry

By Stinson Carter

June 16, 2016 10:34 a.m. ET

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IN THE CINEMATIC ERA of superheroes and sequels, sometimes it seems that all the smart content has migrated to television. But based-on-a-true-story movies with a journalistic pedigree—like Argo and Spotlight —are the thinking moviegoer’s refuge at the multiplex. When it comes to making smart films that don’t break the bank in present-day Hollywood, truth is the new fiction.

The practice of turning magazine stories into movies has a long history; Dog Day Afternoon, Saturday Night Fever, Boogie Nights and Almost Famous are all examples of films that were inspired by articles. Now Hollywood’s rapidly changing business model is fueling a new wave. Thanks to high-tech, 4K home theaters and streaming services, the theatrical distribution of movies is facing more challenges than ever. Studios increasingly want safe bets, which usually come dressed in colorful tights. Many producers who want to make sophisticated, grown-up movies are turning to long-form journalism for source material.

Director Todd Phillips’s new film, War Dogs (out in August), is the latest example. Starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, the comic drama is based on “Arms and the Dudes,” a March 2011 Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson. It chronicles two opportunistic twentysomethings in Miami Beach who landed a nearly $300 million defense contract during the Bush administration, exploiting a so-called small-business initiative that allowed pretty much anyone with an Internet connection to bid on U.S. military contracts. Needless to say, things did not go according to plan for the two young men.

Known for raucous comedies like Old School and The Hangover, Phillips, who co-wrote, directed and produced War Dogs, opted for a slightly more serious tone with his first film based on an article. “Argo did a lot of the heavy lifting for a movie like War Dogs because it’s the same studio, and it was a huge success for them. They took an interesting article and made a phenomenal film that really resonated,” he says.

Argo is the poster child of the magazine-to-movie model, with its three Academy Awards and over $200 million in worldwide box office earnings. So it’s no mystery why Warner Bros., the same studio behind Argo, has similar ambitions for War Dogs. Like Argo, the film is based on a magazine article that digs into a period of history we thought we knew, in order to tell a story that no one would believe if it weren’t actually true. “Oftentimes truth is stranger than fiction,” says Phillips. “Which is what you find with Argo and hopefully with War Dogs.”

Argo’s impact came as a surprise to journalist Joshuah Bearman, who wrote the Wired article (“The Great Escape”) on which the film is based. “Argo was my first article that was optioned, and it was only my second big magazine story,” says Bearman, who was contributing to LA Weekly when he wrote the Wired article. “And then I sold my next 10 stories. All of them.”

Bearman served as a consultant on Argo as well as a creative producer on other projects adapted from his articles, including an upcoming movie based on his two-part Wired article “The Rise and Fall of Silk Road,” published last year. He believes that Hollywood’s interest in nonfiction stories is directly tied to the age of superheroes and sequels—a period dominated by a film industry term known as pre–brand awareness (studio marketing department speak for playing to a built-in audience). “Pre-awareness is pushing the studios toward Wolverine 7,” Bearman says. “But at the same time it’s pushing them toward these true stories.”

Page Turners

Hollywood has relied on source material from stage plays and books for decades, but many magazine articles have also served as inspiration for movies from ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ to ‘American Gangster’ to ‘War Dogs.’

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For a studio executive, it can be harder to make a $20 million movie than a $200 million one, and adapting nonfiction has gone from being a creative choice to a financial necessity. “What we’re seeing is a desire on behalf of financiers, particularly major studios, for proof of concept,” says Mark Gordon, the veteran producer (Saving Private Ryan, The Patriot, Steve Jobs) who first brought the article that inspired War Dogs to Todd Phillips’s attention. There’s a practical reason for optioning an article rather than just appropriating the underlying idea: “If War Dogs wasn’t a true story, I think an audience would have a hard time buying it,” says Gordon. “Audiences are more attentive these days to things that are true—even if they’re modified substantially.”

