Paramount picks up tunesmith’s thriller

LONGTIME FANS OF THE MUSICAL may remember Walter Marks as the composer of songs for Sammy Davis Jr., Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett.

But the songwriter’s career has just taken a sharp turn in another direction. Paramount has bought his first novel, a psychological thriller, “Dangerous Behavior,” for producer Scott Rudin in an outright deal said to be worth a substantial seven figures.

The novel concerns a Bellevue psychologist who takes a job at an upstate penitentiary evaluating a parole candidate accused of murdering a young woman two decades in the past. The manuscript circulated widely in New York before Paramount pre-empted it.

Marks has a long and eclectic show business track record, having co-authored the screenplay for and scored the 1975 Merchant/Ivory film, “The Wild Party,” roughly based on the life of Fatty Arbuckle. He shares credit for the famous 1964 Broadway flop, “Bajour” and is writing a musical about Josephine Baker.

“Dangerous Behavior,” which has been compared to the Richard Gere film “Primal Fear,” marks a return to more topical themes. Publishers are sure to take notice when agent Henry Morrison, who negotiated the deal with Rudin, shops the book in New York later this week.

AN ETIQUETTE GUIDE CHARACTERIZED by its authors as “Emily Post Meets Howard Stern” is the subject of an unorthodox Web, film and TV deal from ezflix, the Internet arm of Bob Cooper’s new company, Landscape Entertainment.

The book is “Etiquette for Outlaws” by Rob Cohen and David Wollock.

“I describe it as situation ethics, how to behave appropriately in inappropriate situations” said Jeff Wachtel, head of programming at ezflix.

The company’s idea is to produce four- to five-minute Webisodes based on chapters from the book: “What’s the proper attire for your first day in court,” for example, or “Should you always disclose to your partner that you’ve taken Viagra.”

Unlike the typical option package, the five-figure deal included stock options for authors, and guaranteed production and writing credits. Wachtel said ezflix is also in active talks with high-profile film and TV writers, and is seeking major talent to join the project.

Though Landscape has a wide range of material in development, including projects with Larry Gelbart and David Cronenberg, “Etiquette” is the first book to be optioned by the company for adaptation on the Web, which may serve as a destination for more and more books as the medium evolves. Writers & Artists agent Angela Cheng, who reps the authors with Betsy Amster of the Betsy Amster Literary Agency, said more and more of her books have been optioned in Web deals, and ezflix’s Wachtel said the company’s quest for content won’t stop there. It plans to option a play and even a song.

Ezflix senior veep Robert Green brought “Etiquette” to the company.

READERS SHOW FEW SIGNS of ditching old reading habits and forsaking bound books in noticeable numbers. But publishers continued to flood the burgeoning e-book market with bestsellers Tuesday, spurred on by the release of more sophisticated software from Microsoft and the opening of a new sales venue, the Barnes & Noble.com eBookstore.

At a joint press conference Tuesday, Microsoft demonstrated its new Microsoft Reader for desktop PCs and laptops — an application whose simple display, wide margins and bookmarking and page-turning functions are meant to simulate the experience of reading a book printed on paper.

Barnes & Noble.com prexy Steve Riggio declared the company’s e-bookstore open for business Tuesday. A division of the Web retail site exclusively dedicated to e-books, it will immediately begin selling a huge array of e-books, including a new series of “Star Trek” titles from Simon & Schuster’s Pocket imprint published solely in an electronic format.

The ranks of bestselling authors who’ve seen their books digitized is steadily growing, with recent books by Robert Ludlum, Jackie Collins, Joe Ezsterhas and Scott Turow available soon if not now. Beginning this fall, S&S and Time Warner will make most of their new books available electronically — an expansion of the market that Time Warner Trade Publishing topper Larry Kirschbaum said would lead to a hike in revenues industrywide, from 5%-6% annual margins to double-digit margins in just five years.

Also on the roster Tuesday was an announcement that Microsoft had struck an agreement with the Assn. of American Publishing to fight piracy of e-books.

Ambitious Hollywood executives who’ve long ignored the rise of this new medium now have reason to pay attention. Among the 100 classics Barnes & Noble.com is making available for free download for the Microsoft Reader is an interactive version of Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”

IN THE ANNALS OF ACADEMY HISTORY, few nominations have proven more contentious than that for original screenplay. After all, anyone can lay claim to a screenplay. Just two years ago, the producers of “The Full Monty,” which was nominated in that category, were slapped with a $100 million copyright infringement lawsuit by a pair of New Zealand playwrights a day before the Oscar ballots were mailed.

Now a similar quarrel has risen from Down Under concerning Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” The film took the original script Oscar in 1993, but the September issue of Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, which hits newsstands next week, reports that it may have been based on a little-known novel by Jane Mander, “The Story of a New Zealand River.”

The controversy began when Oxford University Press asserted in the Oxford Companion to Australian Film that Campion’s story was based on Mander’s novel — an assertion Campion’s lawyers have forced them to retract, writes Lingua Franca reporter Hillary Frey.

But Robert Macklin, an editor at the Canberra Times, and Helen Martin, co-author of “New Zealand Film, 1912-1996,” have jumped to the novel’s defense. Even Campion acknowledged she’s long known about the novel. She even wrote a 1985 letter about the screenplay-in-progress that credits Mander’s story as the inspiration for it.

Local pundits don’t agree that Campion should return her Oscar, reported Frey. But Mander’s great-niece isn’t satisfied, remarking “If Aunt Jane had been alive today, she would have kneecapped Jane Campion.”

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