This has the potential to be a vital if complicated film about journalism in an era of widespread accountability.
In 2016, wrestler Hulk Hogan successfully sued Gawker Media for posting portions of a sex tape that he appeared in on their tabloid website. Two years later, the case remains one of the most uncomfortably essential stories about journalism and accountability.
An inherent salaciousness permeated the entire ordeal, as that was the first dispute over a celebrity sex tape to go to trial. However, the fallout from the case unexpectedly kickstarted a wider conversation about both the responsibilities of the press and what happens when private citizens — specifically billionaire business moguls — involve themselves in changing the narrative about free speech.
This is the kind of bawdy tale that Hollywood would easily lap up, and it unabashedly has. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Francis Lawrence — director of most of The Hunger Games films and this year’s Red Sparrow — will helm a film about Hogan vs. Gawker. Based on Ryan Holiday’s book “Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue,” the film has also tapped the efforts of The Big Short screenwriter Charles Randolph in what could be a dream team for biographical dramas.
The facts of the Hogan and Gawker debacle are these: more than 10 years ago, Hulk Hogan — real name Terry Bollea — made a sex tape, which Gawker got a hold of. The media outlet published a two-minute extract of the video on October 4, 2012, at the behest of editor A.J. Daulerio. Bollea subsequently sued Gawker for copyright infringement in the federal court, although the motion was denied by the judge on grounds of potential fair use given the perceived interchangeability of Bollea’s private and public personas.
Bollea then sued Gawker in Florida state court and the trial lasted two weeks. Gawker argued that Bollea consistently discussed his sex life in a very public way, making his sex tape newsworthy. Bollea counterargued that only his public persona as Hulk Hogan could be held accountable for his outrageous attitude while the private citizen Terry Bollea could not. The case for Gawker was further sullied by a tape of Daulerio’s deposition, in which he apparently “joked” that the only non-newsworthy celebrity sex tape would have been child pornography. Eventually, Bollea prevailed in the case and was awarded a total of $140 million in damages. As a result, Gawker went bankrupt.
Where Holiday’s “Conspiracy” comes in, and what is likely to be the prime interest for Lawrence’s film, involves PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who was later revealed to have contributed considerable financial backing to Bollea’s case. In fact, Thiel admitted to spending $10 million in legal expenses in various lawsuits against Gawker, citing invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Thiel was personally motivated to target Gawker due to the fact that the news outlet publicly outed him as gay in 2007.
Bollea v. Gawker has already been documented in the Netflix documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (pictured above), which hails from famed director Brian Knappenberger (We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists and The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz). Knappenberger’s politically motivated films tread similar topics surrounding free speech, and Nobody Speak is no different. It is much less focused in its subject matter, though, and only briefly touches on the Hogan and Gawker story. The case figures as part of a wider narrative that looks into the troubling evolution of the free press in an era of “fake news.” However, the film utilizes various examples to draw its conclusions. Any discussion of the significance of Bollea v. Gawker — which includes Bollea’s lack of accountability over his shocking public persona as well as of Thiel’s insidious involvement in masterminding Gawker’s downfall — remains unresolved.
Lawrence’s adaptation of “Conspiracy” could then come in to provide a more nuanced take on the complexities of the case itself. It may seem like an open-and-shut instance: no single citizen ought to interfere with institutions of the press to such a degree. Yet Conspiracy would have to ask questions about the modern media landscape at large. The film needs to examine the seedy and sometimes insensitive nature of Gawker’s content, its complicated history with inflammatory clickbait headlines and controversial stories. But Conspiracy also needs to discuss how people in power factor into the curation and dissemination of news; when they use money and influence to take down disagreeable institutions and suppress information.
Conspiracy aims to portray Bollea v. Gawker through the lens of Thiel, and it won’t be the only narrative feature to explore the case by far. Instead, the film is actually one of three unaffiliated projects that are currently in development.
Gawker v. Thiel will come from Modern Family director Jason Winer. Vulture dropped some key details about the film’s storyline, which apparently details everything from a notable first meeting between Thiel and Gawker CEO Nick Denton, editorial meetings, and a focus on A.J. Daulerio.
Then there’s Just the Facts, a project from Hawaii Five-O writer Kenny Kyle. Vulture also has the scoop on this one, and the movie just sounds like a Daulerio biopic. The film pits Denton and Daulerio against one another more definitively, as the rise and fall of Gawker is told through the latter’s eyes.
The case of Bollea v. Gawker is, frankly, ridiculous in its bawdy nature as a celebrity sex scandal but chilling due to its ripple effects on the culture of the press. The story is primed for all kinds of adaptations, and taking a look at the logline for Just the Facts, there’s potential to make black-and-white heroes and villains about specific characters involved. Nevertheless, there are no straightforward answers in the mechanisms at work behind-the-scenes of Bollea v. Gawker, and hashing out various perspectives on screen could be one way to deal with its conflicting nature as the media landscape continues to be shaped by individuals who either work to tear the free press down or uphold its bastions.