Times Goes Hollywood: Gives Content Work to Beverly Hills Group

The New York Times has quietly gone all Hollywood—and one of the outcomes may be a movie that’s perfect for a “man date.”

An independent filmmaker is on the verge of optioning the film rights to Times staff writer Jennifer 8. Lee’s April 2005 article “The Man Date,” according to a source close to the negotiations.

But that filmmaker isn’t cutting a deal directly with The Times.

In June of this year, The Times chose the Broder-Webb-Chervin-Silberman Agency, a small but prestigious Beverly Hills firm, to represent the paper in negotiations for film and television rights to its content.

Prior to this summer, The Times handled requests for film and television rights through its own legal department.

In the agenting world, Broder-Webb was a dignified, literary choice. Then, just a month after signing on The Times, that agency was gobbled up by a giant rival, International Creative Management.

“Yes, we are working with them,” Catherine Mathis, The Times’ vice president of corporate communications, wrote in an e-mail. “They have a strong reputation in the industry.”

ICM declined to comment.

The would-be filmmaker first approached The Times directly about Ms. Lee’s article in April of this year. The paper did not respond until some six weeks later.

Soon enough, Todd Hoffman, 39, became The Times’ designated agent at Broder-Webb, and now at ICM. His other clients include Randa Haines, director of Children of a Lesser God, and Harris Goldberg, the writer of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.

By mid-June, Mr. Hoffman had negotiated the basic terms of the “man date” deal, which would transform into a bona fide cinematic property Ms. Lee’s 1,700-word explication of the awkwardness of one-on-one heterosexual male outings.

According to the source familiar with the deal—which, if finalized, should be announced next week—the purchaser would pay approximately $10,000 upfront for exclusive filming rights for a limited time.

If that option is “exercised” in time—if a “man date” film actually enters production—the total payment for rights will likely be in the low six-figures, with the exact amount based on the total production budget.

Under Newspaper Guild rules, The Times and Ms. Lee would split all monies evenly.

Optioning human-interest newspaper articles wasn’t always such a complicated business.

Times science writer Andrew Revkin’s 1997 “A Metal-Head Becomes a Metal-God” article was fictionalized into the Mark Wahlberg flick Rock Star. Mr. Revkin said that The Times’ policies on the matter were not long ago much laxer, even “ad hoc.”

His own movie deal was negotiated almost entirely between his personal agent and the interested producer, with The Times emerging to close out details only at the very end.

But by the end of the 90’s, the paper had begun to clamp down, requiring that employees refer all movie and television requests to The Times’ own legal department.

“There are more and more of these requests,” Mr. Revkin said.

And much of the protocol of optioning is Hollywood’s, not Times Square’s, Mr. Revkin noted—including the tradition of an announcement in the trade publications. “I think part of it is just wanting to say in the movie universe very publicly that ‘This is our movie and you should stay out.’”

On the night of Aug. 7, Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey walked alone to Schiller’s Liquor Bar, on the recommendation of his hotel, the Hotel on Rivington, with a collection of writings by the journalist David Blum.

“I’m sitting there until about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, reading these clips,” said Mr. Lacey. He loved them. “I’m going into a state of depression that when I meet the guy there is going to be some enormous gap between what I read and who he is.”

The next morning, Mr. Blum arrived at the Hotel on Rivington for a job interview. Right there, in the chic hotel lobby, he did not disappoint Mr. Lacey.

For the next two and a half hours, they drank a bottle of San Pellegrino, downed a pot of coffee, and talked about several things, including narrative journalism and the future of the city’s long-running alternative weekly.

The next day, Mr. Lacey e-mailed to offer Mr. Blum the job of editor in chief of The Village Voice.

At 3 p.m. on Aug. 14, Mr. Blum arrived at The Voice’s Cooper Square office for the weekly editorial meeting. For 45 minutes, Mr. Blum, in jeans and a white dress shirt, spoke to about 20 staffers and answered questions.

The relationship between Mr. Blum and Mr. Lacey came as a surprise.

“Ward Harkavy”—The Voice’s interim editor in chief—“came in and said, ‘This is Dave Blum. He’s your new editor,’” said Jarret Murphy, a staff writer who attended the meeting.

