H’wood hits the books with pub deals

New ties being formed as studios adapting less tomes

Studios and the book biz are building pipelines together, but it may not be easy to put something in them.

Walden Media’s pact last week with Penguin Young Readers marked the second recent teaming of a film company and a publisher, after Random House Films launched with Focus late last year.

And there could be more on the way. Paramount and Simon & Schuster — no longer part of the same company after the Viacom split — have been forming new ties. Though no deals have resulted yet, for at least the last several months, Simon & Schuster execs have been flying out to Par and sharing editorial notes.

The goal of these programs: Upend the informal but effective system in which producers buy film rights from agents.

“The more the artificial wall between the two industries collapses, the better off we’ll be,” says Walden’s Micheal Flaherty.

Maybe so, but why collapse it now? Hollywood is less dependent on traditional books than ever. The majority of current fiction bestsellers haven’t even been bought by studios, let alone greenlit. And if producers don’t want to go the spec script route, they’re increasingly likely to turn to alternative sources like newspaper and mag articles (The Weinstein’s Co.’s J.T. Leroy biopic) or graphic novels (“V for Vendetta”) than traditional books.

But that also may be precisely the reason these deals are being done: With Hollywood relying less on books, it’s more likely something can slip through the cracks, and a first-look deal may be the best insurance policy. Many studios passed on “The Da Vinci Code”; only after it hit the top of the bestseller list did Sony scoop up rights — for a reported $6 million.

Consolidation in the book biz also makes it easier to access a clutch of titles with just one deal.

And in some cases the pipeline goes the other way; the Walden deal is as much about a studio getting into publishing as it is about mining material.

Of course, studios seeking novel ways to find novels isn’t, well, novel. Or all that effective.

Decades ago publishers like Putnam dispatched emissaries to Hollywood to try to hook their titles up with TV nets. Other deals, like Hougton-Vivendi, lasted about a minute.

And remember the Miramax Books strategy? It led to succesful projects like “Artemis Fowl,” but also the Skeet Ulrich starrer “Takedown.”

“Some producers fantasize that this is their way to get a ‘Da Vinci Code.’ But it’s not going to work out that way,” warns one high-ranking Gotham editor.

Part of that is because agents aren’t giving up the most coveted rights, leaving editors to comb for diamonds at the bottom of a catalog.

“Everyone thinks that this can be done by grand committee,” says one film insider. But getting a book to the screen is about “someone having the wherewithal to push it forward, whether its translated into French or translated into film.”

And then there’s the promise of financing, which may be some studios’ endgame. “The real question is will the publishers put up money,” says ICM agent Ron Bernstein. “Right now I don’t see that happening.”

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