Building An Epic Brand Around Incredible, True Stories

Argo was only the beginning. For Joshuah Bearman and Joshua Davis, the oft-optioned writers behind startup Epic Magazine, there's big business to be had in heart-thumping nonfiction. We join their hunt for gold—and high-end sponsorship—in them thar Hollywood Hills.

Joshuah Bearman wrote the Wired magazine story that became this year’s Best Picture winner, Argo.

Bearman and Joshua Davis, his cofounder of the new digital long-form journalism startup Epic Magazine, have, in fact, between them had 18 of their articles optioned for films. So it’s logical that early reports on Epic would focus on the magazine-to-Hollywood pipeline these two authors appear to have mastered. The Times and others, taking note of Epic earlier this month, have largely portrayed their startup as a way for enterprising long-form journalists to shake down a bit of Hollywood lucre.

"That’s certainly part of it," Bearman says of the Hollywood connection. Writing long-form narrative journalism sexy and gripping enough to attract L.A. certainly doesn’t hurt, and Bearman says that his career of slow-burn reporting "would be impossible without it." But the business ideas behind Epic are more complex than simple Hollywood bait. Indeed, as Bearman and Davis explain, their evolving business model might sooner take a page from the playbook of broadcast television.

"There is a brand to be built around the idea of extraordinary true stories," says Davis, "and brands have value. And part of the value of building a brand that has the sexiness of telling gripping, page-turning stories is the attractiveness that it has for advertisers." For all its formal innovation, the principal revenue stream for Epic might be an old one indeed, and its font is Madison Avenue. "We’re interested in the idea of high-end sponsorship," says Davis.

Epic wants to tell stories that grab readers by their lapels and don’t let go. And as advertisers know, once you have someone’s attention, you can sell them things. "Digital media is going the way of sponsorship," says Bearman, pointing to the examples of The Awl and Vice Media, which this summer sold a 5% stake in the company to Fox for $70 million. Whereas Vice will often sell an ad campaign and then develop content around it, the Joshes intend to do it the other way around. And while Vice puts out a massive quantity of content, Epic would prefer to focus on quality, says Bearman. "We would go to advertisers and say, ‘We have this killer story about a mercenary who investigates a robbery at a high-altitude gold mine. Why don’t you come on board as a sponsor?’"

In other words, it’s a model much like broadcast TV’s "upfronts," where networks pitch their already developed shows to advertisers.

Bearman says he actually had the idea for Epic, or something like it, well before his Argo success. Years back, he’d had a notion to put out "nonfiction novella" chapbooks, perhaps through McSweeney’s. Finding it cost-prohibitive in a dead-tree era, he set the idea aside. "Then technology caught up," he says, pointing to the advent of platforms like The Atavist and the reading revolution occurring on tablets and e-readers.

After writing a story for The Atavist, Bearman found himself at a South by Southwest panel on the future of journalism. Around that time, he "really began thinking about this entrepreneurially," he says. He looped in Davis, with whom he’d wanted to form a joint venture for some time.

Epic "upfronts" aren’t on the near horizon; for now, the startup gets its funding from that national bank for new ideas, Silicon Valley. Specifically, Epic has formed a partnership with Medium, a new text-driven startup from Twitter cofounders Evan Williams and Biz Stone. That connection was forged by Evan Hansen, a former Wired editor who had gone to work for Medium. "He gave me a call and said, ‘What are you working on?’" says Davis. "It was a great coincidence that that’s just what they needed at that point: great long-form stories to showcase the platform."

And of course, if Hollywood does take an interest in stories that come out through Epic, that’s hardly something Bearman, Davis, and their authors will sneeze at. There does seem to be a particular appetite these days for journalistically inflected fare onscreen. Bearman points out that three of the main Oscar contenders last year—Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and Lincoln—were "not just true stories, but detailed process pieces." Davis adds that Epic would gladly be the ambassador to Hollywood for stories that "have the messiness of real life."

Ultimately, though, the pair seem to have a healthy caution about dependence on an industry where writers have traditionally been viewed as "schmucks with Underwoods." Bearman, for all his success in bringing a true tale to the screen, notes that Hollywood "goes through pendulum swings of interest," one that happens to be swinging at the moment towards truth.

That pendulum might someday swing back—but companies will always have their cars and liquor and watches to sell. And you might just be seeing more about them soon on your tablet, next to the latest unbelievable true tale from Epic.

[Image: Flickr user NH53]

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