THE DONNERS CO., the production shingle of director Richard Donner and his wife, producer Lauren Shuler Donner, has optioned Sue Monk Kidd’s first novel, “The Secret Life of Bees.”

Optioned with private funds in a deal with a mid-six-figure back end, the book is likely to be the first project the Donners develop as part of their new, three-year overall deal with Winchester Films.

The novel, set in the 1960s, portrays a motherless South Carolina girl who has found a surrogate mother in her cook and housekeeper. After a racist incident, the two are taken in by a group of beekeeping black sisters.

“To me the book is like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” says Shuler Donner, who is now shopping the book to directors. “It has something to say and is beautiful and evocative.”

The project also afford Shuler Donner a contrast to tentpole pics she’s currently producing like “Timeline” and “X-Men II.”

Monk, repped by WMA, has already seen the novel excerpted in Best American Stories. Viking will publish it in January 2002.

DEPRIVERS’ TO GUBER: Peter Guber’s Mandalay Television Pictures has beaten six film and TV offers to option “Deprivers,” a novel by Steven-Elliot Altman. Mandalay will produce with Columbia TriStar Television, but as yet, no network is on board.

“Deprivers” is based on a short story that appeared in a sci-fi anthology under the title “A Blind Virgin Like a Loaded Gun.” The novel will be published by Putnam-Berkley.

Story concerns an epidemic called Deprivers Syndrome. Human contact with a Depriver, as its victims are called, leads to the temporary or permanent loss of a sense, like eyesight or hearing. The lead characters are an FBI agent and two sibling Deprivers, one of whom has been kidnapped by an underground group of Deprivers with a dastardly agenda.

Mandalay exec Elizabeth Stephen will produce for that shingle. The Columbia TriStar exec is Winifred White Niser.

Altman, who with Curtis Brown agent Ed Wintle, pitched the project to several producers, is seeking significant involvement on the Hollywood side. He will consult on the pilot, and if the series is picked up, become a producer and write a few episodes.

Deal also adds another wrinkle to Altman’s rather eclectic career as an author, ad copywriter (for HBO, among other clients) and playwright. His plays “August Moon Frankenstein” and “Theatre of Vampires” were staged at the Lamb’s Theater and at the Judith Anderson, respectively.

MAGS TACKLE EUROPE: All hail Time Inc. and Hearst. Like conquering armies, the two media congloms are extending their reach across Europe, buying up magazine groups hit by mounting debt, rising mail costs and an inclement ad climate.

Time is in talks to acquire UK magazine group IPC for more than $1 billion. And Hearst is backing a bid by Dutch and Russian concerns to buy VNU’s consumer titles for $1 billion.

A Time Inc. spokesman declined to comment on its talks with IPC, one of the UK’s biggest magazine groups, and publisher of such titles as Loaded and the 1.7-million-circulation TV programming glossy, What’s On TV?

But analysts say the deal would be in keeping with recent history at Time Inc. Known for successful launches, like InStyle and Teen People, the conglom has lately shifted into acquisitions mode, buying up titles like Business 2.0.

“There’s an old saw in this industry that only one out of 10 magazine launches succeeds,” says Veronis Suhler media analyst Paul Hale. “That may not be true, but if you do your homework and buy quality products, acquisitions are less risky.”

Hearst’s role in the buyout of VNU’s consumer magazines is more complex. Hearst already shares equity with VNU in the European editions of books like Cosmopolitan and FHM. “We’re tied at the waist,” says Hearst Magazines Intl. prexy George Green.

Hearst is backing a buyout of the magazines by two foreign entities, Independent Media, which is the largest publishing company in Russia, and the Dutch firm, ING, that holds a 90% stake in Independent Media.

And while neither deal is exactly a fire sale, analysts say it’s a good time for the American congloms to reach for their wallets.

“How much bigger can these guys get in the U.S.?” says Sanford Bernstein media analyst Michael Nathanson. “With the dollar so strong, it makes sense to buy European.”

It also doesn’t hurt that VNU, which is rapidly moving out of the consumer media biz into business information, is saddled with steep debt from its acquisition of AC Nielsen. And Cinven, the investment firm that controls IPC, is said to have paid too much for the company, given the current ad market.

SOLO FLIGHT: Former marketing exec Marly Rusoff, once the quintessential corporate team player, has gone solo.

After a year as an affiliate agent at Carlisle & Company, she has opened her own boutique, the Marly Rusoff Literary Agency.

Rusoff, who has spearheaded publicity campaigns for such grizzled literary lions as Pat Conroy, Tim O’Brien and Paul Theroux, has, as an agent, taken an interest in a younger crop of writers. She placed several first novels via Carlisle & Co., most recently “Prague” by Arthur Phillips, brother of U.K. film producer Diana Phillips.

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