Studio picks up Litvinenko tome 'Dissident'

Call it spy vs. spy.

Columbia Pictures and Michael Mann have entered the race against Warner Bros. and Johnny Depp to mount a film about Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko, the ex-KGB agent who was fatally poisoned.

Based on a proposal and a sample chapter, Col paid $500,000 against $1.5 million early Friday for the screen rights to “Death of a Dissident,” a book Alex Goldfarb and the subject’s widow, Marina Litvinenko, are co-writing. Simon & Schuster subsidiary Free Press will publish the book in late May.

Red Wagon partners Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher, who brought the project to the studio, will produce with Mann’s Forward Pass shingle. Mann is attached to direct.

WB, Depp and Graham King’s Initial Entertainment, which had already made an option deal to base a Litvinenko film on “Sasha’s Story: The Life and Death of a Russian Spy” (Daily Variety, Jan. 12), mounted a bid for “Death of a Dissident.” New York Times London bureau chief Alan Cowell is writing the “Sasha’s Story” book. Universal and Paramount also bid on “Dissident.”

WB offered to match Col’s winning bid, but came away empty-handed. Columbia topper Amy Pascal, Mann, Wick and Fisher were particularly aggressive and won the auction, conducted by CAA and London-based publishing agent Ed Victor.

“Death of a Dissident” will explore the collision between the Russian power structure enforced by the KGB and its successor, the FSB, and the new wave of Wild West capitalism that came on the heels of glasnost; Litvinenko got caught between those two colossal forces. From his deathbed, he blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime for the poisoning from polonium-210.

Col will seek to fast-track a project that comes not only with “Death of a Dissident” but also the life rights of Litvinenko’s widow.

According to the proposal viewed by Daily Variety, the book will contain first-hand information from Marina Litvinenko and Goldfarb. A four-page proposal laid out their intention to describe Litvinenko’s career as he went from insider to outcast in the political epicenter of post-communist Russia. Goldfarb’s close relationship with the ex-KGB agent is made clear in a 22-page sample first chapter that was part of the auction.

Other books on the subject also are being shopped. Steve LeVine, the Wall Street Journal correspondent who was Daniel Pearl’s reporting partner in Pakistan, has a Random House deal to write a Litvinenko/KGB book tentatively titled “Polonium.” That book is being shopped by agents Jody Hotchkiss and Tom Wallace.

Litvinenko’s own 2002 memoir, “Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plan to Bring Back KGB Terror,” is about to be reissued in the U.K. Rights for that tome are held by U.K.-based producer Braun Media.

Mann noted that he prevailed the last time he was faced with a rival project. He developed “The Aviator” as director-producer. When a competing project with Christopher Nolan and Jim Carrey attached threatened to beat his picture into production, Mann became producer and enlisted Martin Scorsese to direct. Mann produced that film with Initial’s King, who is spearheading the rival Litvinenko project with Depp and Warner Bros.

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