Writestuff: Studios back in book nook

Tome deals fly for Weiner, Trillin, Hightman, Nicholson

It’s beach blanket bingo for Hollywood book agents.

Emboldened by the red-hot summer box office, studios are jamming projects into the pipeline before the town goes dead in August.

The last few days have seen a frenzy of book sales. Fox 2000 has optioned Jennifer Weiner’s novel “In Her Shoes” for producers Ridley Scott and Tony Scott; Marc Abraham’s new shingle, Strike Entertainment, has optioned Calvin Trillin’s latest book, “Tepper Isn’t Going Out,” to develop through its first-look deal with Universal; U, Peter Guber’s Mandalay Pictures and producers J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burke have acquired filmmaker Jason Hightman’s novel “The Saint of Dragons”; and Quiksilver Entertainment has optioned Joy Nicholson’s surfer novel “The Tribes of Palos Verdes.”

The book market, hammered first by the threatened guild strikes and then by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, suddenly is churning with so much activity that even professional book-trackers are having trouble keeping up.

This month alone, Hollywood producers have optioned a mountain of books: Warner Bros. landed U.K. sci-fi thriller “Altered Carbon,” by Richard Morgan, with John Pogue attached to adapt for producer Joel Silver; Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s Section 8 optioned John Saul’s supernatural thriller “Midnight Voices”; DreamWorks bought screen rights to “The Big Year,” a nonfiction book about birdwatching that Red Hour’s Ben Stiller and Stuart Cornfeld and Deuce Three Prods.’ Curtis Hanson and Carol Fenelon are producing; director Paul Verhoeven optioned “Azazel,” a detective novel by popular Russian author Boris Akounin; and Stephen J. Cannell’s thriller “Riding the Snake” has been optioned by Myriad Pictures, with Cannell attached to adapt and produce.

THE FLURRY OF DEALS can be explained, in part, by the natural publishing cycles.

The spring and fall publishing seasons have brought an influx of good material. Much of it has long since been picked over by scouts and producers, but these books have gotten a new lift in Hollywood now that they’re available, either wrapped in bound galleys or shipped to stores in a swirl of publicity.

Abraham optioned “Tepper” after reading a review in the New York Review of Books.

Trillin is a humorist, repped in Hollywood by CAA, who writes regularly for the New Yorker and the Nation, and is the author of several books including “Messages From My Father.”

“Tepper” is a novel about Manhattanite Murray Tepper, who responds to the city’s parking crisis by finding the ultimate spot and taking up residence in his Chevy Malibu, becoming an urban folk hero in the process. “I loved it because, at its core, this is a story about something everyone in the world has experienced — parking,” Abraham said. Screenwriters David Weissman and David Diamond, who worked with Abraham on “The Family Man” for Beacon Pictures, are in the midst of other assignments, but they’ll adapt the book “as soon as they get some breathing room,” Abraham said.

IN A BUSINESS WHERE ADVANCE HYPE and competitive bidding often drive development deals, it’s surprising that such books are getting attention on the West Coast only after the reviews roll in. Rave reviews from New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, for instance, have generated considerable Hollywood interest in two recently published books: Alice Sebold’s debut novel “The Lovely Bones” (already optioned by Luc Besson) and “Twelve,” a novel by Nick McDonnell, an 18-year-old New York high school student.

That’s not such a bad thing, said longtime book scout Allison Bond. Producers who aren’t buying books under the gun of advance scouting reports may be taking their shots more carefully, she said. Book Expo America was early this year. Hollywood buyers, she said, “have already done the big hoopla. Now they’re drawing a breath and looking at things a bit more closely.”

BUT SOME OF THESE BOOKS have swiftly been swept off the market.

“In Her Shoes” is the sophomore effort of Jennifer Weiner, who created a splash on both sides of the Atlantic with “Good in Bed,” a bestselling debut novel about a Philadelphia reporter obsessed with her weight and men, whose sex life is the subject of a new women’s magazine column penned by her ex-boyfriend. “Shoes” was submitted by BenderSpink to several studios before Scott Free Prods. and Fox 2000 topper Elizabeth Gabler took it off the market. It will be developed at Fox 2000 by Carla Hacken, exec VP of production. Scott Free creative exec Erin Upson, who brought the project to the shingle, will work on it there.

“Shoes,” which will be published in a 125,000-copy first printing by Simon & Schuster imprint Atria Books, is a comedy about sibling rivalry in which a sexy, irresponsible party girl moves in with her sister, an ambitious attorney.

In partnership with S&S U.K., Atria just paid seven figures for Weiner’s next two novels, “Jezebel Bright” and “Hesitation Bright,” the sequel to “Good in Bed.”

“Dragon” also sold with lightning speed. Reps at WMA have yet to sell publishing rights. Hightman described the tome as a “fantasy novel in a darker vein than ‘Harry Potter’ ” — but with a contemporary setting. Hightman, also repped by Sam Maydew, is director of a short, “Delusion,” with special effects by Hammerhead Prods., and is a screenwriter who has written projects for Sony, Disney and Warner Bros.

These rapid-fire deals are coming together as execs prepare for their late-summer vacations, when studio lots resemble ghost towns and story development slows to a crawl. “Restless execs need to fill a pipeline,” said John Furay, partner in scouting firm Other Prods. “No decisions will be made the whole month of August. They’ve got one month to do everything.”

Should the book market continue to flourish, however, a larger question looms for studio toppers: After years of downsizing their Gotham development offices, is it time for them to reverse that policy, hire some East Coast execs and establish a firmer foothold in the publishing biz?

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