How substantially these stories are modified varies from movie to movie. “In the case of Argo, the movie worked because of its authenticity,” says Bearman, who provided the screenwriters with ample research. But in his experience, the process differs from genre to genre: For example, there is often more creative freedom with comedies. While War Dogs has a heavy dose of humor, Phillips tried to stay true to the tone of the original article. “You need to make sure everything falls in line either with what did happen or what could have happened,” says Phillips.

“The article acts as a treatment,” Phillips continues. “It’s not necessarily valuable intellectual property in that millions of people have read it and are waiting for the movie, but it’s valuable IP in that it sets the tone and acts as an outline for the studio to read and go, ‘Yeah, I could see that.’ ”

When Hollywood needs real stories, it’s a lot easier to turn to journalists who are out in the field finding them—rather than screenwriters who are by and large geographically tethered to Los Angeles.

“It’s hard to find original ideas in Santa Monica, and journalists go out into the world and find them,” says Lawson, who wrote not only War Dogs’ underlying Rolling Stone article but also a 2015 book on the same subject—Arms and the Dudes.

“The magazine world is a bazaar of ideas for movies, where Hollywood can go shopping for new stories,” Lawson says. Typical film options for articles can range from $5,000 to $75,000, while actually making a film like Argo costs tens of millions, so the ratio of what gets made versus what gets optioned remains low. For studios, these options are an inexpensive way to buy story legitimacy. “The business of Hollywood is becoming a little less entrepreneurial,” he says. “And along with that has come the need for a stamp of approval from the New York Times, Rolling Stone, GQ or Vanity Fair that an executive can show to the studio.”

As articles have become more popular as film and television source material, magazine publishers have moved to capitalize on this trend as well. Major publishing companies (Random House, Macmillan, Condé Nast and American Media, Inc. among them) have created new film and television divisions or developed joint ventures. This move is similar to the way that Marvel Studios began capitalizing on its properties, beginning with Iron Man in 2008. One key difference is that in order to profit from film and television rights, the magazine publishers must possess those rights, which in the past were typically retained by the journalists themselves.

“What amazed me in a happy way when I started in the business is that I would retain the copyright ownership of my work,” Lawson recalls. “It’s like the one piece of dignity that you get, and now some media companies are taking that away. As someone who loves journalism, I feel like this next generation of journalists is getting ripped off.”

Another element that may be bolstering these types of films is the recent change to the Academy Award nomination rules. “It wasn’t too long ago that there were only five best picture nominees, and now there can be up to 10,” says Josh Singer, who co-wrote the screenplay of last year’s best picture winner, Spotlight. “What I think has been great about expansion is that a lot of people want a little statue. So you have hungry producers and they say, ‘Hey, it’s not just five. I can get in, I can get nominated.’ Nonfiction movies tend to do well in this category, so that expansion makes it that much more lucrative to make these movies—it gives hope.”

Journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) has made a particularly successful transition from journalism to mass entertainment. And his new production company, Page 1, which he started in 2013, could be described as an embodiment of this trend of combining the two. The company is co-run by former magazine editor Hugo Lindgren and backed by producer Megan Ellison’s company, Annapurna Pictures. Tossing out the old dynamic of screenwriters spitballing ideas with development executives, Page 1 assigns journalists to report on broad themes, such as wealth inequality.

‘Oftentimes truth is stranger than fiction.’

—Todd Phillips

“Journalism is part of our development process,” says Lindgren, who was the editor of the New York Times Magazine, then worked at the Hollywood Reporter and left publishing in 2014 to run Page 1 with Boal. “It’s not like we just hand over the research to the screenwriter, and they’re off and running. What it has involved is teaming reporters with our screenwriters and having them work together.” Rather than being just another production company scouring magazines for articles to option, Page 1 has moved the newsroom into the production company.

Page 1 has not yet released its first film, but Lindgren says they have been working on a project about Bowe Bergdahl—the U.S. Army soldier who caused tremendous controversy in 2014, when he was accused of desertion after he was freed from the Taliban in a prisoner exchange. “We were really attracted to that story, because you have this small story at the front of it—just one guy and what he did—and then you had this tremendous resonance and reverberation in the world,” he says. After amassing hours of interviews with Bergdahl and becoming experts on his story, Page 1 found it had enough material on its hands to cross over from journalistic film research to journalism proper, with a collaboration on the newest season of the podcast Serial, which was based on Bergdahl. In developing an upcoming crime drama set during the 1967 Detroit riots and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Boal led a team of five journalists on six months of interviews and research.

