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It’s been six years since the multi-billion dollar 1MDB corruption scandal — one of the biggest money-laundering frauds in history and one that infiltrated Hollywood when it emerged that stolen Malaysian millions had helped fund The Wolf of Wall Street — erupted.
Since then, the scandal’s central figure Jho Low has gone on the run, the former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak has started a 12-year prison term, and the now-shuttered production company behind The Wolf of Wall Street, Red Granite (co-founded by Razak’s stepson Riza Aziz and Emancipation producer Joey McFarland), has paid the Department of Justice a settlement of $60 million, $57 million of which was later sent back to Malaysia.
For Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, the two Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporters who helped bring to light much of the corruption (and were Pulitzer Prize-nominated for their work), the past six years have also brought a great deal of change. They would co-write Billion Dollar Whale about the complexities and characters behind the scandal, a bestseller that was optioned by Crazy Rich Asians producers SK Global, and then leave the WSJ to set up their own outfit, Project Brazen.
A self-styled “global journalism studio and production company,” Brazen has capitalized on Hope and Wright’s investigative skills to focus on making podcasts with an eye on swift scripted adaptations. First up, Fat Leonard, a nine-part podcast about a larger-than-life Malaysian military contractor who corrupted the U.S. Navy. It became an instant hit, with SK Global again signing up to transfer it to TV, and had to be expanded when Fat Leonard himself escaped from house arrest in the U.S. and fled to Venezuela in September. It also resulted in Project Brazen getting subpoenaed.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Hope and Wright discuss feeding the pipeline at time of high demand for contents about real-life events, their latest podcast Corinna and the King and why its “insane” tale of a Spanish royal implosion is so topical today, and why, six years on from the 1MDB scandal, they’re still talking about Jho Low.
You were both very successful journalists at the Wall Street Journal. Why go it alone?
Bradley Hope: It’s more than one thing. But I think in general, while the Journal was an amazing place to be a journalist, we were just craving the full creative freedom to pursue projects. When you write a book, it’s the first time that you go out on your own, essentially, because there’s no newspaper over your head. And even your editor is kind of more of like a partner rather than like a boss. So you really feel that you you can shape that from start to finish. Writing Billion Dollar Whale was the start of that independent streak.
Tom Wright: We saw how the world was and saw that there was this huge opportunity for independent content creators, just because of the demand for scripted shows based on things that have really happened, like true crime or white collar crime, whatever you want to call it. It was a once in a generation opportunity to launch a company that could feed that kind of pipeline. One of the things that Bradley and I had gotten better at was trying to bridge that gap between finding out what happened and then making it ready for scripted, and that’s one of the goals of Project Brazen. If you just option a book, you can sit around forever, but at Brazen what we’ve tried to do is vertically integrate. So we are a production company as well as being the journalists.
You’ve obviously gone very heavy on podcasts. How has that medium lent itself to the stories you want to tell?
Hope: I think podcasts are the great long-form medium of our time. It used to be magazine writing, but that’s really faded away dramatically. The other thing that’s nice about podcasts is that there’s so much work that goes into them, almost like a book, but you have a team, so it’s faster. With a book, it’s like a two-year process. But we’ve managed to get our podcasts down to between six months and maybe a bit longer in some cases. We can really put it out quickly. I realized if we both wrote our own books, and we were working flat out, at the most we’d achieve one book per year in the company. And we wouldn’t be able to do anything else.
Podcasts are also a very collaborative form. A lot of our podcasts are our own projects, but we also have a bunch of projects that are coming out, starting next year, that are collaborations with other journalists. So someone has an idea, we help shape it, we have the resources to make it and put it out in the world. And that makes it much more scalable, which is really important to us.
The podcast to scripted pipeline has become incredibly busy. How do you shape your podcasts to help feed that?
