'Shantaram' among biggest film rights deals of the year

In a $2 million outright purchase, Warner Bros., Brad Grey and Initial Entertainment prexy Graham King have acquired screen rights to Gregory David Roberts novel “Shantaram.”

Johnny Depp will star in the film and produce with Grey and King.

Roberts will adapt the book, which is set in the 1980s, and is about an adventure similar to one that Roberts lived.

Protag is an Australian heroin addict convicted of robbery. He escapes from a maximum-security prison and flees to India and reinvents himself as a doctor in the slums of Bombay. He gets involved in counterfeiting, smuggling and gunrunning, which leads him to Afghanistan, where he and a mob boss battle the Russians. Grey, who partners in WB-based Plan B with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, hooked his home studio up with King’s Initial Entertainment, which has a first-look deal with Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil.

The result was one of the biggest film rights deals of the year. WB will have domestic distribution rights while Initial controls foreign. WB executive vice president Kevin McCormick will oversee the project.

The book was originally published August 2003, and will be published in the U.S. by St. Martin’s next week. The 1,000-page tome hardly registered a blip on Hollywood’s radar until recently, when Russell Crowe showed interest.

Lit agent Joe Regal said the “Shantaram” momentum has been fueled by the strength of the writing by the first-time author.

“This is getting compared to ‘Papillon,’ and there are a million subtle literary things in it that make it more than a trashy adventure,” Regal said.

Crowe was indeed attached to one of several bids when UTA sent it wide. Nobody was more fiscally bold than WB and Initial, primarily because of Depp, who told Grey about his love for the book.

Depp is shooting the Tim Burton-directed “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in London’s Pinewood Studios and Grey is producing that film.

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