Not long after bargain-hunting, hedge-fund-hating Redditors began buying shares of floundering retail chain GameStop, Hollywood began buying their story. It didn’t matter that the much-ballyhooed bounce in GameStop’s stock lasted for less than a week, that the role of Reddit in the meme-stock saga remains hazy, or that the long-term ramifications of the battle between short sellers and app-powered retail investors—which prompted a White House statement, an SEC probe, and a Congressional hearing—are still uncertain. The WallStreetBets uprising was sticky, sensational, and of interest to boomers and Zoomers alike. Hollywood wanted in.
As soon as GameStop’s share price spiked in late January, not-so-stock-savvy Americans started scouring explainers, marveling at GameStop millionaires and dogecoin billionaires (and less-lucky late adopters), and reckoning with the apparent reality that—as Numlock News author Walt Hickey joked—“the economy has been turned into a freemium mobile game by bored people.” Authors, screenwriters, and producers were paying attention too, and some of them saw (or were willing to spin) the story as a sweeping fable about the fallout from the Great Recession and a populist revolt against Wall Street’s entrenched and heretofore untouchable interests.
“There’s an inescapable David and Goliath underpinning to the GameStop story that seems to have caught the public imagination,” Mark DeGasperi, a writer, script doctor, and story analyst who has scouted movie material for major production companies, says via email. Nina Sadowsky, an entertainment lawyer, novelist, and longtime TV and film writer and producer, adds that “Right now, when everyone is feeling scared at home and alone, and there’s a lot of economic uncertainty, I think that kind of rags-to-riches kind of story has a great appeal.”
Hollywood has had nonfiction feeding frenzies before, but few (if any) real-life events have garnered as much immediate interest from writers, producers, and distributors as the GameStop-stock soap opera. The resulting proliferation of projects, which currently encompasses plans for four feature films, four documentaries, and one TV series, “may be unprecedented,” says intellectual property agent Steve Fisher, a partner at talent agency APA.
Let’s lay out the list of dramatizations and documentaries, covering the features first:
- A feature from MGM, based on a still-unsold proposal for an as-yet-unwritten book by Bringing Down the House, The Accidental Billionaires, and Bitcoin Billionaires author Ben Mezrich (tentatively titled The Antisocial Network)
- A feature from Netflix, written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), with the streaming service’s teen-movie titan Noah Centineo attached to star
- A feature from HBO, executive produced by Blumhouse founder Jason Blum, Billions cocreator Andrew Ross Sorkin, and former HBO Films, Miniseries, and Cinemax president Len Amato
- A feature based on the life story rights of exiled WallStreetBets founder Jaime Rogozinski and the rights to his 2020 book, from RatPac, the production company of director/producer Brett Ratner, whom multiple people have said sexually harassed or assaulted them
- A documentary series from Netflix produced by Story Syndicate, the company cofounded by Emmy- and Oscar-winning husband-and-wife producer-director duo Dan Cogan and Liz Garbus
- A feature-length documentary from XTR (You Cannot Kill David Arquette and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets) and directors Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci, who head up the doc production company Optimist
- A feature-length documentary from Oscar-winning-doc sellers Submarine Entertainment and the Console Wars creative team (directors Jonah Tulis and Blake J. Harris and producer Julian Rosenberg)
- A feature-length documentary called This Is Not Financial Advice, produced by Propagate (Hulu’s Hillary) and the Wall Street Journal and directed by Baby God’s Hannah Olson
- A limited series titled To the Moon, from feature-film producers Matthew Cooper and Jessamine Burgum, who launched a production company called Pinky Promise last month
All of those projects went public between January 31—when GameStop’s price was still significantly inflated—and February 11, by which time GME had come crashing back down. And the thirst for IP may not be quite quenched: Ringer contributor David Hill, who wrote about GameStop millionaire Mike McCaskill last week, says that he and McCaskill quickly received feelers from producers or screenwriters who are still sniffing for a fresh angle, undeterred by the big fish swimming in the same waters.
All of that jockeying for pole position in the GameStop sweepstakes has caused a stir even among insiders familiar with Hollywood’s ways. “I think everyone’s taken notice of this,” Fisher says. Sadowsky adds, “It was just so funny, because I started looking and going, ‘What, another one? Another one?’ Like, what is going on?”
