“Meet Miranda Devin. Independent film producer, editor and screenwriter,” reads part of a special advertising section in the September 1996 issue of Mademoiselle. But the Miranda Devin who offers readers “words of wisdom from a starving artist” and then extols the virtues of the Discover card, is not who she appears to be. And that has prompted a $2 million lawsuit from the real Ms. Devin for the unauthorized use of her name for commercial purposes, invasion of privacy and harm to her reputation.
It seems that Mademoiselle , decided to jettison journalistic niceties so the section could approach the verisimilitude advertisers desire. So, the real Ms. Devin alleges, the magazine invented quotes and used a picture of a model to better sell the Discover card.
The suit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, names Advance Magazine Publishers Inc., whose Condé Nast Publications unit publishes Mademoiselle , and Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover & Company, owners of the Discover card.
The advertorial saga began in June 1996 when the girlfriend of a friend of Ms. Devin’s brother called to interview her for a 28-page Life-o-Rama special section (“Your guide to: Hot wheels, cool style, healthy budgets, sex and love, community works, serendipitous vacations, good looks, sensational health and other assorted stuff served up by real-life experts”).
Ms. Devin talked about her making of Rendezvous in Puntarenas and her life in the independent film world and consented to the use of her name in the magazine. The writer “said it would be very low-key,” said Ms. Devin. “Those are the exact words she used, and she repeated it two or three times.”
The result was anything but. The whole page was taken up by words and a picture, purportedly from and of Ms. Devin. But many of the quotes were not those you’d expect from an independent filmmaker. That’s because she never said them, Ms. Devin alleges.
Asked how she got motivated, the advertorial had her launch into a non sequitur plug for community colleges. “Use the Discover card for tuition deposits, supplies and rental fees,” she purportedly said. “By using the Discover card, you can get money back-up to 1 percent based on your annual level of purchases. It’ll come in handy when you are saving for the perfect outfit for your premiere screening or exhibit opening!”
And the picture of a smiling artist accompanying the page bore no resemblance to Ms. Devin, although the two both have brown hair. “Why, if they wanted to actually use real people, did they use a model?” asked Ms. Devin. “Maybe they were scared I was hideous.” But Mademoiselle never asked for her picture, Ms. Devin added.
“All that stuff they can make up,” said Ms. Devin. “So why do they need to talk to me if they’re going to use someone else’s picture?”
Ms. Devin’s lawyer, Jeffrey Barr, told Off the Record that by using the photograph of a different person and attributing quotes to Ms. Devin she never said, the magazine and Discover made unauthorized use of her name for commercial purposes and invaded her privacy under New York State civil rights laws.
But what really peeved Ms. Devin is the magazine’s use of the phrase “starving artist.” “Starving artist is always negative,” said Ms. Devin. “I don’t want to come off as someone desperate.”
Hence the second cause of action in the complaint, for injuring her reputation as an individual and a professional in her trade. The suit seeks a minimum of $1 million for both of the causes of action.
Executives at Condé Nast declined to comment about the complaint.
Hollywood’s craving for raw material from magazines shows no sign of abating, and Texas Monthly has become one of its favorite feeding grounds.
The latest article to be optioned is Skip Hollandsworth’s “The Bookmaker’s Wife,” which ran in the November issue of the Austin-based magazine. The tale has all the elements of the quintessential movie-of-the-week. A wealthy Houston businessman with a secret-he’s the most successful bookie in Houston-allegedly gets his vengeance-minded, ne’er-do-well brother to murder his straying and divorce-seeking beautiful wife.
The Polone-Winer Company will end up paying about $50,000 for the story rights if a movie ever gets made; upfront, Texas Monthly received several thousand dollars.
Mr. Hollandsworth, a senior editor at the magazine, is no stranger to Hollywood interest in his work. Since late 1992, Hollywood has optioned nine of his features. In a world where few purchased stories ever make it to the screen-small or large-two of Mr. Hollandsworth’s stories actually have been made into TV movies, and a third is headed for Lifetime Television. “To me, I am baffled why an article even gets optioned, but I’m never going to complain about it,” he said.
