It could be a scene from a John le Carré thriller. A courier drops a thick document on the desk of an editor, a mid-level apparatchik who's been looking to break out. His reputation and a lot of money are on the line. The boss will want to read it. The moment the editor hands it off to the copy guy, however, he unwittingly relinquishes any and all control over destiny. The manuscript just went to the firing squad.
The business of selling books to Hollywood—as with le Carré's Cold War yarns—is straightforward in appearance only. Simmering below the surface is a reality far more byzantine, rife with moles and secret deals and clandestine alliances. Quite often, the book itself is secondary to the events surrounding it.
The way the system is supposed to work is that a publishing agent will team up with a film agent who is primarily responsible for selling it to Hollywood. That agent, often from one of a handful of powerful agencies (ICM, CAA, William Morris, etc.), sends the manuscript out to production companies that usually are allied with a particular studio. The production company pushes the book to a studio executive who then sells his boss on the idea. If all of the above is successful, the business affairs department of the studio calls the film agent, who calls the book agent, and the news hits the trades within a matter of days.
Of course, it usually doesn't happen that way.
One reason is premature leakage. Enter the copy guy. He's earning near-minimum wage in a city with $13 hamburgers. So when a book scout offers him a hundred bucks to sneak an extra copy out of the building, odds are he'll do it. A former development exec at a production company—let's call her "Carolyn"—puts it bluntly: "We saw everything early—usually even before a film agent had gotten involved."
"Slipping," as it is known, became so epidemic that in 1997 Mort Janklow of Janklow & Nesbit Associates wrote a memo decrying the practice. A partner in the powerful firm that represents blue-chip clients such as Michael Crichton and Thomas Harris, Janklow told Variety: "We are sick and tired of having unauthorized submissions made to places where we would not have wanted the film or television show made; to executives who are not our choice, and by producers who essentially stole the material."
Is the situation really that dire? Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, who heads William Morris's New York book office, is more sanguine. "Leaks are there. They happen. The result is probably overstated," she says. "Do I think it's possible that a book can be pitched badly and that negatively effects the outcome of the sale? It's certainly possible. But I think the really good work speaks for itself, and rises to the top."
Sometimes the leaks are even complicit. Carolyn's scout would routinely get calls from publishers pitching lesser-known books, hoping that the covert nature of the "slip" would make it a sexier read. "If we liked it," Carolyn says, "we'd always send it in ahead of time. But it was slipping. Nothing was official."
In other words, plausible deniability. Like le Carré's famous spook, George Smiley, doing a secret deal with his Russian counterpart, everybody can get very far down the line with the understanding that if the project goes south, the parties can walk away like nothing happened.
Carolyn refers to that practice as a "slip slip" and it can occasionally result in a preemptive offer from the studio. Such was the case with the recent record-breaking sale of a 900-page manuscript to Knopf by an obscure Yale Law professor. The Emperor of Ocean Park was in the midst of a heated bidding war among publishers when badly Xeroxed copies appeared in Hollywood. Warner Bros. snapped it up for a $1 million even before the publication negotiations concluded.
In fact, film rights sales often goose publishing sales. "Dan," an upper-tier studio exec, observes: "More and more, agents of novelists are looking to make a movie deal first, because they know they can sell a book to a publisher for more money if the movie rights have sold." This is especially true for newer novelists or a writer who is changing direction. Kris Dahl and her ICM colleagues optioned James Finney Boylan's guide to the colleges of New England called Getting In (Warner) to New Line for several hundred thousand dollars, and that got the attention of the publishers: "Editors knew James Finney Boylan as a wonderful literary novelist, but the film deal gave them a reason to think that maybe this guy can break out in bigger numbers."
What if a book is "slip slipped," however, and the studio passes? Carolyn says it is routine for the film agent to later submit the book officially to a different production company, which in turn can submit it to a different executive at the studio who might be more receptive. No harm, no foul.
The potential danger is that "it seems the leaked version is the only thing that is ever read," says Dahl. "So if a partial manuscript or an unedited novel is leaked and producers read it and pass, it's very tough to change their first impression or to get them to reconsider, even if the book is dramatically different." Nick Hornby ultimately sold About a Boy for $2.75 million after it was slipped, but that's a happy ending that could've gone the other way. "It wasn't even a completed draft," Dan explains. "Hornby was incensed [because] he was just turning in a rough draft to his editor." Then, he adds, with appropriate le Carré intrigue, "It slipped somewhere between London and New York."