Investigative journalism is high risk for a production company, Lindgren says. His company has to go down the road a long way with a story before really knowing if it has that “resonance and reverberation” quality. “And that’s where our backing from Annapurna is really valuable to us,” he says. “We have a backer in Megan Ellison, who wants Mark to take big swings. One of Mark’s classic responses when we’re talking about stories is ‘Ehh, that’s a canoe. I want us to be building battleships.’ ”

A canoe would have floated in 1970s Hollywood, but this is the age of battleships. “Not many people can submit to the discipline required to find these stories,” says Lawson. “Journalists are the ones who have to walk down the beach with their metal detectors, looking for the treasures.”

More in WSJ. Magazine

From <http://www.wsj.com/articles/welcome-to-journalisms-reel-world-1466087662>

 

 

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Online Proofing Pros & Cons

I may have mentioned before that I am a member of a writers group in southwest Florida. We meet monthly and traditionally have invited other in or around the writing profession to make presentations to our members. In May, the presenter was a woman who bills herself as The Book Doctor.

During the Q&A after her presentation, she was asked if she had used online proofreading programs. She said she had but found them less than helpful.

Having said that, here is another take. There are a number of proofreading tools available online, some free, some for a fee. There is Grammarly, Paper  Rater, Ginger Software, and others. I selected Slickwrite partly as a lark.

The process is simple. I copier a nonfiction piece of 1,900m words I had written, go to the Slickwrite site, paste my piece into their window and click on “Check.” What you get is shown in the screen capture below.

slickwrite screen captureDifferent parts of speech are underlined in different colors. Adverbs and adverbial phrases are underlined with green; prepositions or prepositional phrases with blue; clichés with yellow although there is some duplication As you mouse over the section in question, a balloon appears telling why it is being questions, e.g., “Wordy or redundant phrase.” Click once more and a footer elaborate on the “error” and offers a suggestion or two.

So did it help? Yes it did. I’d had two acquaintances read the selection and they found nothing to criticize or revise. But letting Slickwrite do its thing, at least caused me to question some of what I had written. So, for example, “I read in a newspaper….” Became “I read a newspaper article….” I did examine each adverb more closely with Stephen King’s dictum running through my head: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

So it’s probably more line editing than content editing, but the highlight sort of made me come up with support for what I had written, so in that case it helped. But just to double-check, I then went and copied and pasted a more famous piece of prose and Slickwrite’s analysis is shown below.

gettysburg slickwrite

 

Have any of you experience with online proofreading tools?

 

 

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You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone

My take on the song. What I like about the song is the way it opens with a question: Who is he talking to? It is someone who gave the singer/speaker advice, advice that he regrets not following. But the disappointment at losing the lover has eased and now he not only realizes he had made a mistake but also that the person to whom he is speaking has stood by him through it all and then in the fourth stanza we realize that he is talking to the woman who befriended him and for whom he has affections.

Click on link and scroll down to hear Elvis sing You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone.

One critic’s take on the song. “One of the most interesting songs on the entire Sunrise collection is “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone”. Written by Kelster and Taylor, it’s a country song with lyrics so banal it would be verging on unlistenable in the hands of any other artist other than Elvis Presley. When Presley performs the song, he transforms it into one of his most fun and joyous songs of the period. Although it’s easy to her him mocking the lyrics in his delivery, it’s clear he’s enjoying performing the song greatly, and he propels Scotty Moore and Bill Black into some of their finest work of the Sun period. Whilst not being one of Presley’s masterpieces, the song is a clear testament to his genius.”

It was first released on the record For LP Fans.

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From Annie Dillard’s “To Fashion a Text”

The following passages are often quoted and you can find them on various blogs and web sites. I first encountered the piece in a collection of essays on the memoir by William Zinsser. These selected passages are about nonfiction and I find it more curious that they were written in the 1980’s. (Italics added.)

