It used to be that economic news was found almost exclusively in the economic pages of newspapers. If these stories had an afterlife, they were more likely to turn into a heavy business book, rather than a movie, let alone an entire TV series.
Over the past five years, however, stories of commercial triumph and (more often) disaster have burst from newsprint and hardcover into audio, video and film form. Streaming services have proliferated and with them a desire for new material to feed the public’s appetite for the next binge-watch. The popularity of fiction series like Successionon a family media empire, and Billionson the world of hedge funds, fueled the boom in screen adaptations of long-form economic news.
“The streaming industry has increased the demand for stories and, it may be counterintuitive, but it has also increased the demand for quality characters and stories that are truthful, deep and rich,” says Elizabeth Wachtel, based in Beverly Hills for WME, a talent agency. “I think complex characters have become particularly appealing and there’s a preponderance [of them] in the business.”
Wachtel is a “literary packaging agent,” handling media rights for non-fiction books that can be made into documentaries, drama adaptations, or movies. One of WME’s clients is Beth Macy, whose book Drugabout the opioid crisis and the involvement of Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family, became a Hulu streaming series, starring Michael Keaton.
Another series in development is based on Billion Dollar Whale, Tom Wright and Bradley Hope’s account of Malaysia’s 1MDB money laundering scandal, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Financial Times Business Book of the Year Award (the 2022 edition of which launches today). FT journalist Dan McCrum, who broke the story of the fraud at financial technology company Wirecard, also has a book, silver men, released in June, based on his investigation. The story is being made into a documentary series by Netflix Germany.
Hope and Wright’s experience led former Wall Street Journal reporters to form Project Brazen, which they describe as a “journalism studio” to “deliver compelling stories through podcasts, books, documentaries, television and movies.
“If you’re writing a book, a big person from Hollywood comes along with big white teeth and shakes your hand and says, ‘I’m going to make a movie,’ and they take it away from you,” Hope says. The Brazen Project aims to let writers work on original journalism and retain more control over their creation.
Podcasts are increasingly a springboard to the small or big screen. The story of Theranos, the blood testing startup whose charismatic founder Elizabeth Holmes was convicted in January of conspiring to defraud its investors, has become a series, The stall. A film based on the award-winning book FT by John Carreyrou Bad blood about Holmes and Theranos is also in the works, directed by Adam McKay and starring Jennifer Lawrence, but The stall is based on a popular ABC podcast. Likewise, the series We crashedairing now, is based on a Wondery podcast about WeWork co-working impresario Adam Neumann and his wife Rebekah.
Hope’s Brazen Project aims to start with podcast projects because it can do them in-house, “they do a lot of the work it takes” to nail a story, and they include the “original voices” the filmmakers often search.
This blurring of lines between media formats, with six-figure sums available to writers who manage to bring their long-running business stories to Hollywood, has reshaped the media world. Recognizing that money had to be made from the contents of their reporters’ notebooks, media organizations such as New York publisher Condé Nast created divisions to develop film projects based on original reporting.
Guillaume Cohan, author of The last tycoonsabout Lazard Frères, which won the 2007 FT Book Prize, and Card castle, about Bear Stearns, selected in 2009, says that business stories were not attractive to television producers a decade ago. Series had to be condensed into short episodes with a clear outcome. Courtroom, police and hospital dramas dominated. Now, he says, Hollywood is “ready to give the public more credit than they can get your attention by involving [business] events of more than 35 minutes”.
Keeping the audience’s attention, however, requires artistic sleight of hand, whether in non-fiction or fiction. Business scenarios should be plausible enough not to deter experts from watching, but not technical enough to deter a mass audience. Cohan points out that Billions, despite being set among hedge fund managers, rarely portrays anyone in front of the ubiquitous trading screens of the financial industry. The Cinematic Dramatization of Adam McKay by Michael Lewis The big court (shortlisted for the FT Book Prize in 2010) tried to keep its viewers interested in the financial crisis by bringing in celebrities to explain some of the technicalities.
By focusing on scandals, producers of shows based on commercial narratives are doing capitalism a disservice. White-toothed Hollywoodians aren’t rushing to order a six-part Netflix series about healthy corporate cultures or how caring bankers help small-business owners. True stories of financial shenanigans are irresistible, however.
“The best business stories have an investigation phase where you’ll try to uncover the scandal, but then it turns into a Shakespearean drama and there’s probably nothing more Shakespearean than money,” Hope says.
Does the appetite for business stories spell the end of the business book itself, as writers seek out the star and jump from story to podcast to film?
Absolutely not, says WME’s Wachtel. Instead, “the book jumps to the fore.” Cohan says there’s a risk that young writers will seek Hollywood’s blessing as “a sort of affirmation of their genius.” Agents point out, however, that it’s a long way from having a book as an option by a studio to seeing the author’s name under the lights. Often the promised films are not made at all.
Also, in media as in business, bubbles can form. “The next financial correction will probably put the kibosh on that stuff,” Cohan warns. “No one will want to watch [business dramas] when they are suffering economically.
To learn more about the Business Book of the Year Award, please visit www.ft.com/bookaward