Studio nabs exclusive rights to Bourne novels

Universal Pictures has made an overall deal with the estate of “The Bourne Identity” author Robert Ludlum that gives the studio exclusive rights to the Jason Bourne character and first look at other Ludlum novels.

The deal with Ludlum Entertainment paves the way for more installments in the Bourne saga, which was originally envisioned as a three-picture series but has become Universal’s answer to James Bond.

After the first three films grossed a total of more than $1 billion worldwide, U signed Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass for a fourth film that George Nolfi is penning. Produced by Frank Marshall and Ludlum Entertainment chairman-CEO Jeffrey Weiner, the film will be readied for a summer 2010 release.

Weiner will take offices on the Universal lot as part of the deal and hire development executives as the company takes an active hand in developing projects, including some not based on books by Ludlum. Weiner was the author’s accountant for 16 years before being tapped by Ludlum to be estate executor and to run the holding company that produces his movies and publishes his books and videogames.

“Universal has done such an excellent job with the first three films that they deserve the opportunity to keep Jason Bourne at the studio forever,” Weiner told Daily Variety.

The deal was put together by U co-president of production Jimmy Horowitz and president of production Donna Langley, who said that the gritty action style has rubbed off on other action fare.

The deal also gives Universal an inside track on other Ludlum books that would be developed with Ludlum Entertainment. That is especially valuable for U, whose chairman Marc Shmuger and co-chairman David Linde have made franchises a priority.

Universal tried but didn’t win “The Matarese Circle” when that Ludlum Cold War thriller was shopped last April, with Denzel Washington attached along with “Wanted” scribes Michael Brandt and Derek Haas. MGM won the auction; they’ve set David Cronenberg to direct a film expected to begin production next year. Ludlum titles routinely turn into seven-figure packages, including the $4 million Paramount paid for “The Chancellor Manuscript” in 2005, with Leonardo DiCaprio attached to star and produce with Red Wagon.

Universal is developing another Ludlum book, “The Sigma Protocol,” with Strike Entertainment partners Marc Abraham and Eric Newman. Summit Entertainment has “The Osterman Weekend,” with Simon Kinberg set to write and direct.

There are plenty more where those came from.

“There is a deep Ludlum library. Over 25 of his novels have never been exploited in movies,” Weiner said. He recalled that Ludlum watched a couple of his titles get turned into movies during the early 1980s, and he was underwhelmed by the result. The author died while “The Bourne Identity” was in production. Now, the estate has contractual approval not only on screenplays but also on characters and even actors, Weiner said.

“The goal is to pick the right people to be in business with, so you don’t have to wield these things like a club,” Weiner said. “If you get to that point, you’re in business with the wrong people.”

ICM and Henry Morrison rep Ludlum Entertainment.

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