With nine contenders (and counting) declared, the race for the first, best, and most lucrative screen versions of the GameStop story is on. But for some of those who have followed the kerfuffle from afar, the flurry of announcements sparked questions about the mechanics of the unique competition between would-be bards of WallStreetBets. How does one pitch, sell, and make a movie or series based on news that’s still developing and partly opaque? (“Even I barely understand these matters,” WallStreetBets trendsetter Keith Gill told Congress last week.) How do producers and distributors assess the risks of supporting and scheduling rival projects, and how do writers and directors differentiate their takes on the same (or similar) material? What legal considerations come into play?
In the case of a logjam like this one, selling an option or convincing a producer to pony up is just the start of an extended, complex process. Congrats, assorted scribes and screen impresarios: You succeeded in selling or financing a GameStop story. Now what?
Although there may not be a perfect comp for this cat o’ nine tails of meme-stock stories, pileups of ripped-from-the-headlines scripts have produced this sort of situation before. The outcome of one previous sprint for screen supremacy may help us preview how the coming months could unfold for today’s GameStop storytellers.
On May 19, 1992, 17-year-old Amy Fisher shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco, wife of Long Island body shop owner Joey Buttafuoco. Joey had been conducting a sexual relationship with Fisher since the previous summer, when she was still 16. The violent triangle of Fisher (who eventually served seven years in prison), Mary Jo (who survived a .25 caliber bullet to the face), and Joey (who eventually pled guilty to third-degree rape and served some jail time himself) made mainstream national news and became a staple subject for tabloids, talk shows, and Saturday Night Live.
Naturally, networks were clamoring for dramatized versions of the already-dramatic tale. Less than eight months after the shooting, NBC, CBS, and ABC released the results: three TV movies, all of which aired in a span of one week, and two of which aired in the same time slot on the same night.
Screenwriter Janet Brownell wrote and received a producer credit for the best-reviewed entry in the Buttafuoco TV trifecta: ABC’s The Amy Fisher Story, which starred Drew Barrymore (fresh off of playing a seductive teen in Poison Ivy) as Fisher and was directed by Andy Tennant, who hadn’t yet transitioned from TV to film. Almost 30 years later, Brownell recounts how her rush to the screen started. “ABC came to me and said, ‘Look, CBS and NBC are doing Amy Fisher’s story,’” she says. “‘One of them has Joey’s rights, one of them has Mary Jo’s rights, and … we have nobody’s rights. Would you be interested?’”
Despite that less-than-appealing pitch, Brownell accepted the assignment and decided to cover Fisher’s trial and use the court transcripts to structure the story. That plan was scuttled when Fisher, who had been charged with attempted murder, bypassed a trial, accepted a plea bargain, and pled guilty to first-degree assault that September. “At that point, all three networks were off to the races,” Brownell says. “It was like, who could get this written and on the air first?”
Brownell recalls writing the script in little more than a week and revising it as the production ramped up in Vancouver. “Because the scripts were all done at the same time, the casting frenzy then went on,” she says. “It was really about, who’s going to get the best Amy Fisher?” Barrymore, the top target, read all three scripts and picked Brownell’s, a coup for ABC. (NBC went with Noelle Parker for Amy Fisher: My Story, and CBS cast Alyssa Milano in Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story.)
Because ABC didn’t own the rights to anyone’s exclusive story, Brownell presented her narrative from multiple perspectives and didn’t delve deeply into any individual’s psyche. “We didn’t want to get sued by CBS saying, ‘You’re showing Joey and we have the rights and you have no right to show that,’” she says. In a case as well-publicized as the Buttafuoco/Fisher feud, though, exclusivity was overrated. Brownell relied on details in the public domain and cooperation with New York Post reporter Amy Pagnozzi, who had covered the case and appeared as a character in Brownell’s script. “If Joey says something in the paper, I can use that as dialogue,” Brownell says. “So it didn’t really restrict me in any way.” Better yet, it freed her from any pressure to whitewash an unsavory character. “When you sell the rights of someone who might be indicted later, you have to show them as kind of an OK guy,” Brownell says. “And [Buttafuoco] wasn’t an OK guy.”
If producers on different projects could coordinate their plans—I’ll show you my script if you show me yours—they might be able to ensure that their projects are distinct and that they aren’t eyeing the same debut date. But for legal reasons, they have to stay within their own siloes, gleaning tidbits about competitors’ approaches and progress from public information or industry gossip but not from comparing notes.
