Actor buys screen rights to book with Heslov

Warner Independent Pictures and Smoke House partners George Clooney and Grant Heslov are buying screen rights to John Grisham’s nonfiction tome “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.”

Deal is the second in the past two weeks between WIP and Smoke House; Clooney and Heslov earlier came aboard to produce “White Jazz.”

Details are still being worked out in the Grisham deal, but Clooney and Heslov are solely producing at this point.

Published in October by Doubleday, “Innocent Man” is the true story of a gross miscarriage of justice that sent Ron Williamson to Oklahoma’s death row for 11 years for a murder he did not commit. Among the flimsy evidence: eyewitness testimony from the man ultimately convicted of the murder.

Deal is the first studio pact in several years for Grisham, whose last novel adaptation was the Joe Roth-directed “Christmas With the Kranks.” After “The Firm” became a blockbuster, such Grisham courtroom thrillers as “The Rainmaker,” “The Client” and “A Time to Kill” routinely sparked fevered auctions and seven-figure movie deals, culminating in a then-record $8 million deal from New Regency for “Runaway Jury.”

Even before studios stopped paying outrageous sums for books, Grisham and his longtime editor-dealmaker David Gernert changed the way they sold his titles. After a self-imposed hiatus on deals, Grisham returned but became more interested in quality control and less interested in big paydays.

Grisham had some control under the old deals — he famously nixed a “Runaway Jury” package of star Will Smith and director Mike Newell — but he wanted to be collaborative in the creative process.

That meant unorthodox deals, as with “Mickey,” which he and director Hugh Wilson co-financed and self-distributed. Grisham’s movie appetite has been rekindled, and unfilmed titles “Bleachers,” “The Broker,” “The Testament” and “The Partner” are in various stages of rights discussions.

Grisham ultimately will be paid a seven-figure against gross participation deal if “The Innocent” gets made. But his approval of the WIP deal came only after several conversations with Clooney and Heslov and after sparking to their Oscar-nominated WIP film “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

Clooney will star in and produce “White Jazz,” a Matthew Michael Carnahan-scripted adaptation of the James Ellroy novel that Joe Carnahan will direct.

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