The premature leakage of books in galley form to film studios and producers has become so epidemic that it’s becoming a rarity when a prominent book doesn’t find its way to buyers — many times in unedited form — months before agents are ready to sell. Studios hungry for book-based blockbusters fund departments dedicated to sleuthing early material, with hell to pay if another studio buys a book their scouts were unable to find.
The controversy came to the forefront last week when powerhouse literary agent Mort Janklow blanketed book publishers and editors, book clubs and foreign scouts with a barbed four-page letter urging them to plug the leaks. Janklow told Variety the letter was meant to be more educational than confrontational, and that publishers in particular work against their own best interests when books leak and sometimes ruin screen sales. Janklow, who with Janklow & Nesbit Associates partner Lynn Nesbit reps such blue-chip authors as Michael Crichton, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Harris and Richard Preston, argues the situation has reached crisis proportions.
“There are unwritten rules which govern the behavior of the major networks and film companies,” Janklow wrote. “If a producer or star introduces a manuscript to a film company, the general practice is for the film company … to attach the person, even if doing so requires the buyer to forego deals with other, perhaps better-qualified candidates who submitted later. … We are sick and tired of having unauthorized submissions made to places where we would not have wanted the film or television show made; to executives who are not our choice, and by producers who essentially stole the material.”
Janklow told Variety he’s already received positive feedback from a few publishers who promised to crack down. “More and more major films have their source in literary property, so movie companies think they have to get their hands on material early,” he says. “The worst case are those holding themselves out as representatives to foreign publishers, who get material early under that guise and leak it to movie companies. That’s a terrible conflict. People are being slipped a $100 bill to Xerox a manuscript or repay a favor, or a scout hired to recommend a book to an Italian publisher has a contract to recommend it to a movie company. This is stolen property, and the consequences are borne by the author and the agents. I’m hoping to at least get people to think twice.”
Gotham-based studio execs say Janklow’s missive was a bit self-serving. “The cream always rises, and the good material gets sold to the best producers and companies,” says a Gotham-based exec who requested anonymity. “An agent is never obliged to sell a piece, and if some two-bit hustler brings a submission to a studio, they can turn him down and bite when the right filmmaker walks in the door with the same piece. What’s driving these agents crazy is that we keep them from making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. You can only hype a book to the stars until people see it. But the idea we hurt the process is insulting. Many books would never have gotten bought if they didn’t have early New York advocates. If you think a studio head goes home and cracks a book, then you must be on crack. They’re too busy and only react when there’s a critical mass, which begins with a lowly studio reader evaluating a manuscript.”
To illustrate Gotham’s propensity to spur sales, the exec cited Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” which Scott Rudin and David Brown championed until Paramount stepped up to make it; “The Fight Club,” an obscure novel championed by the late Fox 2000 exec Raymond Bongiovanni, which David Fincher will direct with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton; and Nick Hornby’s “Father Figure,” which leaked unbeknownst to the author, who, before he knew what hit him, cashed a $2.75 million check from New Line.
Janklow doesn’t deny the importance of Gotham support, but feels agents should be allowed to sell their wares unimpeded.
“My father-in-law was the great director Mervyn LeRoy, and he was married to Doris Warner,” he says. “One anniversary, Doris bought the rights to a galley and gave it to him as a gift. When he asked what it was, she said, ‘It’s about the Civil War, the burning of Atlanta, the end of slavery and the plantation era,’ and he said, ‘Doris, I’ll never make a picture where the guy signs his name with a quill.’ She gave up her option to ‘Gone With the Wind’ and Selznick picked it up. It’s all in how you tell it. Take any great film and I can make it sound like shit, just describing it accurately.
“If she’d told him it was one of the greatest love stories in history, backed into it that way, maybe he’d have viewed it differently,” Janklow says. “We lose the chance to do that when these manuscripts leak.”