Condé Nast Has a Nasty Surprise for Writers

By Salley Shannon

Salley ShannonFor roughly the past six months, Condé Nast magazines have been inserting a new item into their master contract: a passage saying they own the TV and movie rights to all stories that appear in their magazines. Of course, CN didn’t send out press releases touting the change. The surprise is there, though, buried in the boilerplate. (One more reason to read every word!)

Magazine writers always dream of finding a story so compelling, so dramatic that it screams “this could be a movie!” Currently, if you’re lucky enough to have TV or movie rights optioned, you can count on several thousand dollars, if not more. If a movie or TV show actually is made, a writer can earn well into six figures.

 That is, unless your story appeared in a CN magazine. Among their holdings: Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, GQ, Glamour, Self, and about 20 others. They also own Parade.

Why the change? In October of 2011, CN hired a former TV executive to be head of the new Condé Nast Entertainment Group. They hope to make their own made-for-TV movies and shows, or at least, to collaborate with interested producers, thus raking in the big bucks movies and TV generate. Clearly, they don’t mind grabbing money that has always gone to the writer who discovered and wrote the original story.

A New York Times article by Christine Haughney on January 14 noted “According to copies of the various contracts provided and described to The New York Times, those exclusive rights ranged from 30 days to one year. The contracts also show that if Condé Nast decides to option the article, writers receive $2,500 to $5,000 for a 12-month option. If an article is developed into a major feature film, writers receive no more than 1 percent or $150,000 toward the purchase price.”

The industry standard is that the writer is paid 2.5 percent of what it costs to make the pilot TV show or the movie. It can be, and often is, more than a quarter of a million dollars.

Condé Nast’s parent corporation is Advance Publications, which Forbes lists as the 49th largest privately owned company in the country. Forbes estimated 2011 revenue at $6.5 billion.

One ray of sunshine: an item in the New York Post blog “On the Money” from last October noted that CN editors aren’t thrilled with the new corporate policy. They fear writers, especially “name” writers, will take hot stories to other magazines. And to date, the new CNEG doesn’t seem to have done very much.

But there’s definitely a trend here, and not a good one for writers. Playboy, Hearst and good ol’ National Geographic already have TV and film divisions. Stay tuned.

Salley Shannon

Salley Shannon, immediate past president of ASJA, is ghostwriting a book. She’s written for Woman’s Day, Parents, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Parenting, Reader’s Digest, Fitness, and many other magazines and websites. Locally, she writes for The Washingtonian.

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