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How the Game Stop short squeeze movie got made

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Money, power, greed, frenzy. It is all there in the financial drama around the video game retailer GameStop from its descent into near-bankruptcy to its rescue by beloved fans and then to its emergence as what we now call a meme stock. So now Hollywood's take - less than three years after peak GameStop, it's also a movie called "Dumb Money." Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi from our Planet Money podcast says that the actual story of how the movie got made gives the movie "Dumb Money" a run, well, for its money.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: When Hollywood producer Aaron Ryder first heard about the GameStop fiasco back in January of 2021, he thought to himself, this would make for a great movie.

AARON RYDER: But, you know, Hollywood - we're a bunch of heat-seeking missiles. You know, you hear something that could be a cool idea for a movie. You're going to have several people chasing it. And I knew that the only way that this could be successful would be to be first.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Did it feel like you were kind of entering into a race?

RYDER: Absolutely.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Because plenty of people might be interested in buying a ticket to relive the GameStop saga on the big screen. But how many are going to go for version number two or three? Luckily, Aaron was in a good starting position. He had a deal producing movies for a major Hollywood studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or MGM. But he'd still need a director, some fancy movie stars and a workable script as quickly as possible, which meant...

RYDER: The thing that I'm going to need is a piece of intellectual property.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Something that tells the GameStop story cinematically, some article or book or even a podcast that he can buy the rights to adapt. So he starts poring over the New York Times, The Washington Post until a few days into his search...

RYDER: An agent friend of mine gave me a tip that there was a book proposal floating around.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And this wasn't just any book proposal. It was by a writer named Ben Mezrich, who's built his whole career around Hollywood's hunger for IP.

BEN MEZRICH: My dream was never, you know, win a Pulitzer or win a National Book Award. My dream was always having a tie-in paperback that said, now a major motion picture.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Ben has had a couple books turned into movies. His book about card-counting blackjack players became the movie "21." Then Aaron Sorkin helped adapt one of his books into the movie "The Social Network." Ben says one big advantage he's got when it comes to selling IP to Hollywood is that he does not identify as a journalist. He'll often make up dialogue or combine characters to make the most cinematic version of the story.

MEZRICH: So it's not like I'm writing trash. I'm trying to write Shakespearean dramatic themes. But it's young people in exciting locales with lots of money and sex - right? - as opposed to what a journalist is doing, which is they're trying to give you the facts.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Once Ben sees the GameStop fiasco in early 2021, he spends a single day doing research and writing up a book proposal. His agent then floats it to producers around Hollywood. And by the end of the week, his proposal is at the center of a bidding war between a couple studios.

MEZRICH: The numbers just start getting crazy.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Do you mind ballparking them? What are we talking?

MEZRICH: It goes beyond a million dollars. Let's put it that way. And MGM - I think it was, like, at midnight - called with a take-it-or-leave-it offer...

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: What?

MEZRICH: ...That was something like a half a million dollars higher than the other offer.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Producer Aaron Ryder and MGM win the rights to make Ben's book into a movie, and almost immediately they make an announcement, hoping to use their early lead to scare away their rivals at other Hollywood studios.

RYDER: We're planting a flag. We have this piece of IP. It's formidable. We're making this movie.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But within a few days, a bunch of other Hollywood heavies announced their own movies. Netflix is reportedly in talks to work with the guy who wrote and produced "The Hurt Locker." HBO announces they're teaming up with megaproducer Jason Blum, whose company Blumhouse made "Get Out." And several others follow suit. The race is on.

RYDER: And our next step was trying to find the right writer.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Which is to say the right screenwriter. And near the top of Aaron's list was a screenwriting duo of former Wall Street Journal reporters named Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo. So Aaron gets them on a call.

LAUREN SCHUKER BLUM: He's like, I really want to hire you, but we have to wait for Aaron Sorkin to say yes or no.

REBECCA ANGELO: Lauren, it's so naughty that you're telling all these details. Yes. Lauren and I are often second in line after Sorkin, the considerably less expensive and female alternatives to him, which is a very happy place for us to be.

SCHUKER BLUM: We basically take Aaron Sorkin's trash.

ANGELO: His leftovers.

SCHUKER BLUM: Yeah.

ANGELO: His discards. So...

SCHUKER BLUM: We make gold out of it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Lucky for them, Aaron Sorkin turns out to be busy on another project.

SCHUKER BLUM: So we got the job, and there were, I think, nine other GameStop projects in Hollywood. So it became clear that our mission was to be the fastest.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Lauren and Rebecca were able to speak with us because they were also brought onto the film as executive producers. They say they support the ongoing Writers Guild strike in Hollywood. Soon after they sign on, author Ben Mezrich delivers his book, and Lauren and Rebecca get to work writing a script without worrying too much about their competitors. But there is one project that's kind of hard to ignore.

SCHUKER BLUM: My husband went off with the "Succession" writers, I think.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Jason Blum, the big-time producer who was working on a competing GameStop project for HBO - it turns out Jason is actually Lauren Schuker Blum's husband.

SCHUKER BLUM: At some point, I was so infuriated, we had to just stop talking about it. So we had, like, a moratorium of - like, I wouldn't even talk about our movie if he was anywhere in the house.

ANGELO: It's very secretive.

SCHUKER BLUM: Yeah.

ANGELO: Right? Like, it was like...

SCHUKER BLUM: Right.

ANGELO: You couldn't - dinner tables were just silent.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Producer Aaron Ryder says he wasn't too concerned about domestic espionage within the Blum house and that, thanks to Lauren and Rebecca's laser focus, around six months after they start writing, they're ready to find a director for that. Aaron hires Craig Gillespie, who made "I, Tonya," about ice skater Tonya Harding. And Craig came to the project with several movie stars who wanted to work with him. Producer Aaron Ryder is thrilled.

RYDER: It felt like the stars were aligning. You know, things were coming together so fast. But then things got complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And we start with the deal of the morning. That's Amazon buying MGM for just under $8.5 billion.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In the spring of 2022, Aaron and his fellow producers find out they weren't the only ones scrambling over intellectual property. Way, way up the chain at Amazon - which, by the way, supports and pays to distribute some NPR content - Jeff Bezos was making his own IP play - buying out the MGM vault and making some changes. A few weeks later, Aaron Ryder gets a call from his new bosses and finds out his new GameStop movie is dead in the water.

RYDER: Most would maybe consider that terrible news. I just consider it like, OK, that's not working. Let's move over to the next. Let's pivot.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Undeterred, Aaron works out a deal to buy back the rights to the film with funding from an independent production company. And pretty soon the project actually starts filming, with a cast including Paul Dano, Pete Davidson and Seth Rogen. During production, Aaron and his crew hear whispers that some of their competitors may be dropping out of the race. And finally, about a year after they start shooting...

It seems safe to say that "Dumb Money" is going to be the first GameStop feature film to hit movie screens at this point.

RYDER: If it's not, if something else pops itself up between now and next week, that's it. I'm done. I give up.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Last Friday night I got a ticket to my local theater not too far from Wall Street. I settled into my seat. The lights dimmed. And the first thing that popped onto the screen - a single sentence against the black background - based on a true story. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News and the Planet Money podcast.

SUMMERS: And Alexi has the full story behind the movie and the meme stock on this week's Planet Money podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALKING HEADS SONG, "ONCE IN A LIFETIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).