Wright: It’s the thinking very early on about the characters and the take. So for the Fat Leonard podcast, that story had actually been around for a bunch of years and reported in the newspapers, but nobody really understood it or the character because no one had talked. So when we got Leonard to talk, for many hours, we were able to then think, okay, what’s the take we want to have on this story. And it was really that the U.S. Navy is a very misogynistic place, but it was also women that brought down Leonard. And noone had ever reported on that before. So it was a conscious decision by us to focus on previous instances of misogyny in the Navy and the female characters involved. And now Peter Chiarelli who wrote Crazy Rich Asians is adapting it for television. We worked very closely with him, even while the podcast was coming out. And it’s just sped up the whole process.
So was Fat Leonard made with an immediate eye for TV?
Wright: Yes, that’s how we tend to select projects. That’s not a cynical thing. The best stories are going to be made for TV anyway. We look for three things at Project Brazen: great characters, high stakes and happening now. We’re not going to do stories about murders in 1970s small town America. We have our own distribution channel for podcasts via PRX. We don’t typically sell them, so then the question is, how do you get visibility? If the story is still happening, like Leonard goes on the run in this case, that gave us a free boost of publicity, and the podcast got hundreds of thousands of more downloads.
How are you financed?
Hope: The advance for my book [The Rebel and the Kingdom] was our startup capital, and then Fat Leonard was our first big podcast. And we’re super proud of it because it’s a wholly independent creation and it still has close to 800,000 downloads. But as we were trying to kind of make our way and figure things out, we’ve been very deliberate about our choices. At first, we thought we’d just sell our podcasts to Apple, Spotify, iHeart, all those kinds of places. But immediately it just felt like we were just going to be working for somebody else who would essentially take over the project in exchange for financing.
So instead we started to find investors who we could persuade into this idea of funding our projects, but not fund our company. That’s something that’s quite different about us and other companies. We haven’t sold our company, but we have raised money from investors to finance projects. We have a project financing fund. And as a result, there’s Tom and I, and we’ve got our little team, but we have a slate that’s as big as a much bigger company. At this points we have close to 14 projects either in production or close to being in production.
There seem to be a lot of companies setting up, and I use a phrase called “cynical IP companies”. They’re making something for the minimum amount it takes to get it optioned. But in our case, we want them to be successful as podcasts. We’re not just thinking that we’re just making this for TV. The journalism comes first. We love the story. We love the experience of reporting and investigating. The adaptation is for that big audience out there that doesn’t listen to podcasts or they don’t read books. We want to find stories we can tell in every medium,and we don’t find it to be cannibalizing. For example, we have a podcast coming out next year and are shooting a documentary at the same time.
You mentioned that you’re getting individual investors onboard. Who are they and how do you seek them out?
Hope: They’re mostly high net worth individuals and family offices. They’re all fans of investigative journalism, but they also have a commercial participation. But they have no say over editorial.
Is there much money to be made in the podcasts you are making or is it more with an eye on what they can lead to further down the line?
Wright: Actually, as well as the adaptation strategy, we also have a suite of podcasts we’re developing which we’re calling “Always On” podcasts. Rather than limited series like Fat Leonard, they’ll just run and run. We’ve got a very exciting project we’re doing in music where we’re working with some top-level music promoters to tell stories from the world of pop and rock about Prince and people like that. We’ve got a business show. We’ve got a food show we’re working on. So we’ve got all these different things we’re trying, and the revenue model for that is very different than the revenue model for a show where you’re trying to adapt it to TV or film.
Hope: A single limited series podcast is not going to make money as a podcast. But when you’re a company and you’ve got a portfolio of projects, you have that scale and the monthly download numbers across the portfolio, in a way you can monetize all projects. But the ones that are really successful for advertising are ones that are frequent and ongoing.
You’ve just announced your latest podcast, Corinna and the King. Tell me more about that.
Hope: It’s one of these stories that underlines this truth is stranger than fiction concept. Basically, the former King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, was a well-known Lothario and had many mistresses over the years. But there’s one relationship that just caused everything to fall apart, the monarchy itself, his role as the king and the image of him as this benevolent guardian of Spain. So on the surface, it’s the story of this relationship and the twists and turns of it, which are just insane, involving elephant hunting in Africa and unbelievable amounts of wealth and jewels and everything like that. But it also reveals everything about how Spain works, and how this monarchy works and how the money slipped away in different ways over the years.
