Jeffrey Toobin's Timothy McVeigh Book Coming to TV
Tales from the crypto are white hot; Trump/Jan. 6 is a bust. A new look at what's getting optioned
If your newsfeed is anything like mine, it has been dominated by two stories over the last week: The implosion of cryptocurrency firm FTX that took CEO Sam Bankman-Fried's fortune from $16 billion to zero (and the big scoop from our sister publication The Ankler that CAA is already shopping around rights to a forthcoming book from Michael Lewis, who was embedded with the fraudster for half a year) and Donald Trump's groan-worthy decision to jumpstart his 2024 presidential run even though the candidates he strongly supported (and the Republicans generally) way under-performed in the midterm elections.
It got me thinking about the screen possibilities for both, and the challenges of optioning contemporaneous material. What kind of crypto projects are getting made? How about Trump and January 6th? Here's a quick roundup of what I learned:
Trump, Politics and January 6th
I’m going to start with a project that hasn’t been announced but I’m very high on that at first glance seems tangential to Trump and January 6th but actually illuminates how creatives and executives are grappling with this moment. Jeffrey Toobin’s forthcoming May 2023 book Homegrown, about Timothy McVeigh and the rise of right-wing extremism has been optioned by Esmail Corp and UCP for development by Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) as a limited series. Even though the Oklahoma City bombing took place in 1994, more than two decades before Charlottesville and January 6th, Toobin is promising to connect the two, pitching Oklahoma City as a “warning for our future.”
To me this hits a sweet spot of capturing historical context about a raw topic that has the appropriate distance to tell a richer story — while sidestepping modern divisive politics and Trump fatigue. Plus, it’s got that true crime vibe to it. Even though McVeigh is a mass murderer not a serial killer, I suspect it could hit in a similar way to Dahmer. (Interesting sidenote: Both are ’90s throwback stories — Dahmer was arrested in 1991 and killed in prison in ‘94, about six months before Oklahoma City). Interest in Toobin’s books spiked after Ryan Murphy adapted his book The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson into the hit 2016 FX limited series American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, though his recent well-publicized travails certainly have put a damper on some his heat.
As I reported in The Ankler on Tuesday, Apple passed on moving forward with a filmed version of Maggie Haberman's Trump bio, Confidence Man. I've asked around about other Trump books as well and everything I've asked about — books by journalists, memoirs by figures involved, both Democratic and Republican — is getting the cold shoulder.
There was a definite flurry of interest with the first wave of books early in the Trump presidency — remember the hullabaloo around Michael Wolff's bestselling Fire & Fury when it first came out in 2018? — but since then, it really seems to have fizzled. In fact, I couldn’t find one single Trump book being made into filmed entertainment.
I’m guessing two things: no streamer or studio wants to end up in some gnarly, relentless culture war with the other side on social media or Fox News when the story gets picked apart (and you know it would be), and secondly, without proper historical context, can these stories actually be told right now?
January 6th books are also finding it rough going, and it appears the rights to many of those are still up in the air. For example, Hold the Line, the intensely personal and riveting account of the insurrection from former Capitol policeman Michael Fanone, so brutally beaten by protestors that he suffered a heart attack, is still available. I featured it in an earlier issue of The Optionist and I think it would make a crackerjack movie.
One agent with a January 6th book told me that the Adam McKay-Billy Ray (The Comey Rule) project J6, which was announced earlier this year, is freezing out other material. J6 is an interesting project — it’s an original script and not based on any underlying IP. Ray went to Washington right after the insurrection to interview people involved. He told Deadline in January when the project was announced, that “it’s about protesters who became rioters, and cops who became defenders of democracy. Someone else can tell the story of the chaos at the White House on that day. I wanted to stay in the trenches.” Originally he was going to do it as a five-episode limited series for Showtime, but changed it into a feature film, paring down 300 pages of episodic script into a 120-page feature script. In addition to having written it, Ray was planning to direct J6, with McKay producing.
But in the 11 months since then, there's been no more news about the project — no castings, production updates, news of a studio — nothing. It’ll be interesting to see if it ever happens or it has been pushed to the back burner, especially if McKay ends up with the rights to Lewis’ FTX project (they did The Big Short together).
Crypto Projects in Development
There's been a flood of projects in the crypto space announced over the last year in both scripted and unscripted/doc — almost too many to keep up with — but I thought it would be worthwhile to take a quick survey of what's already in the works. Here's a rundown of some projects that have already aired, some that are in development, and some that have already suffered the same fate as crypto to get an idea of the state of play. The highest-profile projects to debut so far are all docs. We’re still waiting for the first big scripted crypto hit (there are some contenders on the horizon).