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Let me put in a word now for a misunderstood genre: literary nonfiction. It’s interesting to me because I try to write it and because I respect the art of it very much.

I like to be aware of a book as a piece of writing, and aware of its structure as a product of mind, and yet I want to be able to see the represented world through it. I admire artists who succeed in dividing my attention more or less evenly between the world of their books and the art of their books. In fiction we might say that the masters are Henry James and Herman Melville. In nonfiction the writer usually just points to the world and says, “This is a biography of Abraham Lincoln. This is what Abraham Lincoln was about.” But the writer may also make of his work an original object in its own right, so that a reader may study the work with pleasure as well as the world that it describes. That is, works of nonfiction can be coherent and crafted works of literature.

It’s not simply that they’re carefully written, or vivid and serious and pleasing, like Boswell’s Life of Johnson, say, or St. Exupery’s wonderful memoir of early aviation, Wind, Sand, and Stars. It’s not even that they may contain elements of fiction, that their action reveals itself in scenes that use visual descriptions and that often use dialogue. It’s not just these things, although these things are important. It’s that nonfiction accounts may be literary insofar as the parts of their structures cohere internally, insofar as the things are in them for the sake of the work itself, and insofar as the work itself exists in the service of idea. (It is especially helpful if the writer so fully expresses the idea in materials that only a trained technician can find it. Because of the abstract nature of a given text, which is of great interest to the writer and serves to rouse him out of bed in the morning and impel him to the desk, is of little or no interest to the reader, and he’d  better not forget it.)

Nonfiction accounts don’t ordinarily meet these criteria, but they may. Walden Pond is the linchpin of a metaphysic. In repeated and self-conscious rewritings, Thoreau hammered at its unremarkable and rather dreary acres until they fastened eternity in time and stood for the notion that the physical world itself expresses a metaphysical one. He picked up that pond and ran with it. He could just as readily have used something else – a friend, say, or a chestnut.

You can do quite a bit with language.

Hemingway in Green Hills of Africa wrote a sober narrative account of killing a kudu, the whole of which functions as an elaborate metaphor for internal quests and conquests. Loren Eiseley lays in narrative symbols with a trowel, splashing mortar all over the place, but they hold. In his essay “The Star-Thrower,” Eiseley’s beachcomber who throws dying starfish back into the surf stands for any hope or mercy that flies in the face of harsh natural law. He stands finally for the extravagant spirit behind creation as a whole; he is a god hurling solar systems into the void.

I only want to remind my writing colleagues that a great deal can be done in nonfiction, especially in first-person accounts where the writer controls the materials absolutely. Because other literary genres are shrinking. Poetry has purified itself right out of the ballpark. Literary fiction is scarcely being published; it’s getting to be like conceptual art. All that the unknown writer of fiction can do is to tell his friends about the book he has written, and all that his friends can say is “Good idea.” The short story is to some extent going the way of poetry, limiting its subject matter to such narrow surfaces that it can’t handle the things that most engage our hearts and minds. But literary nonfiction is all over the map and has been for three hundred years. There’s nothing you can’t do with it. No subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own form every time.

When I gave up writing poetry I was very sad, for I had devoted fifteen years to the study of how the structures of poems carry meaning. But I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.

From her description, what Dillard was describing at the time was what came to be known first as The New Journalism and now as Creative Non-Fiction. Agree?

 

 

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Reflection on Coincidences

sedan deliveryAs a teen, I hung out with other teens, none of which, as far as I knew, had any criminal intent. Well, no major criminal intent. But life as a teen is what it is and sometimes you do what your teen mind urges or your peers prefer.

That brings us to siphoning gas. Smitty’s father, affectionately nicknamed Moon, drove a 1956 Chevrolet Sedan Delivery for Park Cleaners. He took it home at night and parked it in a garage across the street from the apartment building where the family lived. At night, we’d cruise down Adams street in Smitty’s ’56 Bel Air. He’d pop it into neutral, shut off the engine to mute the glass packs and we’d coast down the street and park across from the single family house at number 77.

