Business of News

Feels Like a Movie

Adapting an article for the screen, in-house

October 4, 2021
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In 2015, when Vox Media signed with WME, the Hollywood talent firm, agents encouraged Chad Mumm, who was then Vox’s creative director, to target the big buyers of nonfiction programming: A&E, Oxygen, Lifetime, Discovery. But Mumm, who had just moved from New York to Los Angeles to establish Vox Entertainment, said the goal was to produce shows for Netflix. “Netflix doesn’t make unscripted shows, and who knows when they will,” Mumm recalled of WME’s response. Barely a week later, Netflix announced its first documentary series: Chef’s Table. Mumm had found a blueprint. “We were like, ‘Ah, that’s what we want to do.’” Six years on, Vox Entertainment has been rebranded as Vox Media Studios; Mumm is now the senior vice president. They’re at work on fourteen series and films; in the past year and a half, they’ve sold fifty projects (both scripted and not) to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, movie studios, and television networks. 

For years, publishers considered Vice to be the shining example of video expansion. That was a reason Vox was drawn to WME, Mumm said: it had represented Vice through the development of an HBO show and the Viceland network. Recently, voracious demand for streaming has provided many more opportunities for digital media publishers to claim ground in Hollywood. In addition to Vox and Vice, Condé Nast, the New York Times, and BuzzFeed have all established their own production initiatives. Vox’s operation is a full-fledged studio in Los Angeles, which allows the company to develop projects in-house.

Vox’s expansion into entertainment provides a direct path for reporters to adapt their work for the screen. For Explained—a Netflix docuseries that delves into a different topic each episode, from the wage gap to the future of meat—Vox hired a showrunner to work with staff journalists, some of whom had already been producing similar videos for YouTube. “We would internally pitch story ideas to ourselves about what would make a great episode,” Mumm said. Then they’d seek out sources. Because the subject matter varies, reporters drop in as needed. “We’ve had journalists coming onto the show for a week at a time, months at times, to help build it out,” Mumm explained. “It’s an extremely integrated editorial process.” 

When Eater, a Vox site, got to work on its Guide to the World, on Hulu, the editorial team was involved from the pitch and development stages, helping to identify local spots to eat on the hood of your car in Los Angeles and to find meals after midnight in New York. They also scouted the on-the-ground experts who serve as guides for each episode. In some cases, members of the editorial team who worked on the show’s production have stayed with it full-time.

In the past, outside parties (agents, producers) would read an article, get excited, and contact a publisher to express interest in an adaptation. As part of this new model, Vox has brought film and television producers on staff to proactively determine which stories (usually of the narrative long-form variety) have potential. “We now have early access to the pipeline,” Mumm told me. “We know what is being written, so then we can go out and say, ‘Okay, we have this piece coming, let’s put together a package’”—that is, anything from a pitch deck to a sizzle reel to a pilot episode. For films, the focus is on recruiting “talent” (actors and directors) who can help sell the project; then the studio brings on screenwriters. For television series, the order is reversed. In the case of Reeves Wiedeman’s “Who Killed Tulum?,” from New York magazine—another Vox property—the studio brought on Mehar Sethi, a Bojack Horseman writer, to adapt the article into a show for Amazon Prime.  

Having in-house producers gives publishers more creative control over the stories that become developed for the screen—which provides a test case for them to respond to industry-wide calls for diversity. Mumm said that Vox aims to produce projects that “inform audiences on social issues and highlight diverse creators.” (Caitlin Roper, executive producer for scripted projects at the Times, told me: “I spend a lot of time thinking about gatekeeping, like who do agents have that they send us versus who is out there.”)

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All of that may be appealing to media companies, but it comes with concerns for employees. The Writers Guild of America, East, which has historically organized film, television, and radio writers, has lately seen a whole new division of digital media houses unionize—Vox among them—as the scope of their work has evolved. “An important part of the theory behind organizing was that a lot of these companies are multimedia companies,” Lowell Peterson, the guild’s executive director, said. For the media companies that identify primarily as journalism outlets, there’s little precedent or incentive to dispense producer or screenwriter rights, which Peterson said were hard fought for by entertainment workers. “The company that hires you owns your copyright, so we’ve seen it across the bargaining table—how aggressive they are in asserting that they own everything,” he said. Recently, though, the guild secured for its members the right of journalists to credit, compensation, and consultation on film, television, and other projects based on their work. The union has also demanded more transparent job descriptions.

Publishers are still figuring out how to make the adaptation process profitable and sustainable. The incentives are obvious. “Hopefully we’ll get a Tiger King,” Mumm said. “I think journalists now understand that Hollywood is a viable second market for their work, so we see a lot of writers who are coming already with pitches that are very adaptable. They’re built around robust worlds that feel like a movie as you read.”

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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Caitlin Roper’s name.

Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.