There are multiple projects in development about the crazy crypto couple Ilya “Dutch” Lichtenstein and Heather “Razzlekhan” Morgan that captured attention in the fall. Most notable is an adaptation of New York article “The Many Lives of Crypto’s Most Notorious Couple" with Lily Collins producing and signed on to play Morgan, with Collins’ husband, Charlie McDowell, set to direct (New York/Vox Media's Scoop Wasserstein is also on board as a producer). Also in development about the couple, accused of trying to launder $3.6 billion in stolen bitcoin, is both a scripted and a doc project from Entertainment One and Forbes Entertainment, based on reporting in Forbes magazine. (Forbes is pitching some insider access since Morgan was a contributor to ForbesWomen from Jan. 2017 to Sept. 2021; it was announced this morning that Entertainment One is now on the market, so who knows if that puts the project in limbo).
Another crypto scam getting the adaptation treatment involves Ruja Ignatova, a Bulgarian grifter who fleeced investors to the tune of $4 billion with her supposed bitcoin rival OneCoin — and then disappeared in 2017 without a trace. Ignatova's story was told in the popular BBC podcast, The Missing Cryptoqueen, which was picked up by New Regency Television for development as a possible series.
One crypto scammer whose story already appeared on screen is Gerald Cotten. The Netflix doc, Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King, debuted in March. It tells the story of Cotten, the CEO of Canada's largest crypto exchange, who died while traveling in India with his wife (she survived). Missing were $250 million in funds investors had given to Cotten to invest in bitcoin. Ruh roh! Some suggested Cotten faked his own death and absconded with the money. Just last week — good timing! — producer Mike Sheerin and the Nikki Ray Media Agency picked up the screen rights to Bitcoin Widow, by Cotten's widow, Jennifer Robertson. In it she portrays herself as a victim of his scam, pitching it as Catch Me If You Can from the widow's perspective.
Also getting a scripted adaptation is Laura Shin's The Cryptopians: Idealism, Greed, Lies, and the Making of the First Big Cryptocurrency Craze, about the rise of Ethereum, from Playground Entertainment (Dangerous Liaisons, The Undeclared War) and Peacock.
One high(ish) profile project that appears to have fallen out of development is the adaptation of Ben Mezrich's Bitcoin Billionaires, about how early Facebook participants Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, became the first paper bitcoin billionaires. Mezrich first wrote about the twins in The Accidental Billionaires, his book about Facebook that became the Oscar-winning The Social Network, before following how they turned their $65 million Facebook settlement into crypto billions. (As recently as early this year, the twins were said to be worth more than $3 billion combined but with the crypto crash their current net worth isn't known). Greg Silverman's Stampede Ventures optioned the rights to the 2019 book in mid-2020. (Silverman's son actually had interned at the Winkelvoss' company.) But there hasn't been any movement on the project since then, and it isn't even listed on either Stampede or Mezrich's IMDB page.
Unscripted/docs in development include a docuseries from Portal A and Brick City centered on the crypto scene in Miami, a hotbed of digital currency entrepreneurs, called Crypto Beach. In March, Deadline reported that PJ Vogt, the creator of the popular Reply All podcast, was shopping his new podcast Welcome to Crypto Island around for both scripted and doc adaptations on TV.
My oddball favorite doc is Crypto Farmer, which just debuted on the free streaming platform Documentary +. It follows Welsh famers who are building green energy power (hydro, solar and manure powered) to attract crypto server farms as a way of simultaneously preserving farming and bolstering crypto's reputation with some environmentally favorable options.
One Last Thing about FTX and SBF
Before I go, I want to come back to the Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) story quickly. Surely, Lewis' book is gonna be great. He's a superb writer — Liar's Poker is a genuine classic — who can explain complex financial transactions in a manner that a lay audience can understand. And Bankman-Fried is a character, but don't sleep on the ex-girlfriend/Alameda Capital CEO Caroline Ellison. She's could be a fabulous story on her own. We don't yet how much Lewis' book is gonna focus just on SBF or bring in the peripheral players, and we don't even know exactly where Ellison is; the last reports had her trying to flee to Dubai, which doesn't have an extradition treaty with the United States.
She's kooky in a way that would make for must-watch TV. Let me just tick off some of the ways: She's polyamorous. She's maybe an amphetamine junkie. She's white nationalist curious (she uses the phrase “human biodiversity” or HBD which, is a way white supremacists have tried to gussy up their racism by sounding scientific). She's a Harry Potter nerd who represented the United States on the International Linguistics Olympiad while in high school. Best of all, she's documented all this in in a variety of unintentionally hilariously illuminating tweets and Tumblr posts. (Oh, those kids and their social media.) She's an earnest-looking 28-year-old, and she certainly doesn’t appear to be equipped to be an international fugitive.
This Gawker post presents a pretty good overview of Ellison's story, complete with links if you want to go down this rabbit hole as I did. As I said, I think there could be an equally interesting FTX piece told from Ellison's perspective that would be distinct from the SBF-centric piece we think we're gonna get from Lewis.
Lastly, I don’t want to say that SBF got what he deserved but at The Optionist we’re no fan of those who don’t like books (h/t Lithub grabbing a scrubbed Sequoia Capital post):
See you tomorrow with this week’s IP picks.