From a political standpoint, it can also be awkward if a producer gets the official go-ahead to submit a book and another producer who has been slipped the book goes ahead and submits it at the same time without permission. "I've heard of situations where people ended up having to partner," says Betsy Beers, president of Mutual Film Company, which has a deal at Paramount Pictures, "because the person who slipped [the book] was huge and refused to back down even though they didn't have a technical right to submit it."
The net result, says Dan, is that "writers and their agents are getting more crafty. With the new Nick Hornby title, because they knew there was a potential leak at the publishing house, the agent wouldn't deliver it to the publisher until the movie plans were figured out. Others might do it simultaneously because they know how dicey it all gets."
There was a boom in book buying in the mid-'90s, spurred on at least in part because Fox 2000 had a legendary New York scout, Raymond Bongiovanni, and strong support from the studio. "Everybody was competing with them," explains "Walter," a former New York exec for a Hollywood studio. "It was a trend. Also, there were a lot of good first thrillers coming out that publishers were taking big gambles on."
Inevitably, the market cooled off. At the same time, star salaries went through the roof and the cost of making a film skyrocketed. Studios wanted to backstop their expensive film choices with bankable stars. The result was fewer movies getting made. This spilled over into the development side as well. "Three years ago, every studio had 150 projects or more in development," explains Dan. "We've scaled down considerably and I think the other studios have, too. They don't want to have 150 projects of which 100 are already hiring a fourth writer because they don't work."
Books are also an easy target for cutting back. "Books are so heavy for people here—they just want a 120-page script," says Carolyn. From the studio perspective, Dan suggests it's more pragmatic than aesthetic: "The easiest way to a movie is from a spec script. When you're buying a novel, you always wonder will it translate, or is it something that only works in its literary medium? You have to adapt it. And more often than not, that kind of goes kaput." On that point, Carolyn agrees: "Books are harder because you have to use your imagination to figure out what the movie is."
What that can sometimes mean for an adaptation, or even the initial sale, is that the book itself becomes secondary. "Some executives are more open-minded than others and are willing to see it," says Carolyn. "Others say, 'It's not an obvious movie. Bring me a [screen] writer.' And then it becomes that situation."
At that point, the studio is considering not so much the book itself, but a screenwriter's pitch—that just happens to be based on the book. On the surface, that might sound dismissive, but the studio has a legitimately different perspective. "You're not buying a book to put on your coffee table. You're buying the movie rights to a book to create an exciting movie," explains Dan. "You don't want to forget the book, but to a certain extent, for an adaptation, you have to put the book to one side and figure out what's the best way to turn it into a movie."
In overseeing the adaptation of Ron Rosenbaum's ExplainingHitler (Random House), director Jim Sheridan is focusing only on the third chapter, which details Hitler's battle with the adversarial Munich Post. Sometimes the buyers will simply cut to the chase in the rights purchase to save money. ICM recently sold just the title and one chapter of a book by one of Dahl's clients.
A particularly extreme adaptation strategy involved Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief (Random House). Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, flush with the success of the wildly original Being John Malkovich, was hired to adapt the book and spent a year struggling with it. When the script was finally delivered, it had morphed into a story about a screenwriter becoming increasingly unhinged as he struggles in vain to adapt a book for the movies. The upshot is that the film is getting made, with Malkovich director Spike Jonze at the helm, and is reportedly hilarious, though it's a far cry from the book Columbia Pictures originally bought.
All of this starts, however, with the studio putting money on the table, and everyone agrees that that has become a tougher proposition of late. As Dan puts it, "Now, it's not just what might we like—it's what can we not pass up. It's harder to get the studio's attention." One thing that is certain, however, is that it's never a direct route.
Bring on the Hype
A book by a major author—Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Stephen King—is going to get noticed, no matter what. For everybody else, some sort of hype is vital. Otherwise, Carolyn offers, "It's one of those things that falls under the radar. Studios don't take the time to read the books until they hit the bestseller lists, depending on who it's coming from or if they've got an attachment."
An attachment is any element—a director, a screenwriter or preferably an actor—who becomes involved with developing and possibly making the film. The bigger the attachment, the bigger the hype. Walter might read something in New York that wasn't an obvious movie sell and decide not to forward it to the studio; "then, five minutes later, you'd hear that Mel Gibson was reading it and everyone would go insane and bend over backwards and write this Thomas Aquinas—like coverage about how this could be a movie."
Coverage is standard practice at every studio, production company and agency in town. Generally, it's a one- to two-page synopsis of the story, followed by a page of comments. In theory, it should be objective—a staff reader alone in a room putting down his thoughts. But it often doesn't work that way.
