Adaptations provoking bidding wars

PARIS — French writers, already bigger stars than their U.S. counterparts, with their own TV shows and groupies, are looking even more content with several recent high-profile literary sales. It looks as if the French are starting to catch on to the high-stakes game of selling literary rights for the screen.

Last week, producer Thomas Langmann bought rights to “The French Hustler,” the autobiography of con artist Christophe Rocancourt, which he will shoot in English for a reported $25 million budget.

The deal was brokered by the City of Light’s star lit agent Susanna Lea, who last year sold rights to Marc Levy’s “If Only It Were True” to DreamWorks for $2 million.

The current vogue for adaptations has provoked a series of bidding wars, which Gallic producer Alain Goldman says are here to stay. “In a way we started this trend at Legende with ‘Crimson Rivers,’ where we had to beat off competition from two or three other companies,” Goldman tells Variety.

The bigscreen version of that Jean-Christophe Grange bestseller did better than boffo box office in 2000, helmed by Mathieu Kassovitz and starring Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel.

Pic’s sequel, “Crimson Rivers 2,” goes into production in February, reportedly with the same cast but with a different helmer. Soon after buying the rights to “Crimson Rivers,” Goldman snapped up Grange’s “Le Vol des Cigognes” (Flight of the Swans), another fast-moving thriller, which is in development.

More recently, Goldman acquired the rights to Rene Petillon’s popular comicbook “L’Affaire Corse” which is being adapted by pic’s star, Christian Clavier. Most recently, Goldman provoked a media storm by paying s227,614 ($224,813) for TV personality Frederic Beigbeder’s first novel, “99F,” a satire set in the world of advertising.

“French producers are waking up to the fact that a film’s career these days is usually a short one,” Goldman says. “A successful book is therefore the perfect launching pad because it already has a built-in following among the public.”

According to Marie Dormann, who’s in charge of book-to-film rights at Albin Michel, one of France’s biggest publishing companies, about 70% of the Gallic novels that hit the bestseller lists eventually end up being made into films for the big or small screen.

Dormann says 24 of Albin Michel’s books are under option for theatrical or telefilms. Heading their book-to-film list with Grange is Belgian lit’s leading lady, Amelie Nothomb. Dormann handled the rights for “Stupeurs et Tremblements,” which will be adapted by helmer Alain Corneau later this year, and vet helmer’s Pierre Granier-Deferre “Catilinaires,” due to start filming early next year.

While agents are cagey about naming prices, book-to-film rights in Gaul can sell from $15,000 all the way up to $750,000 or more. “Our job is to try and match up the right book with the right producer or director,” Dormann says. “Before, book-to-film rights were sold pretty much by chance — now there is a real amount of research done.”

Two new events are seeking to help French publishers maximize their sales to producers: the first Intl. Literary Adaptation Market, to be held Oct. 3-6 in Monte Carlo, and the Book to Film Properties Market in Los Angeles next May.

The Monte Carlo event, primarily a get-together for publishers, editors and producers, will highlight some 150 literary properties with adaptation potential. The event is drawing high-profile participants such as Doubleday’s Nan Talese for events including a panel on the red-hot market for comicbook adaptations.

Both U.S. and French producers are interested in the potential of French literature, with DreamWorks’ big-ticket Levy acquisition the most lucrative of the deals so far.

But other U.S. producers also have been eyeing Gallic talent. KSA holds an option for Tete-Michel Kpomassie’s “An African in Greenland,” which already has a script attached, penned by George Walczak and Mark Rogers, while Miramax held an option for Didier Van Cauwelaert’s “L’Education d’une Fee,” although it recently lapsed.

To further encourage this nascent U.S. interest, Gallic writer Pascale Kramer and screenwriting magazine Synopsis have joined forces to launch the Book to Film Properties Market, timed to coincide with BookExpo America. The idea is to present American film producers with contempo French literary works suitable for screen adaptation.

“All the major French, Belgian and Swiss publishers will participate in this initiative that will culminate in a two-day event based in Los Angeles on May 27-28 next year,” says Kramer.

However, some are wary about recent developments. Vet screenwriter Gilles Taurand, who works regularly with Corneau and fellow Gallic helmer Andre Techine, says, “There’s a feeding frenzy for adaptation, which has me worried about imagination for original subjects running dry. An existing source is reassuring but we mustn’t forget to create directly for the screen.”

(Lisa Nesselson contributed to this report.)

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