Arts Extra: Some Nerve

Every day, another ambitious dot-com disappears into the great Ethernet in the sky. Yet somehow, high-brow, sex-based Web site-has escaped that fate and actually flourished. First the site's editors published a magazine and several books bearing the name. Then came the lucrative personals area. Now Nerve's segueing into movies and TV shows. How did a scrappy little sex site become a leading source for story material in Hollywood? NEWSWEEK's B. J. Sigesmund had a confab with Nerve CEO Rufus Griscom who answered what questions he could without betraying his still-fresh showbiz alliances.

NEWSWEEK: Everyone else's dot-coms are evaporating. Yours is expanding into TV and movies. How did this happen?

Rufus Griscom: We've always been in love with our content, not the Internet. The Web was just a means to an end. We've always had a fondness for other mediums like magazines and books-things that make a nice thud when you drop them. Most of us came from old media. Frankly, we believe that Nerve is a magazine and a brand that would have happened in the absence of the Internet. In fact, we launched the online magazine in 1997 and two months later, sold our first book to Doubleday. At the time, people in the Net community responded to our selling a book to Doubleday like we were betraying the medium.

And now you're getting into movies and TV.

Well, they're very alluring media. Most of us here are quite bookish. I was a freelance writer for a time. And frankly, I was never into film or TV. But once you spend more time in the area, it's hard not to see your name etched on to the back of a director's chair with sunglasses on. [Laughs.] It's the ultimate medium. It exerts a gravitational pull. Lord Byron today would have been a filmmaker.

Tell us about the projects you have going. You've got a deal with Miramax, right?

We actually just cleared with Miramax a few days ago. We sold the right to a Nerve story that was first published in our print magazine.

Which one?

I can't tell you which story. But they have signed a deal with Malcolm Lee, Spike's cousin, who wrote and directed "The Best Man" for Universal. Malcolm Lee has a deal to write and direct the film for the Dimension wing of Miramax. This will be the first of our films.

Let's hear about this rumored series with HBO.

We have a prime-time TV show currently in production that we're very excited about. I really can't say much about its content. Right now, all I can say is it's a prime-time slot. The filming's underway. We have been pitching TV shows in cooperation with our agent for about 12 months now. This is the first deal that's resulted. We have a second TV show, a reality-based dating game, in early development.

Pitching Hollywood studios ... is this the future of Nerve?

I have to admit we were always preposterously ambitious with our plans. I think even in our earliest ruminations there were Nerve space colonies and soft drinks and what have you. But I think that about a year ago we became very serious about pursuing opportunities in TV and film.... We're using our source material as a means to crowbar our way into the business. That's been our long-term desire. We also have another half dozen stories that are in various stages of being shopped and sold to different studios.

Did they come from the magazine or Web site? What are they?

I can't really talk about them. They're in development, and the deals are not signed. It tends to be bad practice to talk about things that are unsigned.

How do you see the company now?

We see ourselves as a factory for sex-related source material. We introduce a new piece of writing every day on the Web site, a serious reported piece, sometimes sending people across the country or across the street. There's a photo that changes every day. One of the more popular features is the position of the day. And as soon as we see something compelling that would lend itself to a film, we send a writer and photographer to cover it in a way that might be useful for a film adaptation.

It's working for us when it hasn't for Talk [Media] and others. I'm probably speaking out of turn. What I do know is that there was a lot of excitement a few years ago about this kind of thing. It's one of the things Tina Brown talked about. She was frustrated with not being able to make that work at The New Yorker. But for us, it's become clear that it's a model that does work. Nerve's [sexual] content works in film and TV. That's why we're still around. If a concept is only an original idea for the Internet, I think it's hard to survive.

You've hired some new people?

We have a team-one person who's heads our film development and another who does TV development.

You're even selling something on your site that you originally wrote a story about, right? Talk about Niagara, the Swedish energy drink and so-called female aphrodisiac.

A friend from Little Rock came to me with a story, which we thought had great film potential. When the story [on Niagara] was published, we received a lot of interest. We went down to Little Rock and met the protagonist, the couple who'd been selling huge quantities of Niagara out of their coffee shop. We helped them set up a store on the Web: We set up a partnership with Laurie and Roger Williams. And sure enough, she went on "Good Morning America," and we had extraordinary sales. Of course, it's not a business I expected to be in six weeks ago.

And now it's going to be a movie, right? [According to reports, Julia Roberts's film company has shown interest in the story.]

I can't talk about it.

You also have made a really successful business out of your personals section, right?

Yes, and it's one of the few businesses that really work online. It's the business of selling people access to each other. Salon and Time Out New York are partners of ours. The personals business is very lucrative. We have a very high demographic. Over 30 percent of our readers have graduate degrees. Their favorites magazines are The New Yorker, then Vanity Fair, then NEWSWEEK. It's an overeducated, urban sophisticated readership. The great challenge for a company is you've got 2 million people who like your brand. The answer turns out to be you sell them access to each other. People are willing to pay for it. We've had about 300,000 people sign up in the last five months. It's shocking how many charmers there are on our personals. It's a smart, arty group of people. A lot of people on the Nerve staff even use the personals. [Laughs.]

Any other secrets to why Nerve's survived?

We've had to be nimble and quick to embrace other revenue streams. And we had the good fortune of never having been given $20 million in venture capital. We never had a lot of revenue, and we never were the apple of Wall Street's eye.