The attraction, however, is simple: Texas Monthly’ s features tend to run to be sweeping narratives, and Mr. Hollandsworth writes much of the true-crime stories that producers love. “I’m the staff middlebrow,” said Mr. Hollandsworth. “It’s not like I’m looking for a movie story,” he added. “I’m looking for a narrative story. And when you work in Texas and work for Texas Monthly , you just can’t help but walk into a treasure-trove of stuff.”
Mr. Hollandsworth’s previous optioned story-August’s “Store Wars”-shows the folly of trying to predict Hollywood’s ways. The article focused on the Texas battle between Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, not your typical damsel-in-distress movie of the week. There was no crime, no straight chronology, just two lumbering giants in the high-end retail business. Victor Television Productions picked up the option and then placed the project with ABC, which plans to produce the movie for Lifetime Television.
Despite all the Hollywood hype, the payday isn’t as large as star-struck writers may assume, Mr. Hollandsworth added. Option payments for Texas Monthly stories range between $1,000 and $7,500, according to sources at the magazine, while the total purchase price for the rare times a movie gets made stretch from about $20,000 to upward of $50,000. Since Mr. Hollandsworth is a staff member, Texas Monthly could keep all the money for itself. But in a display of benevolence, it hands over 75 percent of the total to writers. And it lets its staff writers keep all the money from any consulting deals.
Texas Monthly doesn’t get much in the way of monetary gain, either. In 1997, it will see no more than $10,000 from the four stories Hollywood has optioned; one four-color advertising page in the magazine runs $26,020. But Michael Levy, the magazine’s publisher, said having the William Morris Agency shop its wares helps keep writers on board at the mainly staff-written magazine and provides some promotional benefit for the magazine.
Since Nobody Beats the Wiz, the consumer electronics chain, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Dec. 16, the local newspapers have been filled with stories showing how the retailer’s woes could hurt its creditors and the sports teams that rely on its advertising largess. But not one has mentioned the not-so-minor impact that parent company Wiz Inc.’s financial travails will have on the New York Post, Daily News, The New York Times and Newsday .
Just in time for the holiday season, the chain’s busiest weeks of the year, Nobody Beats the Wiz has been forced to cut back drastically on its $90 million advertising budget. And that means millions of dollars in lost income for the dailies during the holiday season and a questionable new year. Through October, Nobody Beats the Wiz had spent $29.3 million in the four papers, according to Competitive Media Reporting. In the previous two years, that number had topped out just under $37 million. Given the stronger retail atmosphere this year, analysts expected the total to be even higher.
Even when the struggling company is assigned a bankruptcy trustee and can prime the advertising pump some more, newspapers will only see a trickle. “[Advertising expenditures] will be reduced from before,” confirmed Richard Sebastiao, the chain’s chief restructuring officer, who otherwise declined to hand out exact figures.
The Daily News already had taken in nearly $8.3 million in advertising revenue this year, according to C.M.R., making the retailer among the newspaper’s top 10 advertisers. The Post snagged $4.8 million of the chain’s advertising budget, and The Times received $5.4 million. But Newsday will take the biggest hit, as it has always carried a lion’s share of the Wiz’s ads ($10.8 million so far this year), and the company plans to close four of its eight Long Island stores.
The track record for consumer electronic companies emerging from Chapter 11 is not too promising. The loud-mouthed antics of Crazy Eddie disappeared, while 47th Street Photo and Newmark & Lewis also never made it through the reorganization process. And the entrance of a strong national company-Circuit City-into the New York market doesn’t promise relief, either. “Circuit City will take up some of the slack, but they’re not the same kind of intense advertiser,” said Walter Loeb, publisher of the Loeb Retail Letter .
Advertising executives at the papers do not appear panicked by the Wiz’s bankruptcy. “Whenever you lose a customer, there’s concern,” said Les Goodstein, an executive vice president and associate publisher at the Daily News . “I have seen a lot of these in my 20 years at the News .”