Timely projects to fill post-attack pic void

As studios reassess their development slates in the wake of Sept. 11, jettisoning pics about war and terrorism, a slew of timely projects is rushing into the void.

These aren’t stories of exploding buildings, hijacked airliners and action heroes. They’re profiles in courage and sacrifice by real people struggling to come to grips with real problems around the world.

Miramax is in negotiations to option for low- against mid-six figures the memoir of former war correspondent Saira Shah, whose Afghan docu, “Beneath the Veil,” aired around the clock on CNN after the attacks.

“Beneath the Veil” promises to be one of the most buzz-worthy books at next week’s Frankfurt Book Fair. Circulated as a proposal from U.K. agency Conville & Walsh and Stateside by Carlisle & Co., it was acquired by Knopf topper Sonny Mehta for $650,000, sold in England for a mid-six figures and in Germany for close to $1 million DM ($469,000) – a high sum for European rights.

Shah is a former reporter for Channel 4 in the U.K., whose parents emigrated from Afghanistan in the 1960s. She’s made several trips to central Asia in an effort to reconnect with her roots and expose the Taliban’s ghastly treatment of women – the subject of the docu that ran on CNN.

Other deals in the works: Red Wagon Prods. and Intermedia have acquired the life rights of Fred Cuny, the peace negotiator and disaster relief expert who disappeared in Chechnya in 1995 and DreamWorks is developing “Fire,” Sebastian Junger’s frontline account of firefighters battling a blaze in the Northern Rockies.

Cuny is a legend among humanitarian aid workers for his relief efforts in war- and disaster-ravaged nations like Biafra, Guatemala and Bosnia. He disappeared with two Russian doctors and an interpreter while attempting to negotiate a Russian-Chechnyan cease fire and is believed to have been executed.

Red Wagon topper Doug Wick is developing Cuny’s story with his wife and producing partner Lucy Fisher and with Intermedia co-chair Nigel Sinclair.

“There’s no question that this is a time for heroes and heroes with real character and point of view and principles,” said Wick.

IN ITS EFFORTS to develop material pertinent to last month’s attacks and the national mood, Hollywood is following the lead of the book world. Publishers, emotionally battered by the devastation of downtown Gotham, are mobilizing around the events of Sept. 11 by, among other things, buying up an array of books on the catastrophe and its ramifications.

Some of the recent deals include Viking editor Rick Cot’s acquisition of “Report from Ground Zero” a firsthand account of the rescue efforts by Dennis Smith, a former firefighter and author of “Report from Engine Co. 82”; St. Martins editor Sean Desmon’s acquisition of the biography of Reverend Mychal Judge, the fire department chaplain who died on Sept. 11, written by Daily News columnist Michael Daly, with a portion of the proceeds going to various charities; Farrar Straus & Giroux’s purchase of “West of Kabul, East of New York,” by an Afghan-American children’s author, Tamim Ansary, whose email about Afghan politics and history circulated widely on the Web; and Basic Books will publish “The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11,” an anthology edited by Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda.

THERE WERE FEW SPLASHY Hollywood book deals in September, but the town’s lit agents haven’t stopped working.

With few hot-ticket titles coming out of New York, agents have concentrated on other things: managing old deals, renewing options, and selling backlist books.

The backlist biz is a lucrative sideline for agents with a deep client base, but it’s often eclipsed by the industry’s obsession with what’s trendy and new. But a number of shops have long-standing relationships with authors and estates that require constant maintenance.

That’s true of ICM, which in recent weeks has been negotiating deals for older books by such writers as Haruki Murakami, Chang-rae Lee.

AMG/Renaissance, which several years ago pooled the resources of the Irving Paul Lazar Agency and the H.N. Swanson agency, represents 40 estates and has 150 books in development, according to manager Joel Gotler.

That means Gotler and his colleagues have been setting up scores of older titles, some of them chestnuts, like John O’Hara’s 1934 classic, “Appointment in Samarra,” which has just been optioned by producer David Brown.

In pairing two legendary figures, O’Hara and Brown, Gotler may even have laid the groundwork for a film with enduring value – something that’s rarely true of trendy studio book buys.

“I’m hoping that good stories come back,” says Gottler. “Our estates are full of good stories.”

(Lily Oei contributed to this report)

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