Conde Nast's Dawn Ostroff on Turning Magazine Articles Into Movies and New TV Plans
The media company's entertainment president (and former CW chief) opens up about developing a GQ feature into 'Only the Brave,' hitting theaters Friday, and the promise of digital video.
In 2011, Dawn Ostroff, who had been president of The CW, entered what she calls "a slightly dysfunctional universe" when publisher Conde Nast tasked her with exploiting its 19 magazine brands — including Vogue, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and a trove of 100,000 articles dating back decades — across film, TV and digital under the banner of Conde Nast Entertainment. "We couldn't utilize a lot of the existing infrastructure because the print side was so different," she says.
While Ostroff's background is in TV, six years later, CNE has found more traction in digital video and film. It has 35 movies in development with such A-listers as Alexander Payne (The Judge's Will) and Frank Marshall (The Longest Night). And on Oct. 20, Sony will open its first major film, the $38 million firefighter drama Only the Brave, based on a GQ feature about a tragic 2013 inferno in Arizona that killed 19 firefighters. Unlike with past magazine-to-screen hits like Argo and Brokeback Mountain, Conde Nast is a profit participant.
Conde Nast parent Advance Publications invested more than $50 million in CNE, which has 313 employees in New York and Los Angeles, and the label finally turned a high-seven-figure profit in 2016, a year ahead of schedule, primarily due to ad revenue from the 1 billion monthly views of CNE's 5,000 digital videos, including Emmy-nominated Screw You Cancer and Oscar-nominated Joe's Violin.
Ostroff, who is married with two kids and two stepchildren, invited THR to her office at One World Trade Center to talk about what's next for CNE.
Part of your original mandate was to mine the Conde Nast archives for source material. What's the most promising project that effort has yielded so far?
What we've done is hired readers to go through articles from all of our magazines and digitally organize them. Jeremy Steckler, who runs our movie group, was able to identify some key articles that he wanted to start out with, and Old Man and the Gun was one of them. The article [by David Grann about a bank robber] was published in The New Yorker in 2003. We brought it to David Lowery to see if he'd be interested [in directing]. He had just done Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and we saw his sensibility and his incredible ability to write characters and relationships, which is at the core of this story.
For a while it looked like the John McAfee project, based on a Wired article with Johnny Depp to star, was going to be CNE's first major film. How did Only the Brave end up going first?
The McAfee project was put in development at Warner Bros. [in 2013]. It was a bit of a different regime then. At that time, studios were still doing some of the more adult-skewing films. Now, the big studios are focused on tentpoles. Only the Brave was also able to attract incredible talent without being set up at a studio. We packaged the movie ourselves, putting together the script and the director and some of the talent and then going out to the marketplace. The movie wound up being so timely because when you look at where we are right now, we are so dependent on first responders, whether you're talking about the hurricanes in Houston and the Caribbean or an earthquake in Mexico or the wildfires in California. The McAfee project will soon be in preproduction.
How big a challenge is it, given the material you work with, that studios are moving away from character-driven narratives?
I think it's an opportunity. When you look at the tentpole movies, you've got actors making a lot of money. Everyone loves to go see the Star Wars movies; we're all there with our kids. It's fantastic. But when you start to look for movies that are going to be adult stories, I think the entire creative community is looking for these really meaningful stories, and they're just not made as often as they were before. Be it writers, directors, actors, we've been able to attract an incredible array of talent because the choices for them aren't as plentiful as they used to be.
When CNE first launched, you took a lot of heat over the boilerplate freelance writer contract that included a 12-month option right. Now, do you feel CNE was in the right or did the critics have a point?
I really feel we were right. All of the industries have changed. Everybody's going through it, be it a TV company, a movie studio, the music business. Everybody's looking at their business as a 360-degree holistic approach. That being said, we've been able to option so many of these articles that may not have ever gotten optioned. We're actually giving writers an opportunity to make more money on the option, and then if it gets made, obviously, they'll make significantly more money. We nurture these projects. We really put a lot of attention into packaging these projects in the same way that we did Only the Brave and Old Man and the Gun. And I hope writers see that it's a significant way for them to be able to make more money.
What have you read recently that excited you?
The New Yorker's article about North Korea that was published [in September]. It was an unbelievable article. An article we're looking at is about a SWAT team that's in ISIS territory, basically going into very difficult situations and pulling people out. It's called "The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS," and it was for The New Yorker. Wired had an amazing cover story about a hotel hacker who figured out a way to get into people's hotel rooms by programing the cards. Those are some of the standouts. I'm sure as soon as you leave, I'll think of 10 more.
On the TV front, you have Last Chance U for Netflix, Vanity Fair Confidential for Investigation Discovery and the upcoming Most Expensivest for Viceland — all nonfiction. What about scripted?
We've been trying. We have two scripted projects that we haven't announced yet. It's hard. At The CW, when you want to announce something, you can go and announce it. Here, we're beholden to networks, which is a little more challenging. We have a couple of things that we're selling to the networks now in pilot season that haven't been announced yet, and we're working on a lot of different scripted ideas. It's been the one area that we started a little bit later than film and digital video. We had a big project that was announced last year, a pilot called Icon, which we developed at ABC. It didn't go forward, but we're still trying to find the right project and the right package.
What's the most lucrative part of CNE's business right now?
The digital video business.
And where do you predict it'll be in five years?
What's happening is the longform and shortform are merging. A digital video used to be two minutes. Now, some of our videos are 20 or 30 minutes. It's really where a significant amount of the ad money is going to be shifting to. Google had a survey that came out [this spring] where millennials and Gen Z-ers are spending more than three and a half hours a day watching digital video. That's the new primetime.
You've moved into acquisitions and distribution by buying the Zac Posen doc House of Z and releasing it on Vogue.com. How did that experiment fare?
We buy movies at festivals all the time, usually shorts. This was the first time that it was TVOD [transactional video-on-demand], where the viewer will pay to rent a full-length movie.It did better than our projections, which is the good news, but it's only two weeks into our window.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.