Lit boutiques hang tough

The Write Stuff - Jonathan Bing

They’re the last mavericks in a system ruled by celebrity packaging and corporate synergy. And many of them are fighting for their independence.

Boutique book agents in Hollywood continue to occupy a small but important place in the literary food chain, brokering roughly 10% of the book deals in town. Most of these deals are tiny, but a handful are for well-known writers and sizable projects that roll into production with major talent attached.

In 1997, the Lynn Pleshette Agency sold Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” to Red Wagon and Columbia Pictures. “Being John Malkovich” director Spike Jonze has now committed to the project.

The Rabineau Wachter Agency recently optioned James Lasdun’s novel, “The Horned Man,” to “Harry Potter” producer David Heyman’s Heyday Films.

Joel Gotler, who parted ways last month with Renaissance partners Alan Nevins and Irv Schwartz after AMG unraveled, setting up shop as Joel Gotler & Associates, is in talks with HBO to develop a series based on an as-yet-undisclosed property by James Lee Burke.

A handful of recent blockbusters originated with books from small and mid-size agencies, for example, “Shrek” (Paul Kohner Inc.) and “Legally Blonde” (The Callamaro Literary Agency).

But boutique book agents are swimming upstream in a Hollywood star system that relies largely on big agencies to package the high-concept, mass-market franchises that are the bread and butter of studios and their corporate parents.

The book market may not be expanding, but the big agencies continue to gain firepower. The New York lit office of ICM has just hired Jennifer Joel — a Goldman Sachs investment banker-turned-book agent — away from boutique shop, Nicolas Ellison/Sanford Greenberger.

DECADES AGO, MAVERICK AGENTS like Evarts Ziegler, H.N. Swanson and Swifty Lazar presided over the Hollywood book world, brokering blockbuster deals for their clients (and blockbuster commissions for themselves).

But the business has consolidated (the Swanson and Lazar agencies were eventually merged into Renaissance, which merged with the Firm when Gotler exited), and the boutique agenting business is no longer so remunerative.

A handful of boutiques continues to flourish in the shadows of the major agencies, but they’re tucked away in cozy offices — often in low-key, landmark buildings miles from Bev Hills — eking out a modest business from literary books that might not get much attention at bigger shops.

Take the Lynn Pleshette Agency that Pleshette and partner Michael A. Cendejas run from the blue and tan, gabled Hollywoodland Realty Co. building in Beechwood Canyon.

Pleshette, who recently sold such books as “Enemy Women” by Paulette Jiles and “The Informant” by Kurt Eichenwald, estimates her business grosses $3 million a year in commissions — repping both books and screenwriters.

One wall of the office displays books that have become movies (including “Cold Mountain” and “The Shipping News”), but Pleshette acknowledges that in a bottom-line driven business, her favorite books aren’t always obvious candidates for big-budget screen adaptation.

When producers receive a book from her, Pleshette says, “they know it will be well-written and sometimes it will be a movie.”

FIVE BLOCKS FROM THE SANTA MONICA BEACH in a leafy, two-story red-brick building is the Rabineau Wachter Literary Agency.

Sylvie Rabineau, an agent who got her start in the CAA mailroom, and Liza Wachter, a former book editor and bookseller, focus on a small, eclectic list of clients, including Gigi Levangie Grazer, Philip Pullman, Anthony Bordain and Melissa Bank. Their books aren’t typically airport-bookstore mass-market bestsellers. “It’s the kind of material,” said Rabineau, “that’s filmmaker-driven, has a unique voice and requires a lot of gentle handling.”

At a diversified talent agency, book agents feed material to other departments, at times, subjecting the author’s interest to the demands of other talent. The chief benefit of independence, says Rabineau, is the leverage to focus on the book itself.

“I really enjoy the freedom of repping books in an environment where the author is my only agenda. We’re the Switzerland of agencies. Our author is our only priority.”

Another independent, Ken Sherman, who reps John Updike, Anne Perry and others from an office in the historic Writers & Artists building on Rodeo Drive, is a refugee from the TV division of William Morris. Sherman, who answered his own phone Monday, says independence allows him a “hands-on, more managerial approach” to the business, even if that means partnering with other agencies to brink bankable elements to the books he sells. “There’s no reason that I can’t and haven’t packaged properties in the past. I often work with the other agencies,” he said.

MORE THAN A DOZEN BOUTIQUES on both coasts continue to sell a steady stream of books to the studios. But a number of hurdles are thrown in their path.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is access to top talent. Where an agent at a big shop can take a book down the hall to the talent division, a boutique shop faces the laborious, at times massively time-consuming process of finding the writer-director, writer or star to make studio execs sit up and take notice.

ICM books don’t always go to ICM clients, said agent Ron Bernstein. “But why wouldn’t we want to go to Mel Gibson first? It’s rarer and rarer that producers buy a book without an element attached.”

You need as many arrows in your quiver as possible,” says Bernstein. “You don’t have a lot of arrows if you’re alone.”

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