In a deal worth more than $2 million, Paramount Pictures and producer Scott Rudin have bought rights to Richard Price’s upcoming Knopf novel “Alms to Men.” The deal also calls for Price to adapt the novel and to script an urban ghost story that deals with psychics who work with police. He’ll begin writing the latter project right away.

The deal comes out of a relationship between Price and Rudin that began when the latter was the youngcasting director of the screen version of Price’s novel “The Wanderers.” Price’s script credits on Rudin-produced pics include “Ransom” and “Shaft,” as well as a scripted adaptation Price just completed of his last novel, “Freedomland.”

Price describes his latest novel as the completion of a trilogy that began with “Clockers” and “Freedomland.” Each explored urban race relations and the collision between upper and lower classes in Dempsey, a fictional Jersey city. “This is about a guy who returns to his blue-collar hometown after writing for a couple of years on TV shows,” Price said. “He’s got too much money and tries to spread some of it around to help the people he grew up with. In this case, when the haves extend themselves, they create more chaos than kindness.” The idea grew out of Price’s self-scrutiny after he did a pro-bono teaching stint in the public school system after making it big as an author. “I had to wonder, was I doing it to feel better about myself, or for them? You are playing with fire, because you can raise expectations in people that you have no intention of following up on because you’re wrapped up in your own drama.”

“RINGS” FLING EMPOWERED BY SHORT: Much has been made of New Line founder Bob Shaye’s gutsy decision to bankroll the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but what hasn’t gotten enough attention is how much Peter Jackson helped his own cause by paying $50,000 to make a 30-minute short film. It was a short that, by all accounts, was the deciding factor in his getting a greenlight from Shaye on what is now on course to become one of the most profitable film franchises ever. Dish viewed the film, which until now had been seen only by Jackson, his reps, Bob Shaye and Fine Line president Mark Ordesky. The short was a last-ditch effort to rescue “Rings” from the Miramax turnaround scrap heap and was enough to persuade Shaye to finance three films instead of the two Jackson asked for. It also showed convincingly why Jackson was the right director for the “Rings” job even though he was coming off the failure “The Frighteners.”

After long developing “Rings” only to find it couldn’t secure a partner to make two films, Miramax gave Jackson back the film under prohibitive terms. He had three weeks to hook another studio, which would have to repay the $12 million spent by Miramax, and give up 5% of first dollar gross. Unbowed by those arduous terms, Jackson retreated to New Zealand bent on making a film that would show that the ambitious movie was made possible because of the $12 million that had been spent on rights, special effects and visuals invaluable in bringing Middle Earth to life. Narrating the short himself, Jackson introduced the artwork, models and computer imagery that would convincingly shrink actors to Hobbit size, make the Orcs grotesque by enlarging their eyes and make Herculean Uruk-Hai warriors believable through computer animation. Jackson showed the armor, the architecture of the mines of Moria and the maniacal faces on the horses that would carry the black riders who pursue Frodo Baggins throughout the trilogy. The film then featured storyboards coupled by dialogue read by unseen actors. What is most striking is how closely Jackson’s movie stuck to his initial game plan. “So here we are,” he said at the close of the filmed pitch, “45 years after the publication of this book where finally the technology has caught up to the incredible imagination that (J.R.R.) Tolkien injected into this story of his. This movie can be made.”

In terms of salesmanship effort, Jackson’s film is reminiscent of the short made by Robert Evans three decades ago, the one that persuaded Gulf & Western not to fold Paramount Pictures and sell the backlot. Evans, who headed production at the time, got Mike Nichols to direct him in an appeal that promised upcoming projects like “Love Story and “The Godfather” would right the studio’s course. “The lot was set to become part of this Jewish cemetery right behind it, and you don’t see any dead bodies there now, only a lot of soundstages,” Evans said. “I didn’t get a bonus or anything, but I walked out of that meeting with the autonomy needed to make Paramount a power.” Viewings of Evans’ film have been limited to visitors in his private screening room, but Evans said the footage will be in the Graydon Carter-produced docu “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” As for Jackson’s half-hour film, New Line hasn’t yet decided whether fans will get to see it. It would be a worthwhile addition to the DVD, at the least.

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