Majors in hot pursuit of new scripts

Feature development execs were bracing for a deluge of feature spec scripts to flood the market after the 100-day writers strike wrapped in mid-February. But the storm, if it’s brewing at all, has yet to hit, so the majors are chasing after books and magazine articles harder than they have in years.

Because the volume of pitches and specs from screenwriters has been light so far, studios, flush with new fiscal-year development budgets, have turned to books, mags as well as graphic novels for ideas, biz insiders say.

The result is that lit properties are moving fast compared to years past.

Some examples:

  • Warner Bros. acquired “The Lost Girls,” an 87-page proposal by Amanda Pressner, Jennifer Baggett and Holly Corbett, who gave up their media jobs and boyfriends to travel the world for a year, blogging every step of the way. The book will be published by HarperCollins.

  • DreamWorks has acquired “Deep Sea Cowboy,” an article that Joshua Davis wrote in the March issue of Wired, for a feature to be produced by “Transformers” and “Star Trek” scribes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci; Pete Chiarelli exec produces. Article revolved around Rich Habib, who runs Titan Salvage, which races all over the world to salvage sinking giant ships and their cargo.

  • WB also bought “The Rapture,” an upcoming novel by British author Liz Jensen that will be published in the U.S. by Random House. Novel is about a peculiar young girl with the ability to predict natural disasters who teams with her psychologist and a physicist to stop an offshore drilling project off the coast of Florida that the girl is convinced will cause an apocalyptic earthquake.

  • Miramax has optioned Wall Street Journal article “The Heart Has Its Reasons,” by Kevin Helliker, for Mandalay to produce. It’s the story of an unlikely romance between 27-year old convicted murderer John Manard and Toby Young, a 48-year-old social worker who was a married mother of two when she smuggled Manard out of prison. They ran away together with $42,000 of her retirement money before they were caught in a cabin in Tennessee.

  • Scott Rudin dipped into his own funds to make a preemptive acquisition of “Indignation,” the Philip Roth novel to be published in September by Houghton Mifflin.

“There was an expectation that studios would see a gush of post-strike specs the way they did in 1988, but the animosity of this strike was so great that screenwriters were distracted,” said agent Jody Hotchkiss, who recently sold the Charles Bock novel “Beautiful Children” to Warner Independent and the Alex Flinn novel “Beastly” to CBS Films. “There was a vacuum, and what else was there to buy but books? It has created a good sense of urgency.”

The money paid for these books and articles is modest compared to the market boom of the mid- to late 1990s, when Pat Conroy’s “Beach Music” sold to Paramount for north of $5 million and Michael Crichton’s “Airframe” went to Disney for $10 million. Dave Eggers’s “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” fetched $3 million from New Line in 2000.

None of those pics has yet been made. As such, it’s highly unusual for the majors to get whipped into a frenzy that results in a seven-figure upfront deal for a book author. However, several studios are currently frothing over “The Flag of Orpheus,” a novel trilogy, because the co-author, Tim Kring, is the creator and principal writer of NBC’s “Heroes.” The book series sold for $3 million to Crown.

Kring’s reps at Endeavor maintain that they haven’t yet shopped the property for a pic deal, though studio execs at present are reading the 18-page treatment that sealed the book deal, industry sources said.

The recent big money exception was the $3 million paid by MGM and Relativity for 1979 Robert Ludlum thriller “The Matarese Circle.” Denzel Washington is attached along with “3:10 to Yuma” writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas. Nick Wechsler, who will produce the feature adaptation with Lorenzo di Bonaventura (and the Ludlum estate’s Jeffrey Weiner), said the sale was a case of fortuitous timing, as was the deal he and di Bonaventura just made with CBS Films for a Vince Flynn novel series about CIA operative Mitch Rapp.

“Theses are brands, and Lorenzo and I felt if we put the right elements and contemporized the Ludlum, and timed a sale of Vince Flynn when his books reached a certain critical mass, we’d be successful,” Wechsler said.

“Most studios already have their franchise, but (MGM’s) Mary Parent saw the opportunity, ” he added. “She seized the moment for MGM. CBS Films is also a new film company, and it was the perfect opportunity to brand each with a franchise project.”

Veteran ICM agent Ron Bernstein, who brokered the Flynn deal, hopes the pace continues.

“We’re struggling with fiction a bit, nonfiction has been easier, and graphic novels that much easier still,” he said. “Studios need to feed the development machine, and had there been 300 specs in the first three weeks after the strike, they might have been less inclined to buy books. In the long run, are books stronger? I’m not so sure. I hope so.”

The surging demand has given a new kind of currency to authors. Jane Fallon not only sold her book “Getting Rid of Matthew” to Universal for Jennifer Aniston to star in an adaptation, she got the job of writing the script.

While Fallon is a vet producer of U.K. television — she’s married to “Office” co-creator Ricky Gervais — the U assignment marks her first studio writing gig. Her novel revolves around a hard-charging publicist whose no-strings-attached affair with a married guy goes awry when he leaves his wife and children for her. The protag hatches a scheme to get him out of her hair by salvaging his marriage.

“It was unbelievable how quickly it happened,” Fallon said. “Jennifer’s massive likability made her perfect to play a character, who, because she’s having an affair with a married man, is every woman’s nightmare, until she redeems herself,” Fallon said. “I pitched the idea to Jennifer and she said yes. I pitched it the studio, and by the time I flew home, we had a deal.”

Magazine articles intrigue studio development execs because they often provide granular details on true stories, social trends and interesting settings that can be transplanted and expanded, particularly in the comedy and action-adventure genre.

Among the deals cut just last week was Warner Independent’s acquisition of Jodi Gottlieb’s Atlantic Monthly article, and forthcoming book, “Marry Him!,” which posits that women settle for less desirable men so they won’t be alone (Daily Variety, April 9). Universal nabbed an L.A. Weekly article by Sascha Rothchild encouraging women to get married and divorced by 30 (Daily Variety, April 10) for Marc Platt to produce.

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