The high price of hype

Hollywood cools to big-ticket book buys

NEW YORK — As publishers and producers exited their East and West coast offices Thursday and headed off to the heartland for Chicago’s BookExpo America, their go betweens — agents and scouts — were kibbitzing about a recent round of “big disappointments” that may soon herald a change in the book-to-movie biz.

It seems that in the highly competitive and hype filled game of grabbing books for film and TV adaptations, there have been some major losers of late.

A number of books that had been feverishly anticipated by big and small screen producers have simply fallen flat, leaving many with the impression that perhaps it’s time to stop “getting all excited and throwing money around for books that aren’t even finished — because they just might suck,” as one insider puts it.

Nicholas Sparks’ latest project for Warner Books, “The Best Man,” is just such an example. With successful heart-string pullers like “The Notebook” and “Message in a Bottle” under his belt, producers had been sniffing around Sparks for months.

Sparks’ previous book sales were in the millions, so visions of comparable ticket sales danced in producers’ heads. And with Kevin Costner now filming “Message in a Bottle,” industry sources said they couldn’t have imagined a better time for Sparks to be shopping his latest work around Tinseltown.

“Warner and UTA were really looking to make a big splash with ‘The Best Man,’ ” said one source privy to the details of Sparks’ recent pitch attempts. “I saw the 40 page proposal and it was just a tepid love triangle — nothing happens. It just died on the vine.”

No studios made a bid, and Warner and UTA quickly said they were pulling the project and would wait to put it on the block after the book comes out.

“They acted like it was, ‘Oh, you can’t have it now, after all — this is going to be really big and we’ll get more for it later,’ ” the source said. “But they just weren’t getting any offers.”

In some cases, it has been a big-name author, like Sparks, who generates the early hype, while in others it’s the genre or a familiar, tested storyline that gets a producer frothing at the mouth.

Nicholas Evans’ “The Horse Whisperer” had just the right dose of sentimentality to land a Robert Redford pic, says another source, and his new book, “The Loop,” due out in September from Delacorte, had been expected to generate similar interest.

“Turns out it’s basically the same story, only with wolves,” the source said. “You can’t just be a one track pony and expect to keep winning.”

Once again, Evans’ latest work was a case of uber hype that yielded zero interest from the studios.

“Welcome to the World, Baby Girl,” from Fannie Flagg, was another recent letdown. The success of turning Flagg’s prior work into a film — “Fried Green Tomatoes” — likely will not be repeated.

“This might end up being healthy for the industry,” said one scout. “All the hearsay and hype keep driving up prices, and there are just too many big disappointments.”

Perhaps, as this source suggests, it’s time for agents and scouts to cut back on the practice of “hyping the hell out of partials and proposals.”

Of course, he adds, that kind of talk is heresy in Hollywood.

“Agents would really hate anything that kept them from driving up prices as high as they can possibly go.”

Late Thursday, agents and scouts were also heading to Chicago. One source said Tom Wolfe’s new book, “A Man in Full,” will be a litmus test of the too-much-hype factor. First serial rights on the unfinished book went to Rolling Stone, and Wolfe’s publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux, is throwing a big bash tonight at Book Expo.

“We’ll see how much it goes for,” says one insider. “Maybe we’ll never learn. But maybe we will.”

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