Coffee-table tomes say volumes about movie making

“Cold Mountain: The Journey From Book to Film.” “The Making of ‘Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.’ ” “In America: A Portrait of the Film.” “The Art of ‘Finding Nemo.’ “

They tumble through the mail slot in hefty padded envelopes at awards time — hardcover, richly illustrated, coffee table-aimed accounts of the travails and triumphs of these hard-fought creative wars, usually gently reported, and approved by studio and filmmaker.

Whence do they come? Are they mainly a marketing tool, or do they have a legitimate life in bookstores, far apart from the concerns of guild award voters and the entertainment media?

The answer depends largely on the cultural impact of a given movie project. The bestseller in the pictorial making-of genre has been “James Cameron’s Titanic,” a weighty $50 tome published in 1997 by HarperCollins that has sold more than 1 million copies.

A more typical high mark was set by “Dances With Wolves: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Film,” which sold more than 200,000 copies for publisher Newmarket Press. Pub marketed it along with the oater’s 1990 Oscar campaign.

As the sleeper hit built momentum to sweep the Oscars that year, it similarly caught fire with book-buying fans. It was the first foray into making-of books by Manhattan-based Newmarket, which has since gone on to lead the field.

But that book was a real exception, notes Esther Margolis, Newmarket Press founder and owner. A more typical sales target would be around 15,000 copies.

Anything related to “The Lord of the Rings” would seem to have the sales advantage this year. Indeed, the New Line trilogy has enormously enhanced the fortunes of Houghton Mifflin, publisher of the J.R.R. Tolkien source novels — to the tune of a staggering 25 million copies sold over the past three years in the U.S. alone.

The company has published 15 movie tie-in books and has two more in the works. Its “The Lord of the Rings: The Making of the Movie Trilogy,” by Brian Sibley, released just ahead of “The Two Towers,” has sold nearly 175,000 copies, according to Clay Harper, Tolkien projects director at the Boston-based house — making it the genre’s third-biggest seller.

Three different books related to the trilogy — coffee-table tomes full of conceptual art that shows the visual evolution of characters and sets — have sold around 50,000 to 60,000 copies each.

Cultural phenomenon aside, the making-of book is a persistent niche business, one that serves a studio’s marketing efforts as much as it benefits from the same. The books often originate from a consumer products or licensing division, which approaches a publisher to pitch the project. In many cases, the studio guarantees a buy-back of at least a few thousand copies that will be used for marketing, which helps offset the publisher’s risk.

This year, for example, Fox Searchlight initiated a deal with Newmarket Press to publish “In America: A Portrait of the Film,” an oversized screenplay book loaded with photos and additional content.

“Newmarket thought it had an interesting marketing hook because Jim Sheridan wrote the script with his daughters,” says Nancy Utley, the studio’s marketing president. “For us, we love it because we get shelf space in the bookstore, so you go into Brentano’s and you’ve got a piece of your key art sitting right there.

“In many cases, the movie is playing in the same mall.”

It’s also a useful tool for getting the attention of guild voters. Writers Guild of America members received copies of the book (Academy rules restrict against similar mailings to Oscar voters) and the script was nominated for the WGA and Academy original screenplay awards.

“The Art of Finding Nemo” came from San Francisco-based Chronicle Books, which has an agreement for all the Pixar art books, and is now preparing a book on “The Incredibles.”

Many publishers dip into the field, but few specialize in it. “It’s a risk,” Margolis says, who publishes the lion’s share of such books. “These books are expensive to produce. You’re banking on the movie being a success, but you’re making the decision way before you even see the movie.”

As an independent house, Newmarket is able to adapt somewhat to the rhythms of movie release campaigns, which are in stark contrast to the slower pace of the publishing world.

Ironically, despite its link to the movie studio, Miramax Books, stays away from the genre. “I can’t figure out how to make it economically viable,” says executive editor Jonathan Burnham.

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