We’d ease out of the car, gently close the doors and march up the driveway with an empty gas can and a length of rubber hose. We’d open the garage doors and easily siphon a couple of gallons of gas out of the company car. It tasted terrible, so we always brought along a couple of bottles of Coke.

A few years later, after dropping out of college and doing a stint as a mechanic’s helper, I landed a job as a paid intern, for want of a better word, at a family owned business that provided machine shop service and parts to local auto repair shops. It was on Adams Street, about half a block down from number 77. I work there for a couple of years, rebuilding clutches, doing valve jobs until Uncle Sam calls and I side step into the Navy, and after nine months of electronics training I’m assigned to an electronics shop on an air facility in the California desert, where I buy a used Triumph motorcycle and make weekend forays to the beaches in San Diego.

My second year in the desert, I’m planning on returning home for two weeks leave. I write my cousin and ask him if he knows any girls I can date while I’m there. He writes back with the name of a girl he once dated and with whom I double dated. A couple of days after I’m home, I call her and ask her for a date. She remembers me and accepts. The next night I put on a white shirt and tie and the three-piece suit I bought at Carson, Pirie and Scott while I was stationed at The Lakes and drive downtown to pick her up.

I park my father’s car in front of her house, walk up the steps and ring the doorbell at 77 Adams Street. She answers the door and ushers me in to meet her family. Five years later we marry.

Don’t you just love coincidences?

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Guess Who

Book I    Go to next

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.

So now all who escaped death in battle or by shipwreck had got safely home except Ulysses, and he, though he was longing to return to his wife and country, was detained by the goddess Calypso, who had got him into a large cave and wanted to marry him. But as years went by, there came a time when the gods settled that he should go back to Ithaca; even then, however, when he was among his own people, his troubles were not yet over; nevertheless all the gods had now begun to pity him except Neptune, who still persecuted him without ceasing and would not let him get home.

 

Odysseus tempted

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Ten Puns

Subject: 10 PUNS

  • 1. Two vultures board an airplane, each carrying two dead raccoons. The stewardess looks at them and says, “I’m sorry, gentlemen, only only one carrion allowed per passenger.”
  • 2. Two fish swim into a concrete wall. The one turns to the other and says, “Dam! … “
  • 3. Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly, so they lit a fire in the craft. Unsurprisingly it sank, proving once again that you can’t have your kayak and heat it too.
  • 4. Two hydrogen atoms meet. One says, “I’ve lost my electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?” The first replies “Yes, I’m positive.”
  • 5. Did you hear about the Buddhist who refused Novocain during a root canal? He wanted to transcend dental medication.
  • 6. A group of chess enthusiasts checked into a hotel and were standing in the lobby discussing their recent tournament victories. After about an hour, the manager came out of the office and asked them to disperse. ‘But why?” they asked, as they moved off. “Because”, he said, “I can’t stand chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.”
  • 7. A woman has twins and gives them up for adoption One of them goes to a family in Egypt and is named “Ahmal.” The other goes to a family in Spain; they name him “Juan.” Years later, Juan sends a picture of himself to his birth mother. Upon receiving the picture, she tells her husband that she wishes she also had a picture of Ahmal. Her husband responds, “They’re twins! If you’ve seen Juan, you’ve seen Ahmal.”
  • 8. These friars were behind on their belfry payments, so they opened up a small florist shop to raise funds. Since everyone liked to buy flowers from the men of God, a rival florist across town thought the competition was unfair. He asked the good fathers to close down, but they would not. He went back and begged the friars to close. They ignored him. So, the rival florist hired Hugh MacTaggart, the roughest and most vicious thug in town to “persuade” them to close. Hugh beat up the friars and trashed their store, saying he’d be back if they didn’t close up shop. Terrified, they did so, thereby proving that Hugh, and only Hugh, can prevent florist friars.
  • 9. Mahatma Gandhi, as you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him …(Oh, man, this is so bad, it’s good)… A super calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.
  • 10. And finally, there was the person who sent ten different puns to his friends, with the hope that at least one of the puns would make them laugh. No pun in ten did.
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