Nonfiction Storytelling and the Movies: A Winning Combo?

What if you got to see all the elements of your carefully reported story – the topsy-turvy plot lines, the larger-than-life settings and the riveting characters – materialize on the silver screen?

A project created by accomplished magazine writers Joshuah Bearman and Joshua Davis called Epic is an online destination for the most dynamic of nonfiction narrative journalism.

On his Media Equation blog for the New York Times, David Carr reported over the weekend that Epic hopes to create a model allowing the platform to commission stories that would translate into screenplays.

Bearman wrote the piece that turned into an Oscar-winning film (remember that “Argo” movie that won Best Picture? It wouldn’t exist without Bearman’s original reporting.) As a side note, take a look at this list of films that evolved from magazine articles; it might surprise you.

On Epic, he and his partner, also a longtime magazine journalist, are aiming to create an environment where writers can have more ownership over their work, since in the past, journalists could only earn as much as their employing publications dictated if their stories were ever optioned for movies. Epic stories are debuting on Medium, the platform created by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, and then presented for free on Epic for Hollywood scouts to discover.

“[Bearman and Davis] 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,” Carr wrote.

The relatable element of news reporting has become increasingly appealing to Hollywood directors, the Times reported, especially because audiences who keep up with the news already have interest when the movies come out.

“While Hollywood still loves the summer escape movie, sophisticated real-life dramas are filling up the latter part of the year, attracting top-flight stars and directors and finding a niche with audiences continually wired into unfolding news events,” Michael Cieply wrote.

National Magazine Award-winning writer Skip Hollandsworth has had several of his Texas Monthly stories optioned for film but says they rarely come to fruition. One has, though, and it became “Bernie” starring Jack Black, which made around $9 million. His keynote speech at this year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference describes to journalists how to sniff out cinematic stories:

Turn on your tape recorder, and just listen

Hollandsworth said in this case, he knew he needed to shut up and get the vernacular of his interviewees down. Because they were quirky East Texans and the kind of characters you can’t make up, he said, it was important to simply let conversations take on a life of their own. Getting those quotes and facts down flawlessly is invaluable and will potentially make for a more cohesive screenplay.

Go with your gut

He had only been reporting the story in the town of Carthage for minutes before he said to himself “good Lord, this is a movie.” And he was right. Something told him to keep digging (by the way, he learned about the story from a short news brief in that morning’s paper), and he found much more there once he trusted his instincts.

Think like a moviemaker

Hollandsworth said even while reporting the story, he could visualize the beginnings and ends of scenes. If you’re sensing that story sections could morph into workable film scenes, you’re probably dealing with an epic piece – one that you should follow through with.

Watch the rest of Hollandsworth’s talk on turning a magazine piece into a nonfiction movie here.

What are your favorite magazine articles that have become movies? Which longform pieces do you think belong on the big screen?