With indies fading, fiction sales fizzle

Writestuff - Jonathan Bing

This article was corrected on July 10, 2002.

Is literary fiction an endangered species in Hollywood?

That question has begun nagging at book agents who for years have relied on the indie film sector to lend a sympathetic ear to risky writing by unknown authors.

But the indie book market has gone soft.

U.K. shingle Film Four until last week was an active buyer of high-caliber and offbeat fiction — from the latest Elmore Leonard novel to Alice Sebold’s much acclaimed new first novel, “The Lovely Bones.” Now Film Four has been shuttered by its parent company, and a slew of those books will go into turnaround.

Two years ago, Miramax was the hungriest book-buyer in Gotham, devouring stacks of quirky, literary titles, including two books on the invention of television, a novel by French writer Didier van Cauwelaert, and David Liss’ first novel, “The Conspiracy of Paper.”

But its appetite for such fare has dulled as the mini-major has entered the franchise business, focusing on productions with wide family appeal.

Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein assured Daily Variety the mini-major is still committed to books. “Miramax will always buy what it likes first. If it’s good, I’ll buy it.”

But Weinstein acknowledged a focus on fantasy books, calling kids epic, “Artemis Fowl” the company’s best book acquisition to date.

“I’m in the kids’ business,” he said.

Erstwhile Miramax partner Good Machine also emerged in recent years as a serious fiction buyer, acquiring books by Robert Stone, E.L. Doctorow and E. Annie Proulx. But Good Machine has since been merged with USA Films and swallowed by Universal, and the size of the production slate of the new Universal Focus remains to be seen.

Seldom is high-quality literary fiction an easy sell in Hollywood, but lately there have been signs of life. Even as studios grow ever more dedicated to the assembly-line style production of tentpole pics, they’ve been taking chances on books with compelling new voices (Daily Variety, June 25).

Literary fiction sales have also gotten a boost in recent months, as new book clubs at USA Today, the “Today” show and other media outlets have catapulted first novels — “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier” by Ann Packer and “The Emperor of Ocean Park” by Stephen L. Carter among them — onto bestseller lists.

Literary book projects in Hollywood tend to be talent-driven. Take Andre Dubus III’s “The House of Sand and Fog,” championed by writer-director Vadim Perelman. The Signpost Film now has an all-star cast and domestic distribution from DreamWorks.

A heated publishing auction also helps. After Knopf coughed up more than $2 million for Stephen L. Carter’s novel, film rights were quickly locked up Warner Bros., John Wells and Gaylord Films.

But without a passionate champion in Hollywood, a storm of buzz, a nifty literary prize or major bestsellerdom, plenty of first-rate novels fall through the cracks.

That’s why the collapse of Film Four has come as a nasty surprise for many book agents. Among its book acquisitions in the last few years were Arturo Perez-Riverte’s “The Fencing Master,” Giles Foden’s “The Last King of Scotland,” Michael Faber’s “Under the Skin” and Tod Michael Volpe’s “Eye of the Fox.”

A number of high-profile filmmakers were attached to these projects, but many of them are now likely to wind up in turnaround, a situation that Volpe’s agent, Jody Hotchkiss called “another nail in the coffin of independent cinema as we know it.”

“Shine” director Scott Hicks was overseeing “Eye of the Fox” before the rug was pulled out from under Film Four. Now Hotchkiss expects the rights to revert.

Smaller production companies may always give a fair hearing to smaller titles, he noted, but agents can’t expect that treatment from the studios.

“How many times in the week do I hear, ‘Find something for the Rock or find something for Vin Diesel?,’ said Hotchkiss. “If he wants to play a crossdressing role in the adaptation of a new Meg Wolitzer novel, maybe we can shoe horn him in.”

The disappearance of buyers like Film Four is hardly an epochal event, considering that many of the projects listed above have’t gone into production.

“To buy a book and make it are different kettles of fish,” said ICM agent Ron Bernstein. “The independent market was never that big. The slack will be taken up by Focus and Searchlight.”

But the closure of Film Four and Good Machine and the new currents at Miramax make one thing abundantly clear. Even the indies are governed by the rules of commerce and the fast-shifting tastes of the public.

“We live in a business that should be measured in mercury,” said Weinstein. “The heat goes up and down.”

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