20th hunts Crichton’s ‘Prey’

In a preemptive strike, 20th Century Fox has purchased film rights to Michael Crichton’s next novel, “Prey,” for close to $5 million. No other studio was granted a shot at the manuscript.

The studio plans to move quickly toward a bigscreen version of the political thriller whose plot is a well-kept secret. Tome is said to be set in the world of nanotechnology, bringing together themes from two earlier Crichton blockbusters, “Jurassic Park” and “The Andromeda Strain.”

“We are really fired up over this acquisition,” said 20th Century Fox prexy Hutch Parker. “Our instinct is to do this quickly.”

The deal also fired up speculation as to Michael Ovitz’ possible role. Ovitz has served as Crichton’s manager, but his role has become fuzzy following the breakup of AMG, his management company. Though Crichton appears still to be represented by Ovitz, however, he apparently played no role in the “Prey” deal.

Fox execs were first approached about the rights several weeks ago, received a manuscript last Friday and concluded negotiations on Monday.

Deal is an unusual feat of big-money, bicoastal synergy for News Corp., corporate parent of Fox and Crichton’s publisher, HarperCollins. Opting not to shop the manuscript on the open market, Crichton submitted the book only to Fox — a rare event in Hollywood, where lit rights are typically shopped to the highest bidder and ultimately spread across several companies.

HarperCollins, Fox link

HarperCollins, which keeps an office on the Fox lot, has long nurtured its ties to the studio. The publisher, which bought “Prey” last year in a two-book deal worth $40 million, will launch the tome in English-speaking territories around the world in November.

The cross-promotional possibilities at News Corp. are considerable. Company can time paperback publication to the release of the feature and the rollout of licensing and merchandise deals, which are part of the franchise rights contained in the film deal.