"He intuited that, in doing all the research for the story, I'd be able to flesh out these characters and bring the story to life in a way that's hard even for screenwriters to do," Bearman says. "The work required makes it easy to see that the narrative could also work somewhere else."
It wasn't the first time Klawans — who loved film so much as a child that he subscribed to the Chicago Sun-Times for the movie ads — defied Hollywood's conventional M.O. to sell a film property. To pitch a story from a British newspaper about 52 animals, including a dog, cat and horse, which were awarded medals for valor during World War II, Klawans created a poster of a pigeon being saluted by soldiers. Sony Pictures executives bought the idea, though "Pet Heroes" stalled during development and was never made.
Undaunted, Klawans stumbled across a story in 2001 about a Mexican priest who moonlighted as a lucha libre wrestler to raise money for the church orphanage. After shopping the idea to Antonio Banderas' production company and negotiating with Benicio Del Toro, Klawans set up a deal with Nickelodeon Pictures. That project evolved into the 2006 Jack Black comedy "Nacho Libre," which took in nearly $100 million worldwide.
"David is a dude who works totally outside the system," Bearman says. "In other words, he wasn't some big Hollywood producer who says, 'Lemme tell you, boychick, this is going to happen.' He didn't make it seem like we knew what we were doing."
Just before publication of his article — "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran" — Bearman's agent circulated a copy of the story to Hollywood production companies. Within 48 hours, Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment and George Clooney's Smokehouse Pictures were vying to acquire it.
"When I read the article, I thought, 'This could be a commercial, entertaining movie that could say a few things and hit a lot of buttons,'" recalls Grant Heslov, Clooney's partner at Smoke House. "It's a story you can't believe would actually happen; the truth is so much stranger than fiction. The fact that it is based on underlying material that's real is key to its appeal. People become more invested because it is based on truth."
"The Men Who Stare at Goats," directed by Heslov, is based on a non-fiction book, and Clooney co-wrote (with Heslov) and directed "Good Night, and Good Luck," the true-life drama about the clash between newscaster Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Smokehouse bought "Argo" from Klawans and Bearman, with Clooney attached to direct (in 2011, Ben Affleck replaced him in the director's chair).
"I always knew it was going to get made," Klawans says. "I didn't know it was going to do over $100 million domestic."
The film's success has barely changed Klawans' lifestyle. Though he can see a substantial six-figure payday if a project gets made, Klawans can earn nothing if an idea never gets turned into a film. His spacious apartment betrays little evidence of his news-junkie tendencies save for walls lined with posters of movies he's produced and an office closet that fairly heaves with boxes of clippings, transcripts and microfiche printouts dating back to the early '90s — the raw material Klawans earmarked as possible films.
Bearman and Klawans have set up two more movies and an HBO series through stories Bearman has published — or "planted," in Klawans' mind — on NPR, in Rolling Stone and other news outlets, although the projects are in production limbo. Another article for which Klawans bought the rights, about a bank security guard pretending to be an FBI agent, is being produced at Fox Searchlight.
After a break from his perusing, Klawans is back in full scanning mode at his 23-inch Samsung touch-screen computer monitor.
Clicking through the articles clogging his inbox, he pauses as a few headlines jump out: "Clone dogs run wild in Central Park." "Naked sauna rampage forces spa booze limit." "Red Bull killer gets wings clipped." "Family puts kids in charge for a month."
One of these stories might make the cut for "the bin," the desktop folder where he keeps ideas with serious movie potential.
Klawans glances up at his framed "Argo" poster, then turns his attention again to his monitor and says, "It all starts here."