Walter offers a possible scenario: "Let's say there's a midlist Algonquin Press novel, and it's set in Tennessee and it's about a murder. No one's covered it and no one really cares. And then Ben Affleck is reading it over the weekend and that gets around and everybody is buzzing, so I call the reader and say, 'look, Ben Affleck is reading this and there's all this buzz—read it with that in mind.' "
So the reader is in full possession of the hype (which may or may not turn out to be true) even before he or she starts reading the book, supposedly from an objective point of view. But it doesn't stop there: "And then, the reader might even check in with me and say, 'you know, I'm about to send this to you and this is what I said.' And I'll say, 'no no no, say this instead.' And you do all of that because the executive is no longer reading your coverage like, 'oh, this is just another mediocre book I'm wasting my time with because the New York office wants to get books made into movies.' Suddenly, it's 'what do I say to the chairman?' "
People in Hollywood dispute the ultimate importance of coverage in determining the outcome of a book sale. Carolyn believes that bad coverage is lethal to a studio exec's potential interest. "Chances are the exec didn't read it. And certainly his bosses didn't read it," she says. "So it's pretty deadly. And the only thing that can overcome that is if you come back in with an element attached. "Dan agrees to a point: "Coverage tells you what you absolutely don't want to look at from the point of view of the idea itself." And while he allows that some studios rely heavily on coverage, "at my studio, nobody really cares." He said they just care about the idea and the potential attachments. "We buy stuff all the time that the reader trashed." In that situation, Carolyn adds, the execs "just think their reader is stupid."
Coverage aside, there is nothing better than potential star interest. Walter recalls the events surrounding Apaches, a book by Lorenzo Carcaterra, The author's earlier Sleepers sold to Warner Bros. and was made into a movie with an all-star line-up. The new book, however, proved more challenging. "Everybody read it and said, 'oh my god, it's about people taking cadaver babies and stuffing them with cocaine. It's nauseating.' And everybody passed really easily," Walter recalls. "And then on Friday, William Morris sort of put it out that John Travolta was reading it, you know, by the pool over the weekend. And then everybody completely flipped."
The result? Disney bought it for $500,000 against over $2 million if it got made. For now, it's still sitting on the shelf, but it's hard to argue with the success of the campaign to get the book sold.
Then there's Oprah. Many of her book club authors—Wally Lamb, Anita Shreve, Terry MacMillan—sold their books to Hollywood shortly after she made them into an event on her show. She has even helped revive moribund books that studios already owned. A famous example is Rebecca Wells's Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood (HarperCollins), which Warner Brothers bought for a song at the ardent urging of one of its junior executives. "But then it sat there," explains Carolyn. Higher-ups didn't pay attention. The exec "was having a tough time getting them to put out any money for a good writer. Everybody thought [the exec] was crazy. Then Oprah endorsed it and it was on every shelf that Christmas, and they're suddenly like, 'oh my god, this is a hot movie!' And they'd owned the book for god knows how long before that."
A big publishing advance can also get Hollywood to pay attention for somewhat Machiavellian reasons. Michael Hackett, a former executive at Paramount who has produced his own movies and now works with Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna's C2 Pictures, explains: "From a movie perspective, if it's not already a bestseller, you want to know that the publisher paid a ton of money for it so they're on the hook to publish it and put marketing dollars behind it to try to get their money back. Nobody ever just goes shopping for a marketing campaign, of course, but all things being equal, every little bit of hype counts."
Another studio exec emphasized the internal politics: "Obviously, you want to cover your ass. Because your boss might say, 'Somebody just bought this book, why didn't we get into it?' And that's a book you know he never would've considered if Jerry Bruckheimer, or whomever, hadn't just snapped it up." A newly minted studio vice-president, still feeling his oats, agreed: "In the game of everybody having to justify themselves and their actions to the level above, a hot book can be an insulating factor. It's protection."
That "insulation" can come in handy, the v-p explains, "when you're talking to the studio prez and the chairman about a hot book and there's a $1.5 million on the table already and everybody is arguing the merits of the material. The president and the chairman haven't read the book—they've just been pulled out of a test screening. And suddenly, you realize they're arguing with you solely based on what you've told them. They won't remember that if you buy this book and it sucks but you can at least say, 'What do you want? A lot of people really liked it.'"
A handful of producers, due to their extraordinary track records, have the ability to get a studio to reconsider a book they've initially passed on—Jerry Bruckheimer, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer at Imagine, Paula Weinstein and Barry Levinson at Baltimore/Spring Creek and, most famously and perhaps most profoundly, Scott Rudin at Paramount.
