Q&A: Cons are In, Bleak is Out
With projects all over town, Truly Adventurous is changing the journalism x Hollywood playbook
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Today, we have a really interesting interview with Matthew Pearl and Greg Nichols, the founders of long-form digital magazine Truly Adventurous that currently has projects set up at Netflix, Amazon, UCP and Paramount, and is partnered with Blumhouse, Skydance, Focus Features, Temple Hill, Amblin and Bad Robot. I've been really interested in the people trying to work out new IP models. There have been lots of attempts to figure it out in the past (remember Kindle Singles?) and in present (places like Atavist and Narratively are trying similar things). I wanted to talk to Greg and Matthew about how their business model works and the stories getting traction (everyone loves a good grift) and those that aren’t (war stories). Truly Adventurous partners with their writers, paying them competitive journalism rates for the stories and what they call an “industry leading” share of revenue from derivative rights, with Matthew and Greg attached to optioned projects as producers.
Greg's a California native with an MFA from Emerson College and fell into freelance journalism when he was living in Colombia. His work has been in such places as Men’s Journal and Los Angeles Magazine and he’s written a great book about one of the greatest high school football teams ever (in development as a feature starring Joshua Jackson and Kate Bosworth ). And, as Matthew notes, he’s also got the best icebreaker if a meeting hits an awkward pause — Greg lives with his family on a boat in Marina Del Rey. (“Everyone is fascinated. I always joke that Greg is the adventurous part of Truly Adventurous.”)
Matthew's an East Coaster based in Florida who loved law school but did't like the idea of being a lawyer. He started as a novelist of historical fiction —The Dante Club and The Last Bookaneer — and then started freelance journalism when he found he had a lot of great stories from his research that never made into his novels. (I love his piece on the first detectives in Boston in the 1840s, which was in The Optionist a few weeks ago.)
Matthew and Greg have done a great job balancing good journalism and monetization of IP. They've had about 30 projects optioned in three years. A great example of the work they do can be seen in their next story, Conwoman: The Mind-Boggling Exploits of Australia's Craftiest Conwoman, which they are giving Optionist readers an exclusive sneak peak at ahead of its publication next week. (And yes the rights are available. Contact Pouya Shahbazian at New Leaf.) Conwoman is a great story of a female grifter who fooled people into believing she was everything from a flight attendant to a psychologist to a cop and then improbably she fell in love with a cop. It’s got a great Catch Me if you Can/Inventing Anna vibe. (As we talk about, cons are hot in Hollywood right now.)
Q. Take me to the origins of Truly Adventurous.
Greg: It was one of those organic processes. We were gonna build a list based on a recommendation newsletter targeting a very specific kind of long-form journalism. In the background we were gonna start assigning stories to writers and once we had enough stories in the pot, we’d matriculate into a full publication. It totally betrayed our complete ignorance at the time of how the derivative rights space worked, because we knew right away that there was a whole ecosystem that not only loved, but needed, underlying content. We had had individual experience with our own journalism, but as a journalist, it really felt like lightning striking. So what we were trying to solve for was figuring out, is there a way to create an apparatus that could do this repeatedly and reliably, and that could really serve the adaptation marketplace in a sincere and successful way without it being just lightning striking?
Matthew: The actual launch of Truly Adventurous was with our first story Secrets and Wives was Jan 2019.
Q. How do you find a project?
Greg: Finding story is really the secret sauce. There's instinctively knowing where to look for stories and having an antenna for what is a great story that will yield three acts, a great character, and a development part of the way through that completely shifts the landscape of the story — all of the building blocks and world building that great reading experiences contain. The other part of that is sort of proactive — keeping abreast of what readers want, and in the film and TV landscape, in an evolving trend sense, what is hot.
Matthew: When we first started, we were really tapping our own wish list of stories and our inner circle of friends who were writers. But by this point, we have writers all over the world with all different perspectives. We have writers who have won Pulitzer Prizes. There's a combination of the internal story hunting, and then we also have this external network of writers and freelancers who bring us stories. We would probably put a little money on the fact that almost none of our stories could be published somewhere else. Even if they appeal to other publications — and sometimes we'll actually co-publish with another publication — those publications are under such tight agendas and mandates, very important ones, that what it leaves behind are those timeless narratives, these incredible stories that we look for. I like to say that we look for two reactions to our stories: One is how is this possibly true? Two, why didn't I know about this?
Q. You have a skill good journalists have, which is the ability to connect what is interesting to you to what might be good for an audience.
Greg: I had an editor once actually tell me if you can't take a drive down the street and come up with three story ideas just by looking around you're not quite there yet.
Matthew: So many people think of nonfiction as falling out of the sky. They think of crafting stories as tools of fiction, but it's just as important in nonfiction. One of the hardest aspects is that many people who live through stories are not necessarily equipped to know how to tell them. We'll talk to private detectives or former mafia assassins. They'll say, ‘I didn't do anything interesting in that covert operation.’ It's not their job to be a storyteller, but that's our job. Part of our kind of religious faith is that true story is now a brand in itself.
Q. I see you as being a sherpa to help people craft a story into a readable story.
Greg: We're gonna steal that sherpa line.
Matthew: We use the term inappropriate IP. There's so much inappropriate IP out there that producers and screenwriters and creatives get stuck with and have to try to kind of force it to work.Or it's a newspaper article that might have a sentence here or a sentence there and you have to read between the lines at what the story is. It shouldn't be a screenwriter's job to become a reporter or a historian. It shouldn't be a producer's job to convey to buyers what the true story is. That's where our model, our natural inclination of how to tell stories fits really nicely.
