Unlike books and plays, newspaper and magazine articles don’t get the attention of producers like Scott Rudin or Jerry Bruckheimer. If you find an article that you think will make a great film, you have a chance of getting the rights.
Fortunately for the screenwriters who wrote the following films, the articles they found were not prize winners, nor were they famous; they were affordable:
Almost Famous, based on the 1973 Rolling Stone article “The Allman Brothers,” written by a teenaged Cameron Crowe.
Argo, based on the article “How The CIA Used A Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran,” written by Joshua Bearman in Wired Magazine.
The Fast and the Furious, based on the 1998 Vibe Magazine article “Racer X,” written by Kenneth Rafael.
The Killing Fields, based on the New York Times article “The Life and Death of Dith Pran,” written by Sydney H. Schanberg.
Boogie Nights, based on the 1989 article “The Devil and John Holmes,” written by Mike Sagers for The Rolling Stone.
The Bling Ring, originally a Vanity Fair article written by Nancy Jo Sales, called “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.”
The Dallas Buys Club told the story of how a homophobic cowboy with AIDS smuggled HIV drugs from Mexico (where they were legal) to Dallas (where they were definitely not legal).
It’s a great example of how you can find a news article that inspires you to write a great screenplay. And, the author paid nothing for the film rights. Nothing.
How did the screenwriter Craig Borten find the article “Buying Time” in the Dallas Morning News, and how did he go from there to writing an Academy Award nominated screenplay?
The journey starts with Bill Minutaglio, a Texas journalist, who read an article in the Village Voice about smuggling HIV drugs from Mexico, which mentioned the cowboy who smuggled the drugs into Dallas.
His name was Ron Woodruff, who would be played by Matthew McConaughey. Woodruff was most definitely not a noble, selfless man trying to help the gay community. He was, in fact, a self-serving, exploitive, and racist smuggler trying to manage his own case of AIDS.
The Village Voice article explained that some very clever smugglers found a loophole in the law. Since selling the drugs outright was illegal, they created “buyers clubs” which people joined for a fee, or paid monthly dues, which gave them access to the drugs.
Back in 1963, Minutaglio did some more research into the phenomenon, and wrote the article in the Dallas Morning News, called “Buying Time.”
Screenwriter Craig Borden found the Minutaglio’s story, and realized it could spawn a great film, which it did. He found Ron Woodruff and did a series of interviews with him, over a period of three days, and realized he’d make a great character for the film. In all, Borten had twenty hours of interviews.
As in all great film scripts, the main character (Woodruff) changes through conflict, developing friendships with his HIV positive customers, and even a transgendered HIV positive character played by Jared Leto in the film.
Borten had enough for a story and based it on his interviews with Woodruff. He didn’t exactly base it on the “Buying Time” newspaper article, so he never had to buy the film rights.
He wrote the screenplay and started showing it around. It was sold the first time in 1996. At that point, Woody Harrelson was set to play Woodruff, and Dennis Hopper was set to direct.
However, the company that bought the script eventually went bankrupt. Later, Borten rewrote the script with Melisa Wallack, and in 1997 they sold it to Universal. They wanted Brad Pitt to play Woodruff, and Marc Foster (director of Monster’s Ball) to direct. However, Pitt decided to make World War Z instead. The deal fell apart.
The screenplay sat on a shelf for about ten years. Then, due to an overlooked clause in their Writer’s Guild contract, Borten and Wallack were able to get the film rights back. Eventually the film was made.
Dallas Buyer’s Club won Academy Awards for Best Actor (McConaughey) and Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto). The writers, Borten and Wallack, were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
Clearly, many great screenplays started out as newspaper or magazine articles. If you decide you want to stay true to the story, you’ll end up doing much more research. You’ll also has to find ways to make the story you have as dramatic as possible.
You might end up taking certain dramatic “license” with your characters. Borten and Wallack certainly took liberties in Dallas Buyer’s Club. The transsexual character played by Jared Leto and the doctor played by Jennifer Garner, for example, were composites. Those characters didn’t really exist.
Just as with novel and plays, you’ll have to think like a producer to secure the rights of an article. This involves finding out who actually owns he rights to the piece. Remember, sometimes it’s the publisher. The rights could be shared. Be careful. Negotiate a fair deal, and always use a lawyer.
Look out for articles that catch your interest. Who knows where a great idea will come from? We are living in interesting times, maybe too interesting. There’s no such thing as a slow news day anymore. Keep an eye out. You just might find the idea for your next script.