Wright: He was one of the world’s most popular monarchs, equally popular with Queen Elizabeth. But then all imploded because of a love affair gone wrong. And I think that’s just a fascinating topic for us. It’s a great show for us to be putting out right now after Queen Elizabeth died, because it just sort of takes you inside how the world really works.
You’ve said Corinna and the King is the biggest and boldest project of yours to date. How so?
Hope: The main thing is that we’ve made it in English and Spanish, so we’ve essentially made two podcasts. We have so many people, people in Spain, people in Mexico, and we have Mishel Prada from Fear of the Walking Dead as the narrator for the English version and Laura Gómez from Orange Is the New Black for Spanish. Also, the marketing campaign around it is super ambitious and experimental. We designed a perfume for the podcast, which we’ll be distributing.
Wright: You can kill people with it!
Hope: In Spain, we’re running a pretend advertising campaign for a fashion line, where every single piece of fashion is a joke about the podcast, so people will get it on Instagram and Google and be like, what the hell.
Wright: Again, it’s like it’s a story that’s sort of been around for a while and audiences might have read something about it. But like Fat Leonard or even Billion Dollar Whale, it’s always the opportunity that we take at Brazen to go back over it and do it again and do it in a way that’s just more invigorating.
Have you got eyes on a scripted series for Corinna?
Hope: We see a potential for sure, but we’ve just been focusing on getting the story right for now.
Given the political and current nature of the stories, what’s your relationship with the authorities?
Hope: With Fat Leonard, we were subpoenaed. So our first project we ever had, we got a subpoena. We hired a lawyer to fight for us claiming First Amendment rights and journalistic protection, and we lost, because there’s one way you can defeat the First Amendment which is someone’s right to a fair trial. So the judge ruled that the right of one of the defendants to a fair trial trumped the journalistic privileges of Project Brazen. We were always fighting it more out of principle than out of any fear, because they were seeking our tapes with Leonard, not with another anonymous source. So our answer to that was that we said, “Fine, if you think this is important, then we’ll make it a public record.” So we made all the tapes available to all people, rather than just the defendant’s lawyers.
You’ve been working with Crazy Rich Asians producer SK Global, which is adapting both Fat Leonard and Billion Dollar Whale.
Wright: And also the book Blood and Oil that Bradley wrote about Mohammed Bin Salman. We don’t have any corporate overlap with them, and they don’t own any of us. We’re just partners. And in this Fat Leonard production, we’re equal partners. So we’ve gone from working at a newspaper and then getting things optioned to hiring screenwriters ourselves. And that’s a great process for us and one that we think is really important when we really want to swing for the fences with our biggest projects.
When SK first took Billion Dollar Whale, it was originally going to be a film, but has since changed to a TV series. Why the switch?
Hope: This world is so rich that it’s very hard to convert it into just a feature, because it’ll become so simplified that you actually lose some of the texture and the detail of it. And I think everybody agrees that it’s actually a TV show that could go on for more than one season. Because if you think about it, Billion Dollar Whale itself really covers the early days of Jho Low, the heist, and then him on the run. But everything that happened afterwards, the Trump stuff, Jho in China, Pras Michel…
Wright: Pras Michel allegedly being offered $350 million to try to make the legal stuff go away, that’s all just been shoehorned into our epilogue. We could write a whole other book about that. There’s a Chinese official who has just been sentenced to death, and he was Jho Low’s protector.
Hope: Tom and I have a YouTube called “Where’s Jho Low?” We look at each other and go, I can’t believe we’re still talking about this.
Wright: The worst thing is every time I go to party in Singapore, people go, “where’s Jho Low?”
So where is Jho Low?
Hope: Ha! 100 percent he’s in China. We’ve got pictures of him at Disneyland Shanghai.
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