The Pain & Gain of Long-Form Alternative Journalism

On April 26, the latest Michael Bay blockbuster will hit the cineplex, but “Pain & Gain” is not the conventional Bay explosion fest.

“It is a $25 million movie, which is not incredible by Hollywood standards,” said Chuck Strouse, editor-in-chief of Miami New Times. “But I think it is the most ever spent on a film based on an alt-weekly.”

Yes, this modest Bay blockbuster starring Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson originated as “Pain & Gain” an excellent piece of long-form investigative journalism written by Pete Collins detailing the real-life criminal exploits of the Sun Gym Gang, which was published in 1999 by Miami New Times.

“It was somewhere in the neighborhood of 35,000 words — well, it’s a book!” said Strouse. “We ran it over three issues back in 1999.”

To this day it is the longest piece ever published by Miami New Times, yet despite this movie and this piece being a great example of the potential impact of long-form journalism, the backstory regarding the creation of the movie and the publication of the story speaks to the uniqueness of alternative journalism.

Without the endurance and belief in the story that both Bay and Collins displayed plus a series of second chances neither would have seen the light of day.

Bay decided that he wanted to turn Collins’ story into a movie back in 1999, but no Hollywood studio would greenlight the project. Since the publication of “Pain & Gain” in 1999 Bay has directed or produced 17 feature films including three in the Transformers franchise, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. And the six films that he has directed since 1999 have grossed nearly $4 billion at the box office, yet he still had to pull some strings for “Pain & Gain” to reach the big screen.

In early 2012, Paramount announced that they had reached a two picture deal with Bay consisting of “Pain & Gain” and the fourth installment of the Transformers franchise. Bay would receive $25 million for his passion project (The smallest budget he has ever had since his first blockbuster Bad Boys. Wahlberg and Johnson opted to not take salaries deciding to accept the riskier back-end deals based on the films profits, so that the film could get made.)

Nearly 13 years of negotiating and $4 billion in revenues, and Bay was finally allowed to make something alternative and against the grain, but one mistake by Collins nearly ruined the whole thing.

“Pete Collins was a guy that was an early staff writer here, he’s the guy who wrote the story,” said Strouse. “It was alleged anyway that he was fired by my predecessor Jim Mullen after urinating on his car, and that’s really the most important anecdote in the whole damn thing.”

That’s right. Allegedly after a long night of drinking and probable debauchery Collins pissed all over his editor’s car and was promptly fired. Soon thereafter he decided to clean up his act a bit, and during a long Saturday morning jog that was half fitness regimen and half detoxification from the previous night’s exploits he bumped into a private-eye friend of his, Ed Du Bois, washing his car who told him all about the Sun Gym Gang.

He pitched the story to his former employers and they were able to look beyond the pee. After roughly a year of research the Miami New Times published their longest and evidently most notorious stories in their history.

Great stories require resilience.

“He came back and republished his story after being fired,” said Strouse. “[And] that’s real alternative journalism.”

See Also: “Pain & Gain” Writer Pete Collins’ 15 Minutes of Fame Have Arrived (Miami New Times)