'Marriage Bargain' heats up in wake of '50 Shades' fever

The dozens of producers who lost out in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” derby have plenty of opportunity to jump into the surging “mommy porn” genre, as the erotic e-book sensation has thrust similar titles up the bestseller charts — and onto Hollywood’s acquisitions radar.

The most imminent bigscreen deal looks to be for “The Marriage Bargain,” No. 9 on the New York Times’ combined print and e-book fiction list. Since it was released in February by Entangled Publishing’s digital Indulgence imprint, the latest in a line of steamy romancers from Jennifer Probst has sold nearly half a million units and is still clicking along at a 5,000-copies-per-day clip.

Print publishing rights went up for auction last month, but despite hefty seven-figure offers from most major publishers, Entangled saw enough upside to self-distribute — a change of heart that held up film-rights talks. Still, Hollywood interest in “The Marriage Bargain” remains high, and current talks are expected to yield a Gersh-repped rights deal in the coming days.

“When I talk to movie producers, half of them have already read it — even before it was known how many copies were selling, it was in their weekend reading,” said Liz Pelletier, co-founder and managing partner of Savvy Media Services, which owns Entangled. “Our preference is going with a studio/production company that really gets behind the book and gets it made into a movie.”

While not nearly as explicitly sexy as E.L. James’ S&M-laced “Fifty Shades,” “Bargain” also falls squarely in the contemporary romance genre: Story follows a bookstore owner who gets involved with a billionaire who doesn’t believe in marriage but needs a wife to inherit his father’s corporation. The business-only rules of their arrangement are tested as the relationship develops.

Entangled plans a September print run, with second and third installments in the trilogy to follow in October and November.

To illustrate just how powerful the genre has become this year, seven titles in the Times’ combined ebook/print book top 15 qualify as contemporary romance, including the “Fifty Shades” trilogy, which has had the No. 1 through No. 3 spots locked up for several weeks (the trilogy sold as a whole is No. 7). Universal acquired “Shades” in March in a bidding frenzy that attracted interest from nearly every studio in town; U has since winnowed its potential producers to a small handful, as Variety first reported last month.

Once “The Marriage Bargain” is snapped up, acquisitions execs will likely turn their attention to the still-available “Bared to You” from Penguin Publishing’s Berkley Books imprint. “Bared,” which entered the Times’ combined list two weeks ago and hit No. 5 last week, is described as being even racier than “Shades,” and centers on two victims of sexual abuse who address their emotional trauma through an obsessive, sexually-charged relationship.

Also rising up the charts is “Beautiful Disaster,” the self-published title from Jamie McGuire, which was first published in May 2011 and entered the Times’ top 15 this week at No. 13. The story of a “good girl” college student who makes a bet with the campus bad boy shares more with “Fifty Shades” than just a vulnerable co-ed protag: Film rights to McGuire’s book are being repped by Valerie Hoskins Associates, the same U.K.-based boutique agency that brought “Shades” to the studios.

And MGM also took a flyer on the genre when it picked “On the Island,” as Variety first reported May 13. That book, by Des Moines, Iowa-based novelist Tracey Garvis-Graves, turns on an English tutor who’s stranded on an island in the Indian Ocean with her teenage student. Studio is in negotiations with “Twilight” producers Temple Hill Prods. to produce.

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