Deal guarantees greenlight for low-budget pic

NEW YORK — Artisan Entertainment bested at least five other suitors to buy screen rights to Rex Pickett’s unpublished novel “Side Ways” with a commitment for “Election” helmer Alexander Payne to adapt and direct it next year. Considering there is no script, the deal made by Artisan presidents Bill Block and Amir Malin is one of the strongest in recent memory for a low-budget film.

Artisan has paid $2.5 million for the novel, Payne’s writing and directing services and fees for producer Michael London. Most importantly, Artisan has pledged a guaranteed greenlight as long as Payne sticks to his plan to make the film at a specific budget under $10 million, and Artisan has given the up-and-comer final cut and other creative controls.

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Payne will receive $1.5 million for his writing and directing services — quite a haul considering that neither of his two previous efforts, “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” were big hits. But “Election,” Payne’s satirical story about a girl hell-bent on becoming class president and the teacher determined to stop her, was one of the best reviewed films of the year. Many felt it would have fared better if distributed by an indie rather than a big studio like Paramount.

Winning combination

A combination of factors gave Artisan the edge. While suitors such as Francis Coppola’s American Zoetrope, Mutual Film, New Regency and Independent Pictures sparked to the novel after Payne attached himself to write and direct it (Daily Variety, Sept. 30), Artisan president Bill Block had read the book even before Payne and has been doggedly pursuing a deal ever since.

Artisan is flush with cash after distributing “The Blair Witch Project” and seeks to make movies with prestige indie voices. The innovative marketing campaign that Artisan used to help propel the no-budget “Blair Witch” to staggering grosses gratified Payne, who wants to make sure that his next project doesn’t fall by the wayside the way “Election” did.

All of this turbulent activity is surprising considering the humble origins and subject matter of the novel. Scribe Rex Pickett’s semiautobiographical “Side Ways” concerns a struggling 40ish screenwriter who’s totally frustrated over his stalled career and the fact that his buddy, a midlevel TV actor, is about to get married. Before the wedding, he takes a road trip with the pal for a week of debauchery in Napa Valley wine country. Humorous adventures and romantic entanglements ensue.

Pickett showed the novel to his pal Michael London, who optioned it and gave it to Payne. Pickett now has a new career as a novelist that starts with a hot property whose publishing rights will soon be auctioned by Curtis-Brown lit agent Mitchell Waters. Artisan has a promising project that contractually must come together with a quick trigger, and Payne, who has been developing “About Schmidt” at Columbia and “The Locked Room” at Fine Line, has his next project. He’s repped by Endeavor and attorney John Diemer.

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