Salerno signs ‘Zodiac’ deal

Setting up his fourth feature project in less than a year, 24-year-old scribe Shane Salerno has struck a deal with Great Oaks Entertainment partners John Hughes and Ricardo Mestres to produce the true-crime thriller “Zodiac” for Touchstone Pictures.

The nearly seven-figure deal calls for Salerno to adapt and co-produce the pic, which is based on Robert Graysmith’s 1986 nonfiction book about the serial murderer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area from 1966 to 1978. The extensively researched book — which is now in its 23rd printing — contains reproductions of the killer’s taunting communiques to the police as well as the author’s own speculations about Zodiac’s true identity.

Because he has never been caught and owing to the number of murders he committed — the official tally is six, but Zodiac claimed to have murdered more than 37 people, and the author speculates the total could be nearer to 50 — the case has become an obsession for law enforcement professionals and amateur sleuths alike. More than 2,500 suspects have been investigated.

Mestres — who is credited with bringing in the project — will produce the film under the Great Oaks banner. It is not clear whether Hughes will take a producer credit on the project.

Despite the fact that his mother confiscated the book from him when he was 14 years old, Salerno developed a rapport with Graysmith — a San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist — and eventually made a formal agreement when he was just 19 to acquire the film rights. Since that time, he has held on to the rights until he had the chance to set it up at a studio.

Additionally, the filmmakers have access to all the material Graysmith has unearthed since the book originally was published 11 years ago.

Salerno began his hot streak last October, when the Dino De Laurentiis Co. acquired his spec “A Season in Hell.” Dino and Martha De Laurentiis will produce along with Arne Schmidt (“RoboCop,” “Chain Reaction”). Although originally described as a mega-disaster movie in the spirit of “Twister,” pic has been reconceived as a fiery cat-and-mouse chase between an arsonist and an arson investigator.

Since then, Salerno has set up the sea thriller “Thunder Below” at DreamWorks, with John Wells and Schmidt producing from Salerno’s screenplay. Described as “Patton vs. Rommel on the high seas,” “Thunder” is based on the book by Adm. Eugene B. Fluckey, the country’s most highly decorated submarine commander, about his World War II exploits.

And Interscope is developing “The 59th-Story Crisis,” with Salerno scripting the disaster story inspired by a 1995 article in the New Yorker about the Citibank building in Manhattan.

Marcus Nispel (“SWAT”) will take the helm for producers Mimi Polk Gitlin, Adam Leipzig and Erica Huggins.

Salerno was repped on the deal by CAA’s Mathew Snyder and attorney Robert Offer of Bloom, Hergott, Cook, Diemer and Klein. He is managed by Steve Sauer of MediaFour.

**contributor:Dan Cox

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