Rudin's development roster reads like a literary hall of fame. A Simple Plan, The Alienist, Freedomland, Angela's Ashes, Wonder Boys, The Hours. Moreover, he manages to get them made. At the same time, he also produces more overtly commercial films such as The Firm, First Wives Club and even the recent remake of Shaft. Clearly, he is the exception.
Even a well-established and highly esteemed producer like Paula Weinstein can have a tough time with a book. Such was the case with A Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger's paean to Gloucester fishermen. A producer familiar with the situation related how the manuscript "went all over town and everybody said, 'there's no movie in this.' But Paula saw something there and pushed Warner with 'Well, how cheap can we get it?' The agency went along and built in a high back-end if it ever got made. [The studio] did it to keep Paula happy."
The rest, as they say, is history. The book became a huge bestseller, attracted director Wolfgang Petersen and the movie went on to make a fortune. But 20/20 hindsight hasn't changed the equation. "Paula could walk in with the Ten Commandments and they'd still say, 'Who's attached?' " The same pressure to go with a known or well-hyped quantity applies even at the highest levels of the studio itself. When Columbia bought Memoirs of a Geisha in 1997, people went after studio president Amy Pascal personally. Premiere magazine, in its infamous annual power list, openly mocked Pascal for her choice. An exec at a competing studio recalls, "They were saying, 'What is she thinking?' Columbia had a hard time getting a writer and everybody was making fun of Amy. Until Spielberg called."
Five months after Pascal bought Geisha, Steven Spielberg signed on at the behest of Lucy Fisher, then vice-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. "Suddenly everybody is saying, 'that was the most brilliant thing to buy! Amy's a genius!"
The Discretionary Fund
The simplest and perhaps, outside of Hollywood, the least well-known way to buy a book nobody can sell is through a discretionary fund. Producers of a certain caliber are often given money by the studio to use for development at their discretion. If the studio passes and the producer can't set it up elsewhere, the producer can shell out the money from that fund—up to a certain amount and with some restrictions—no questions asked.
A lot of those funds are replenished on a regular basis throughout the year on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. "So producers who haven't done anything with their discretionary funds," explains Hackett, "in the final two weeks of the quarter, they have to buy something. And a book is probably one of the easiest things to justify with that money."
There are no hard and fast rules about this, Hackett admits, but he does offer as one possible explanation the flexible nature of adapting a book: "With a spec script, if the studio says they hate it, what are you going to do? It can evolve, but the essence of the story is pretty much laid out. A book at least has some wiggle room to develop one way or another."
Big Books Equal Big Movies?
While a big book may have an easier time selling to Hollywood, it's no guarantee of ultimate success. Angela's Ashes, Primary Colors and, recently, All the Pretty Horses, to name a few, all had a difficult time at the box office. As a producer, Carolyn suggests that given a big readership, "the curiosity factor will at least get people into the theater." But from the studio side, Dan is more cautious: "When you look at what a big book in publishing is versus how many people you need to go to a movie for it to be successful, the numbers are very different."
Certainly, the Terry McMillan books, which had a huge readership, came out as movies and did well, though they were not blockbusters. Perfect Storm, on the other hand, was a huge hit. And it came out the same weekend as a heavily promoted epic with an arguably bigger star (Mel Gibson in The Patriot) and trounced it.
How much of that was due to the book? "Fans of the book were buzzing that it was about these tragic people and the history of fishing—a lot of which never ended up on the screen," says Hackett. "But at least it got people into the theater." That buzz can also have a collateral effect. "I hadn't read the book and Entertainment Weekly leaked that everybody dies, so I thought, maybe I won't see this. But I knew it was a big deal with a lot of people so I went anyway. That free-floating enthusiasm can get an audience excited enough to see something they might not otherwise go to."
In rare cases—Crichton, Grisham, Clancy—the author is the star. But those are very few and far between. "Most of the time, the audience is coming because they like what they see in the trailer," says Dan. Hackett agrees: "I think there's only a handful where the title or the author is really a 'killer app,' if you will—a touchstone that will bring an audience out based on that alone." And, he adds, "the rest are a tenth of that. There isn't a nice, graduated scale, where if you take an audience of a million for this book, it translates into this many moviegoers, and two million translates into that. It doesn't work that way."
So What Sells?
Putting the obvious blockbusters aside, Dan believes buying a book is ultimately just like buying anything else: "You have to go with your gut and believe there's a movie there." Has he ever bought something because of overwhelming hype that he didn't truly believe in? "No. Because it can be a long process—I've gone seven or eight years on a project—so if you're not totally behind it, how are you going to convince someone else that they have to do it? You can't fake it for that long."
