H’wood’s new book club

Warners, Col take tomes off the shelf with new lit offices

If you were standing in Manhattan’s Century Club on May 31, you might have wondered if Warner Bros. had moved its entire production staff to the East Coast.

There were WB prexy Jeff Robinov, exec VPs Kevin McCormick, Courtenay Valenti and Lynn Harris, senior VP Jessica Goodman and VPs Jeff Clifford and Dan Lin, working the room along with WB’s Gotham-based production exec Alissa Shipp and consultant and longtime book scout Maria Campbell.

“I couldn’t help but wonder,” quipped an onlooker, “if they all just liked to ride on the Warner jet.”

Such cynicism isn’t surprising. Hollywood’s interest in the book market waxes and wanes.

But the Century Club party — held to convey WB’s plan to step up its Gotham office — is emblematic of a resurgent interest in the book market after years of cost-cutting by the studios. It comes as Book Expo America returns to Gotham for the first time in three years.

“I’m not surprised people are coming back,” says McCormick, who is spearheading WB’s resurgence as a New York presence.

“What’s different here is that Jeff (Robinov) has empowered me with the financial framework to move quickly to acquire material. That avoids what has been a problem for most New York operations, where you catalog material, ship it West and hope somebody reacts.”

The pendulum swing comes just as the sluggish book marketplace has heated up with a stream of six-figure option deals, spiced by several seven-figure buys. Par paid $4 million for the 1977 Robert Ludlum thriller “The Chancellor Manuscript,” and Columbia paid $1.5 million for “The Historian,” a vampire tale by Elizabeth Kostova.

McCormick has committed to making several trips each month to WB’s Gotham office, where Campbell finds books for the studio and Shipp mines magazine articles, theater and other properties.

Columbia Pictures also recently formed its own office, hiring Deborah Schindler from Revolution and New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell.

Paramount, DreamWorks, Fox and New Line each have one fulltime scout or exec, as do Imagine, Tribeca, Revolution, Laura Ziskin and Furthur Films. Scott Steindorff‘s Stone Village will open an office in the fall.

Disney doesn’t have an office, but will have its strongest-ever foothold in the lit marketplace once Scott Rudin moves over from Par.

Still, ICM agent Ron Bernstein remains cautious.

“The pronouncements that books were dead has been disproved,” he says. “But I still feel that I am engaging every day in hand-to-hand combat to make deals. The sky is the limit for upper-level material. (But) scrape that away, and I still don’t see a middle and a bottom.”

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