A couple of weeks ago, Hustlers stormed the box office with a higher than predicted opening weekend gross and killer reviews, cementing its status as one of the year’s best movies so far and a potential road to Oscar glory for Jennifer Lopez. It wasn’t something many critics or industry experts saw coming, in large part because of its tumultuous production — Annapurna Pictures dropped the movie months before shooting began, allegedly due to budget concerns, before STX Entertainment stepped in to save the day — and the same old outdated assumptions about what women want to see at the cinema.
Yet this season, Hustlers is not alone in one big way. It is one of many titles with prestigious expectations that started life as a magazine article. Jessica Pressler’s ‘The Hustlers at Scores’ was an article written for New York magazine that quickly went viral in 2015 and was nominated for a National Magazine Award. The piece told the scandalous story of a group of strippers who manipulated money out of their rich clients through a combination of seduction, drugs, and blackmail. It seemed tailor-made for the movies. Pressler (who, up until that point in time, was primarily known for having written a story about a teenager making millions trading stocks that turned out to be untrue) also wrote a story about high society scammer Anna Delvey in 2018. That piece is being developed for Netflix by Shonda Rhimes.
Take a look at the pop culture calendar and you’ll a surprising number of films and TV series adapted not from books but articles written for newspapers and magazines. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Marielle Heller’s drama about a cynical journalist sent to profile Mr. Rogers, is based on a profile that did just that, written by Tom Junod. Matthew Teague’s gut-wrenching essay ‘The Friend’, which documented how his best friend helped his family deal with his wife’s impending death, is now a movie of the same name, featuring Dakota Johnson and Jason Segel. Netflix recently released the miniseries Unbelievable, taken from a ProPublica investigation called ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape’ that was concurrently released as an episode of This American Life.
This is nothing new. Adaptations of non-fiction taken from articles have been around for more than a few decades. Last year saw films like The Mule and A Private War, both taken from pieces published in prominent magazines. Saturday Night Fever was famously taken from a New York piece that turned out to be made up. Argo, Dallas Buyers Club, Dog Day Afternoon, Bernie, even A Nightmare on Elm Street originated from the pages of magazines. So it’s nothing new but in recent years it still feels like they’ve become ever more prominent. But more than that, we’ve seen how an industry always described as being in perpetual decline has found new ways to stay afloat, remain relevant, and, shock horror, getting writers paid.
Much like how a book can come with a built-in audience for a potential movie, having an article go viral provides possible producers with an enthusiastic future fan-base to pander to. Would anyone truly care about Anna Delvey if her story hadn’t been lavishly spun into two separate articles? There’s an immediacy that comes with such non-fiction in a way that traditional publishing can’t keep up with, for better or worse. Such articles, typically 5000 words long or around that number, are easy to structure in a cinematic way, short enough to not require difficult screenplay cuts, but not so expansive that creative changes can’t be made.
Last year, The Daily Beast published an article by Jeff Maysh that revealed a 2001 scam involving an ex-cop and the Monopoly game offered by McDonalds. It had everything, from gangsters to drug traffickers to Big Macs. It took less than a couple of days for the article to be optioned by a major producer, with none other than Ben Affleck and Matt Damon attached to the project. It was a million-dollar deal, the story born to be a movie. Quite literally. As a Vulture piece later revealed, the piece had been carefully engineered from the very beginning to be optioned as a movie or television project. Maysh and producer David Klawans worked hard to find a niche story with Hollywood potential, meticulously researched it, structured it in a linear and decidedly movie-friendly way, then ensured they retained exclusive rights to the story. Some people accused Maysh and Klawans of being scammers themselves with this blatantly cynical attempt at fame, but all they did was expose the machinations of the current system and how everyone is trying to game it.
I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground here by letting you know that being a full-time writer, especially a freelancer, is not easy. It typically involves excruciatingly long hours of work, often for very low pay and next to no labor protections, driven by an industry beholden to clicks and corporate management that sees what we do as inherently worthless. There are exceptions, but the fantasy of $4 a word for one article a month are long behind us, unless you’re one of the cherished few. We’ve seen too many great websites and publications shutter over the past decade or so. On top of the lost legacies, the writers left behind often have nothing to show for their contributions if said sites don’t leave up an archive. Plenty of places were wiped from the internet without so much as a goodbye, meaning writers didn’t even have time to get stuff set up on the Wayback Machine, so trying to find more work off the backs of those pieces that no longer exist is near unfathomable.
So we find new ways. We start podcasts, we send out newsletters, we find ways to monetize every aspect of our labor and its accompanying brand. We make videos or start writing stuff outside of our normal beats. We sell our services on sites built on exploitation because hey, work is work, right? And we make sure we have ways to protect ourselves. Granted, there aren’t many of us writing stuff like these articles that are primed for Hollywood — it’s still mostly the big writers working for the major sites and publications getting those honors — but what that offers is a way forward. It’s a minuscule sign that someone does value this sort of work, even if it’s only a means to an end.
Header Image Source: STX Entertainment