“No one would do that because A, they would consider it proprietary, and it is,” Sadowsky says. “And B, it would muddy the waters in terms of credit, because if there’s a Writers Guild arbitration, one of the things that might determine credit would be if you had access to someone else’s material.” Maria Miles, the founding partner of an entertainment law firm, explains that copyright law provides protection over expressions of ideas, not ideas themselves, which is why West Side Story, The Notebook, and Step Up could all legally riff on Romeo and Juliet without infringing on each other. (Even if Shakespeare had lived in the age of copyright law, he couldn’t have copyrighted the concept of ill-fated lovers.) To successfully sue for copyright infringement, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant saw a screenplay, communicated with someone on the opposing production team who shared private details, or obtained protected info via some other means, so it’s safer for the two (or three, or nine) sides not to talk.
To make matters more complicated in the case of the dueling dramatizations of Fisher’s story, ABC executive Ian Valentine, who handled The Amy Fisher Story in his role as the VP of longform productions, was married to Ruthe Benton, who had recently been promoted to codirector of motion pictures for TV at CBS and was responsible for overseeing Casualties of Love. “I can’t even imagine the conversations that went on at their house,” Brownell says. “And I was really good friends with Ruthe. And so it was a little complex in terms of what we could talk about and not talk about.”
Thanks to that fog of Hollywood war, Brownell and her colleagues couldn’t predict precisely what their rivals’ movies would look like. Compressed production schedules also obscured when they would be broadcast. “I don’t think anyone anticipated that they would all be airing the same week,” Brownell says. “That part was sort of stunning.” The Amy Fisher Story was still tied up in post-production when ABC learned that NBC was about to beat both it and CBS to the punch by premiering on December 28, 1992, and that the latter two networks would be pitting their projects against each other on January 3, 1993. “They were on at exactly the same time, and that’s why we thought we were completely fucked,” Brownell says. “It was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Because the other one got on first, and we’re splitting, basically, the rest of the audience. Who hasn’t seen the Amy Fisher story?”
For Brownell—unlike Fisher and the Buttafuocos—the story had a happy ending: The Amy Fisher Story won the ratings battle, which Brownell attributes primarily to the celebrity of Barrymore. Brownell watched part of Casualties of Love live, but she couldn’t force herself to sit through the whole thing. “I had been so immersed in this for just like three months,” she says. “It was like, ‘Ugh, enough of the Amy Fisher story.’” After being bombarded with three prime-time retellings in one week, audiences may have been saying the same.
The proximity of that trio of TV movies made the Fisher story an extreme example of creative convergence; as Fisher says, “the chances that you and your competing project will have casted, put the right director behind the camera, and gotten the script where it needs to be within more or less the same time frame, it’s probably unlikely.” But plenty of rhyming movie duos dot Hollywood’s history, just as short squeezes periodically revisit Wall Street: Volcano and Dante’s Peak; Armageddon and Deep Impact; Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached; Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006). Documentaries have gone up against other docs or dramatizations: Prefontaine and Without Limits; The People v. O.J. Simpson and O.J.: Made in America; 2017’s All the Money in the World and 2018’s Trust (both about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III); 2019’s fightin’ Fyre Fest docs; last year’s dueling documentaries about NXIVM. There are two Tiger King–inspired scripted series in the small-screen pipeline.
The past decade also has seen multiple passes at the 2010 rescue of Chilean miners, the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, and the Silk Road. The ever-lengthening list of twin films grows both by coincidence and in response to cultural trends or, as many a movie’s opening text teases, “actual events.” As Sadowsky says, “there is a little bit of herd mentality in Hollywood,” exacerbated by “the insular quality of Hollywood where six ideas get talked about.” And then “there’s that ego thing, that no one wants to back down.”
In that highly networked world, secrets are scarce. Those on the receiving end of the pitch process make it their business to be aware of what’s out there. “We have a closed universe that we pitch in,” Miles says. “So sales agents pitch to the same people, and they’re like, ‘Wait, didn’t I just hear this yesterday?’” Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, a screenwriter and media executive and the former editor-in-chief of Script magazine, once pitched a TV show idea to HBO, only to be denied because ABC had just bought an analogous project. Her idea wasn’t different enough. “‘It’s the same, but different’ is the thing you hear all the time when you’re pitching,” she says.
