MGM spends big for Ludlum book

Denzel Washington rumored to star in thriller

In its first major material deal made since Mary Parent took over as head of MGM’s worldwide motion picture group, the studio ponied up for “The Matarese Circle,” a 1979 book by Robert Ludlum.

Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media will co-finance the film, and Denzel Washington is attached to star.

The book sold for $3 million, with another seven-figures to be paid to screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (“3:10 to Yuma,” the upcoming “Wanted”)

Sources said the scribes’ quote is $1.25 million, but their WMA reps were asking $2.5 million for the writing job. Leverage was diminished, however, because the property was controlled by ICM, which repped the Ludlum estate and surprised everybody by closing the deal so quickly with MGM, before the scribe deals were worked out.

Jeffrey Weiner, who runs the Ludlum estate, will produce with Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler. It’s the second high-profile book deal for di Bonaventura and Wechsler, who recently made a deal to produce a potential franchise based on Vince Flynn’s series of novels about CIA operative Mitch Rapp for CBS Films.

Like many books by the late Ludlum, “The Matarese Circle” is set during the Cold War. The book pairs rival spies, one from the CIA and the other from the KGB, who bury the hatchet for the moment because only they possess the smarts and killing abilities to go up against an international circle of criminals called the Matarese. Insiders said the Cold War tensions will be dropped and the storyline contemporized.

Parent was vice chairman at Universal while the Jason Bourne series got off the ground. Aside from making a splash in a town waiting to be convinced that MGM is for real, the studio adds to its list of potential film franchises, which already includes James Bond, “The Hobbit,” “The Pink Panther,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Death Wish,” “Robocop,” “Fame,” and “The Outer Limits.”

The project’s franchise potential had three other studios bidding, including Universal. Relativity also aggressively chased the property, and then aligned with MGM.

“We have had a strong relationship with Mary and MGM and both companies were equally interested in producing this film,” said Kavanaugh, who expected a swift progress to production.

Ludlum wrote a second book — “The Matarese Countdown” — that was not part of the deal. More than likely, a screen sequel would come from an original story.

While MGM/Relativity’s $3 million buy is likely the largest sum paid for a book so far this year, it’s not extreme for Ludlum, whose thrillers have been catnip for stars. Universal recently reengaged Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon to return for a fourth Jason Bourne thriller, and in 2005, Paramount paid $4 million for Ludlum’s “The Chancellor Manuscript,” a thriller that sold with a Leonardo DiCaprio attachment.

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