Author in movie deal for 1999 bestselling novel

After a decade of saying no, John Grisham has made a movie deal for his 1999 bestselling novel “The Testament.”

Producers Mark Johnson and Hunt Lowry are teaming with 821 Entertainment Group to option the book, with 821′s Eric Geadelmann and Ben Horton taking exec producer credit.

In the novel, a billionaire defies his greedy relatives and leaves his $11 billion fortune to a mysterious illegitimate daughter doing charity work in the Brazilian wetlands. A down-and-out lawyer helps her battle her relatives over the fortune.

The last time Grisham ended a self-imposed moratorium on selling a book to Hollywood, his first novel, “A Time to Kill,” went to Warner Bros. and New Regency in a near-record $6 million deal that led to a 1996 hit movie on which Lowry was a producer.

That was at a time when Grisham’s thrillers were considered “can’t miss” properties. Nobody pays that much for screen rights to books anymore, and Grisham will receive a six-figure option against a bigger payday if “The Testament” goes forward.

He will also have the right to provide creative input, which he didn’t always have in the past — one of the factors that pushed him away from Hollywood until about three years ago, when his fans prodded him to end his self-imposed movie moratorium.

The deal for “The Testament” shows the power of persistence on the part of producer Johnson, who has kept on Grisham and his agent-editor David Gernert for the better part of a decade.

“I’ve been calling them since I read it the first time and felt it had the best of the courthouse stuff that John writes so well, plus this exotic adventure in deepest Brazil,” Johnson said.

Once Johnson joined forces with Grisham’s old friend Lowry, the author said yes. The producers found development financing through 821 Entertainment, the Nashville-based financier-producer that CEO Geadelmann said is in the throes of raising $250 million in equity and debt to finance productions with “heartland appeal.”

Geadelmann, who made a fortune in the health care technology business, said he and his partners can finance production but would prefer to co-finance with a studio, once they have a script that Grisham approves.

“The Testament” becomes one of several Grisham legal thrillers headed for the screen. An adaptation of Grisham’s nonfiction tome “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town” moved from defunct WIP to WB, with Smokehouse partners George Clooney and Grant Heslov (the picture is stalled pending a lawsuit filed by a subject in the book). Phoenix Pictures continues to forge ahead on “Playing for Pizza,” with a script by J. Mills Goodloe and Adam Shankman directing; and Paramount is developing “The Associate” with Shia LaBeouf and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura.

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