Even though the GameStop pitching happened in one big burst, Bowerman suspects that the financial backers “all know what each other is buying and they’re OK with buying the same thing as long as there’s a different spin. … There could be conceivably seven completely different stories about this subject that could all be equally compelling.” But few viewers would have the appetite for seven versions of the GameStop story, given that most of the projects will probably look to The Big Short as a lodestar and reach related conclusions about their subject’s societal significance, even if the characters’ names (and usernames) vary. “They’re going to have to be very mindful about telling it differently,” Bowerman continues. “And they’ll probably hope that some news gets slipped out about how one company is doing it compared to another company so that they know what to avoid.”
Some quality features get bodied at the box office by buzzier projects. The makers of Infamous postponed the movie’s release date and adjusted its marketing strategy because it came out after the Oscar-winning Capote, to which it was constantly compared. Despite positive reviews, famous faces in its cast, and attempts to capitalize on Capote’s cachet while emphasizing the differences between the two biopics, Infamous flopped at the box office.
But because scripted content is in growing demand and the modern TV and movie markets are increasingly segmented, the producers of existing projects may have a harder time keeping prime narrative territory to themselves. “I think we’re seeing greater activity and more of a reluctance to say, ‘All right, you’ve got this story,’ because of all the new buyers out there,” Fisher says. If audiences are fascinated by a story—as they seem to be by the recent series of short squeezes—they may be willing to watch more than one dramatization, or adaptation, or documentary. That’s especially true today, Fisher says, because “there’s no stakes, no inconvenience, if it’s something they can see on a streamer.”
Both Fyre Festival docs garnered positive reviews, and their rapid-fire releases seemed to intensify the interest generated by their shared, schadenfreude-inducing subject. The fact that there were two Fyre Festival docs coming out at the same time became a cross-promotional story in and of itself, as debates about which had “won” directed attention to both. That kind of competition can also have a clarifying effect during production. “When you have another team going after the same people it helps you focus on what matters to the story,” Jenner Furst, who codirected Hulu’s Fyre Fraud, says via email. “The urgency makes us diligent about getting people locked in—getting them quickly—and getting them exclusively.” Furst has acknowledged paying Fyre Fest founder/charlatan Billy McFarland to be in his film, which rival director Chris Smith reportedly declined to do for his Netflix doc. As Furst notes, though, a figure who might seem essential to one project may be optional for another: “Two films can have completely different casts and tell completely different stories about the same event, and both be great.”
That’s easy to say from the sidelines or after the production dust settles, but in the thick of an Amy Fisher Story–style struggle, the advantage is coveted. (Hence Hulu releasing Fyre Fraud without warning four days before Smith’s Fyre was due to drop.) “That kind of arms race extends to gathering as much weight behind your project [as you can] in the hope that it’s going to scare off your competitors,” Fisher says. That might mean announcing as quickly as possible, touting a big-name writer, producer, or distributor, or snapping up life rights to send a signal and stake a claim. “Everyone hopes that their project will develop an aura around it—that that is the definitive telling of that story,” Fisher adds.
The first salvo fired in the GameStop story skirmish was the team-up of MGM and Mezrich, which was announced on January 31. Although it’s not unusual for a nonfiction book proposal to be optioned, the pace was still surprising. “I think that was a case of, ‘We know this is going to be a really interesting story. We want to beat others to the punch with a big author and a piece of IP,’” Fisher says. A preexisting professional or personal relationship can help grease the wheels: MGM motion picture group chairman Michael De Luca produced The Social Network, which was based on Mezrich’s book about the founding of Facebook.
Jonah Tulis, the director of Console Wars and Submarine’s still-untitled GameStop doc, says he had a hookup too, having worked with Submarine before. “I basically emailed Submarine and was like, ‘Hey, I got something for you tomorrow on the GameStop thing. I’ve been in the middle of this for a couple of weeks now,’” he says. “And I sent them materials. We had a call later that day. Then we forged a plan and maybe it was announced a week after that. … It was one of those things where you typically wouldn’t announce something like that, but we did want to announce, like, ‘Listen, we’ve got some really key players in this.’”
For Furst, the first task when turning a news story into a narrative project is to elevate the tick-tock into “something archetypal, systemic—something emblematic of the zeitgeist, of the human condition. … If we can’t answer those questions and the piece is just an extension of the news or social media chatter, we don’t pursue it.”