Two months ago, Washington City Paper’s Erik Wemple had been hired for the same job. Mr. Wemple quickly changed his mind. That time, an e-mail had been sent to the staff the night before the public announcement.

“Staffers were a little annoyed that we had to find out from Gawker,” said one Voice employee who did not attend the meeting.

Wayne Barrett, a senior editor, arrived about halfway through, and asked why they hadn’t been informed beforehand, according to a Voice staffer, who described it as “very awkward.”

There were more questions posed to Mr. Blum.

“I asked him what he thought of the paper,” said Mr. Murphy. “That was a bit of a minefield.”

Mr. Blum politely passed on getting into the nitty-gritty details. “When he couldn’t answer, he didn’t bullshit us,” Mr. Murphy said. And unlike Mr. Wemple, who threw “the F-bomb several times,” Mr. Blum was far more low-key in his demeanor.

And so on Sept. 12, Mr. Blum will officially take the helm of the downtown publication, putting, perhaps, an end to the rocky adjustment period begun in November 2005, when Village Voice Media—previously called New Times—took control of the weekly newspaper.

“The past nine months have been very turbulent,” said Mr. Blum. “Change is good. Hopefully for The Voice, as well as for me.”

Mr. Blum said he was “not a storming-out-type person,” and also noted that he didn’t think Mr. Lacey’s goal was to “devote himself to micro-managing” any of the company’s 17 papers.

Mr. Blum previously worked as a Wall Street Journal reporter, an editor and writer at New York magazine, a professor at Columbia’s graduate Journalism school and, most recently, a television critic at the New York Sun.

Mr. Blum said he has read The Voice since the early 1970’s, when he lived in East Lansing, Mich. He said that back then his older brother, “a very radical leftist,” had enjoyed a subscription.

—Michael Calderone

On Aug. 11, Greg Lindsay, a freelance writer and editor, opened an envelope from the attorneys representing Absolute Publishing USA Inc., and was pleasantly surprised to find a check for $954.70.

Absolute, a luxury magazine aimed at Manhattan’s elite, had been shuttered by the company this past February, and Mr. Lindsay was one of many contributors who had not been paid for his work.

“I literally went to the bank and cashed it immediately,” said Mr. Lindsay, who had written an unpublished piece on fractional yacht ownership, “before they changed their minds.”

Following a recent out-of-court liquidation, about 200 of Absolute’s creditors (including freelance writers, photographers, suppliers and vendors) are being offered 31.89 percent of what they were owed by the company. Along with Mr. Lindsay, a number of contributors have been delighted to discover checks in the mail—the first of which were sent out on Aug. 3.

“Getting money out of Absolute, at any point during its incandescent rise, was always problematic,” said contributor Gil Schwartz, a CBS executive who writes under the pseudonym Stanley Bing. “I think all of us, to get anything at all, is pretty awesome, and relatively rare.”

The roughly one-third payment is the result of having less money than is required to settle the debts.

“The company had various debts totaling about $1.4 million,” said Jonathan Pasternak, a lawyer representing Absolute Publishing.

In mid-June, Prohibition Publishing, a subsidiary of Michigan-based Hour Media, purchased the assets—including the Absolute name, a much-coveted subscriber list and unpublished work—for $330,000. Then, about $130,000 from accounts receivable was added to pay off the debt.

Also, the magazine’s principal investor, Domingo Cuadra (who is unnamed in the letter), was “owed approximately $8,000,000,” according to the attorneys’ letter obtained by The Observer. He “agreed to waive all but $100,000 in claims.” In the end, Mr. Cuadra will receive a check for $31,890, with the creditors divvying up the rest.

But there’s still some fine print: By cashing the check, the creditor waives any claims against Absolute’s new owners. And Hour Media now owns Absolute’s unpublished work (if the writer has accepted payment for it), according to publisher John Bellardo.

Mr. Bellardo wouldn’t comment on whether any of the pieces would appear in the October debut issue.

“There is a real affinity for what they had done,” said Mr. Bellardo. “Editorially, it won’t be much of a departure.”

There will be one big change. The new high-end magazine, which had previously retailed for $8, will not show up on newsstands this time around: Absolute will only be distributed through a controlled circulation of 60,000 New Yorkers with an annual salary of at least $500,000.

—M.C. Times Goes Hollywood: Gives Content Work to Beverly Hills Group