Q. I'm as curious about things that might not be finding a receptive audience in Hollywood as the things that are.
Greg: We should say at the front, it's hard to be prescriptive. So much of this is cyclical. There are trends that are out of vogue that come back into vogue. Conflict reporting and war stories — which I have done in the past and is a natural inclination — we've had a hard time setting up stories that are straight-ahead war stories, really great stories from really interesting perspectives. I think spy stuff is hit or miss.
Matthew: I think we've noticed, and this isn't specific to us, the trend of being less interested in bleakness, less interested in the kind of stories that have a really dismal trajectory. By the way, that fits with our brand. Even with a story with serious materials, we look to having kind of an uplifting trajectory for the readers. I also think some of it is just timing, right? Some stories will take much longer to find that potential Hollywood path.
Q. How much reaching out do you do in the gestational stage to gauge Hollywood's interest in a story?
Greg: One of the great things about our model is that we have complete flexibility in a way that that really no other publication has in how we incubate and create. Many of our stories take a path that would seem traditional: We come up with an idea internally and find an incredible writer. We work hand in glove with that writer. We create the story, we publish the story. And at that point there's an interface with a film and TV market. But we can do many different routes. Often times in the course of having general meetings, we will figure out that there is a specific mandate that a partner has that they're trying to fill. It may be that in our pipeline at that moment we have a story that intersects with that mandate. At that point, we absolutely can bring that partner in and begin to work with them on a handshake in a collaborative way. We can even take it a step further in what we call the ‘prompted’ model, which is, in the course of our conversations, we will have people who bring us stories or it’s a broader prompt that sets us off on a story-hunting mission. If the relationship seems productive, we can enter at that point into a really collaborative arrangement where we build that story together, where we are bringing on the editorial apparatus and the reporting chops and all of the resources that it takes to [make] that final product is tailor-made for adaptation.
Q. Do you have an example?
Matthew: We have a story called The Han Twins. That's a crazy true crime story about this young woman who decided to murder her identical twin sister. It brings up all this kind of twisted ideas of essentially murdering yourself, right? That was actually a story that a producer brought to us saying, “Hey, we, we noticed this when the person was arrested or convicted.” There's that idea of the news cycle leaving breadcrumbs, but not creating unified stories. So there was no IP on it that had ever had ever told the story as a story.
Q. I love this example, because I see this all the time – a great story in the news that isn't yet fleshed out enough to be adopted.
Q. We found the perfect journalist — she was already kind of embedded in the community that this attempted murder took place in — so then we went back to the producer at all key points. Here's our outline. Here's our first draft. Give us any notes or no notes. We were able to create the perfect tailored IP with the highest level of journalism and fact checking combined with the input and insights of a Hollywood partner. Then together we were able to walk that into the studio where the producer had an overall deal and we actually sold that article before we published it. (A public announcement on the deal is forthcoming.)
Q. Tell me a little about Conwoman, your next story that we’re giving an exclusive sneak peak at today.
Matthew: Readers and Hollywood gatekeepers really enjoy these stories of people who are very successfully and cleverly able to present themselves in a different light, in different circumstances. Con artists are a great example of that. Even though most of us would never do anything that they would do, part of the enjoyment is a wish fulfillment thing, right? That's part of why, for example, conwoman was so appealing to us and, and we jumped at that one.
Q. I love a good grift story.
Matthew: There's also a playfulness and possibility with con stories, because you can really play with this idea of what is the truth. You can do a lot of misdirection. You can have a lot of opportunity for surprise and perspective shifting. I think that's why it's a perpetual favorite.
Q. We live in a time when everything feels a bit like a con or a grift and I think, at least for me, why those stories resonate strongly with me right now.
Greg: The con artist is almost exclusively an underprivileged person or outsider and the con then allows that person access to a different world.
Q. So you guys are aiming for about one story a month?
Greg: A little more. We, we publish once every three to four weeks. It sort of expands and contracts with the calendar cycles.
Matthew: For example, in October we do a couple true horror stories. So that's one of our cycles where we accelerate a little bit.
Q. How do you pay your writers?
Greg: We pay our writers competitive magazine journalism rates, and then they participate in the revenue share. I think an industry-leading revenue share in any digital rights exploitation. We have writers that come back and write for us again. Across the board, our writers love the process of collaboration and the contract terms. Early on, we had a lot of conversations about what the best way to structure the actual IP ownership was because we're writers ourselves. Truly Adventurous does own the IP. That is a gesture toward making it dead simple for people in the derivative right space to option or material. There is a chain of title. We make it seamless for business affairs to make those deals. And the way we offset that is by having that industry leading revenue share with our writers.
Q. How have you guys funded it so far?
Greg: We bootstrapped for the first three years — we’ve reinvested virtually all of the money, matriculating from our stories into the company itself.
Q. How many have been optioned?
Matthew: It's around 30 projects in some stage of development on the Hollywood side, which, which is just terrific.
Greg: It's actually not like Hollywood is our only metric of success by any means. We kind of shield ourselves from depending on any one lane for the story. We have an audio component — we have a great partner in AUDM and we've co-published with Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated and Los Angeles magazine. Our goal first and foremost is that we are putting out there into the world an incredible, beautiful and addictive true story that otherwise wouldn't be out there.
Thanks for reading! Have a great weekend and happy reading. See you back here on Friday for our regular list of the week’s best optionable material. Remember, the free beta period is coming to a close.
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