Tulis thinks he can answer those questions. He came across the burgeoning story slightly before it blew up, through friends who had introduced him to people who were active in the short-squeeze community separate from Reddit dating back to 2019. That lead time allowed him to cultivate relationships, line up potential interview subjects, and observe their reactions in real time as GameStop started to make mainstream headlines. The other point in Tulis’s favor is that the market for his medium of choice is strong. “Documentaries are enjoying this revival through streaming,” Sadowsky says. “Really, it’s given them access to a much larger audience than they’ve ever had.” Less fortunately for Tulis, there are three others in the works about the same subject. “I’ve never been in a situation like this before,” Tulis says. “It’s pretty bananas.”
When he was working on Console Wars, Tulis was exhuming well-chronicled and decades-old events. Now he’s watching the narrative twist whenever he turns on the TV. “We’re going to keep learning and keep figuring out what the story is as we go,” he says. He’s planning to start shooting (and editing concurrently) in a couple of weeks, an accelerated schedule that’s partly a product of pressure from rival projects. “It ramps up the timeline,” he says. “I don’t think it’ll affect the quality. I think it just affects the amount of work on a daily basis.”
Although he doesn’t know how his documentary will end, Tulis says his subjects have already given him more than enough material. According to Deadline, those sources include “a Midwestern father of two whose contrarian research helped propel the big bet against Wall Street, and an amateur investor who put her life savings on the line riding GameStop stock to the moon.” Tulis thinks he can count on his exclusive commits not to two-time him with other directors, although he concedes, “You’d be crazy if you weren’t stressed about that.”
Whichever meme-stock screen projects survive the Darwinian winnowing to come will likely arrive in multiple waves. Even if Mezrich (who declined an interview request for this piece) works with a screenwriter to prepare a script for MGM in concert with his almost inevitable bestseller, the research and writing, followed by the feature-film production process, will still require a much longer lead time than (for instance) Tulis’s take. “I think the people that are looking at those prestige projects are betting that these prestige creators will be able to create something that will resonate down the line,” Sadowsky says. “And with the docs, they’ll tap into this immediate interest.” Tulis expects that early 2022 is when the first completed projects will appear, although he says “there’s a possibility for us to do sooner.”
Producer/director Lane Shefter Bishop, the CEO of book-to-screen adaptation company Vast Entertainment, observes that “Hollywood loves to piggyback on things that did well.” Thus, the reception to any early-bird documentaries—and the inevitable narrative podcasts—may allow producers on the film side to gauge the growth potential of the GameStop cinematic universe. “Is it going to be something that they can feed off of, or is it going to be something that saturates the marketplace?” Miles says. Perhaps the story won’t have the staying power that its blanket coverage suggested, and the public’s interest level will dip as quickly as GME’s share price. “If there isn’t much interest in the documentaries, where we see the first one out, get all the attention, and then it wanes, I wonder what that’ll mean for the narratives,” Miles adds.
Behemoths like MGM and Netflix, Bowerman notes, “can green-light anything.” But with so many productions from smaller entities in the mix, she says, “it’s just not feasible that all of them would end up getting made.” Thanks to pandemic-depleted portfolios, some projects that otherwise wouldn’t still be standing at the end of the development gauntlet may enjoy a longer leash. “A lot of people didn’t shoot anything last year,” Bishop says. “People are dying for content, and I think that’s part of the reason why there’s nine of them.” Even so, some distributors may pull out, intimidated by deeper-pocketed competitors. Some creators may fall too far behind their rivals, or find that there aren’t enough unique, compelling characters to go around. In the conceptual stage, expenses are low, so time will determine which producers are serious. “The real cost of making a feature comes at the point where you have to pull the trigger and actually make it,” Sadowsky says.
The hard drives and desks of screenwriters are stuffed with scripts for films that lost out to earlier, luckier, or better doppelgängers. “In the 2000s, I know there were dueling Alexander the Great biopics, and a couple of versions of the Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae, one of which became 300,” DeGasperi says. “And while The Good Shepherd was in the works, there was a like-minded project at another studio called Wilderness of Mirrors (which never saw the light of day). I know there have been a couple of Ford-Ferrari movies in development at the same time too, before the most recent one came out.” We remember the movies that get made, not the ones that die in development. And even the GameStop story probably doesn’t have nine lives.
“You have huge people behind some of the Hollywood stuff … but who knows what’s going to happen here?” Tulis says. “It’s one of those things where they better have different angles, or else they’re just going to be another one of those movies.”