Hackett emphasizes the importance of clear adaptability: "A great novel is not necessarily dependent on a great one-line, but that is still the thing the movie business responds to. So something like [Joyce's] Ulysses—which somebody along the way probably tried to film—is a terrible idea for a movie. And the tragedy is that it was probably done with some intent to bring culture to the masses. But, from a film perspective, it's about two guys walking around Dublin, musing about their lives."
Some books seem tailor-made for film adaptations and have translated into box-office hits: Kiss the Girls and The General's Daughter are two recent examples. Harry Potter is in the pipeline and is almost assured of wild success. Others, such as Bridget Jones's Diary and The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, are also hoping to capitalize on the broad, commercial appeal of the books. Inevitably, someone was going to take easy adaptability to its logical extreme. And they did.
In 1998, The Eleventh Plague sold to HarperCollins and Fox 2000 amid reports that it was written using an algorithm devised by analyzing other bestsellers. It was universally panned by reviewers—an opinion not disputed even by the authors (John Baldwin and John S. Marr) themselves—but the combined rights sales topped $3 million, with another $2—3 million potential bonus. The film was never made.
Historically, the book business has claimed the moral high ground and lambasted Hollywood for its poor taste. Now, however, some studio execs are complaining that they're seeing a lot of "bad movie rehashes" coming out of the publishers.
Some of that sense of literary maturity is undoubtedly also a function of belt-tightening in the development ranks and the exigencies of adaptation. "You're fighting over—especially with an adaptation—such a small pool of talented writers you want to work with, writers who can deliver the kind of script you are hoping for," says Dan. "Why would you want to go through all that for a book that's really just a long, cheesy script? If you want cheese, just go buy the script."
Ultimately, plain old common sense is a fair divining rod, as Hackett reiterates: "Often a novel can take better advantage of what's going on inside a character's head. And when the story revolves around that, it's a greater challenge to translate into concrete visual terms. Again, Ulysses is very tough [to adapt] and Jurassic Park isn't."
A Company Town
In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, le Carré's protagonist not only has to survive his enemies, but the caprice of his own agency as well. The same applies to a film executive or a producer. Understanding the often self-contradictory rules that govern "the town," as Hollywood is sometimes called (in the way the CIA is known as "the company"), is the only way to survive, much less get a movie made. The best thing to do is get somebody pregnant.
In essence, the more "pregnant" the studio is in terms of cash outlay, Hackett explains, "the more it seems to become a self-fulfilling prophecy because someone is on the hook. I think they paid $9 million for Hannibal. Somehow, that movie is getting made. Whether it's Universal or Dino [De Laurentiis], no one wants to turn around and say they're writing off $9 million."No strategy, however, is bulletproof. Last January, New Line dropped Nick Hornby's About a Boy despite a $2.75-million investment and a director and star attached. (Universal has since picked it up.) Michael Crichton's Airframe languishes in development at Disney after the studio paid a whopping $10 million for it over four years ago, though it could still get made.
But all things being equal, a book sometimes offers a psychological advantage: "A studio exec can hold a book in his hands and look at all those pages and say, 'you know, there must be a movie in there somewhere,' " says Hackett. And the pregnancy factor can also help attract a screenwriter. "It hedges their bet ever so slightly that the movie might actually get made."
Studios will often make a big buy to announce that it takes the production company seriously. "Sometimes the amount of money you spend in this town is an indicator of how much weight you can throw around," says Beers.
At the end of the day, as with a book, why a movie goes forward is never entirely logical. "There's always that extra thing that gives somebody that sense of urgency to move your project forward," says Hackett. "And if that x-factor can be, 'hey, this book just sold for a lot of money or this kid is the hottest new author on the New York scene, or, this is on the Times list for week 57, that's another thing you can use to push."
A good producer knows the currency of specific material with various talent. Hackett: "Tom Cruise is a Philip K. Dick fan. So, more likely than others, he might read a script based on a Philip K. Dick story without an offer because he loves [those stories]."
The stars can line up, however, and you can still hit a roadblock. Even with director Robert Zemeckis, Tom Hanks and a script by Eric Roth, Forrest Gump still had a tough time getting made because it was so unconventional. In that case, and maybe this is the ultimate truth, it came down to the people involved with the project. An executive familiar with the history said, "This was one of those rare cases where everybody joined together—the filmmakers and the studio execs—to get it made. That kind of unanimous support is rare. No wonder Eric Roth, when he was accepting his Oscar, called [Paramount exec] Michelle Manning, 'the writer's friend.' "
Somewhere, George Smiley is grinning.