You’ve got to applaud the chutzpah of ex-Creative Screenwriting senior editor Jeff Goldsmith, who has plunked his life savings down on bimonthly iPad publishing experiment: “Backstory.” The gorgeously mounted magazine champions scriptwriters by telling their behind-the-scenes stories. Airily designed for the iPad, which doesn’t need to cram columns of print into a small space, “Backstory” is easy to read via free iPad app. The first double issue is still available for free, and starting this month with new issue Number Two, the newstand sale is $4.99. A year’s subscription is $24.99. “It feels like an eBook on crack,” says Goldsmith.
“Backstory” is worth checking out for anyone who cares about screenwriting. Goldsmith, who put in eight years at Creative Screenwriting before it went belly-up, is taking advantage of all the relationships he’s built over the years, from Quentin Tarantino to Edward Burns and Richard Kelly, who gave him a script for the first issue of “Backstory.” He revealed for the first time his shelved script “Bessie,” which he wrote after “Donnie Darko” initially failed at Sundance, criticized for its reliance on VFX. “Darko” went on to be a cult hit. Now Kelly’s encouraged enough, says Goldsmith, “to do a rewrite and hopes to make it into a movie.”
The second issue features a script that few have ever read, “Vertical,” Rex Pickett’s sequel to Alexander Payne’s 2004 comedy hit “Sideways.” When Searchlight and Payne opted not to do a sequel, however, Pickett turned it into a novel. In this semi-autobiographical tale, after Miles’s mother has a stroke, he needs to take her to his sisters in Wisconsin. He goes on a road trip with his mom in a wheelchair, and needless to say, trouble ensues. Pickett also turned “Sideways” into a stage play, which is running in Santa Monica, and was published in the first issue of “Backstory.”
The studios continue to deliver venues and talent for Goldsmith’s writer and director Q & As, especially during Oscar season, which he podcasts on iTunes. Now he’s hiring his fave Creative Screenwriting writers to deliver pieces outside the box of the short bursts they tend to do for other outlets. The first “Backstory” offers interviews with “Prometheus” screenwriter Jon Spaihts and “MIB3” director Barry Sonnenfeld, a Sundance short (“The Arm”), and an intro to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s must-read Pat Hobby stories. In the second issue, Variety critic Peter Debruge digs into the phenomenon that is “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Craig Zobel talks “Compliance,” Tracy Letts takes his bloody “Killer Joe” from stage to screen, and manager Gavin Palone digs into “Rewrite Hell.”
Goldsmith was counting on the loyal fans of his iTunes Q & A Podcast to rally behind him. Well, it took me a while to figure out how to load onto my iPad the double issue’s big fat 500 megabyte file, packed with video, original art, four screenplays and a stage play (bigger than an average issue of Wired). I had to make room (it helps to archive issues after you read them). And some folks don’t even own iPads. So Goldsmith is laboring to deliver a protected computer version. His mission is to protect the content so it’s not spreadable or printable.
“There’s no free floating file, you can’t email scripts to friends, you can’t print,” explains Goldsmith. “A fanboy could type out every page, but I run a copyright notice on front page. It’s the author’s copyright, not mine. Anyone who violates hosting or publishing will get a cease and desist letter.”
Goldsmith likes running unproduced scripts that might otherwise never see the light of day, accompanied by interviews. In the second issue, he runs Radha Bharadwaj’s script for Universal/Imagine’s 1991 drama “Closet Land,” an admirable torture two-hander starring Madeline Stowe and Alan Rickman that few have ever seen. And it’s hard to find on video, too. It was eventually turned into a stage play.
“Backstory” takes the opposite direction from short-form, opinionated blogs: “The economics of blogging is this swim or die mentality, you keep getting to the next story,” he says. So Goldsmith runs what he likes to read: in-depth, reported, edited pieces with an average length of 1500-2000 words. A cover story can be 3000-4000 words. In short, “Backstory” is a big read.
And unlike many online start-ups, Goldsmith feels strongly about paying everyone–editors, writers, art directors, copy editors–within 30 days. He’s doing a “paid content experiment to make this magazine,” he says. “I want to pay everybody better than the average rate they get as bloggers.” Using private funding and his own money, Goldsmith has bought into the “‘if you built it, they will come’ model,” he says. “The only person not getting paid is me. As a society if we don’t acknowledge sometimes that it’s OK to pay for content, we’re going to lose over time.”
Goldsmith will continue his experiment for one year, until June 2013, hoping that the longtail model will also work to keep the archives active, like his iTunes podcasts. Phase Two: figuring out how to get advertising into the mix, and letting people know about the magazine, he says: “I’m ready to drop some serious coinage on publicity.”