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Crichton nabs a Foxy $5 mil

Studio, publisher 'Prey' together

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 mangement 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.

(The same can’t be said of Harry Potter. The second installment of the Warner Bros. pic franchise is due next Christmas, but Scholastic still hasn’t set a release date for the next book.)

The manuscript “was sent to Fox by Michael by design,” said Crichton’s attorney, Charles D. Silverberg, who brokered the deal. “There is the hope that the whole will be greater than the parts.”

Strong track record

Even so, rights would probably have fetched a premium price at auction, considering Crichton’s track record for generating bestselling novels translatable into mass-appeal feature films.

The “Jurassic Park” trilogy recorded $767 million in domestic grosses. Other notable Crichton titles that have been made into films include “Congo,” “Sphere,” “Disclosure” and “Rising Sun,” a 1993 Fox release that generated $63 million domestically.

“Timeline,” another project based on a Crichton bestseller, is set for release next year by Paramount. Studio is said to be keen on the Richard Donner-helmed APG co-production, which wraps production this week. The actioner revolves around a group of grad students who time-travel to 14th century France to rescue their history professor.

Ovitz role speculated

The speculation about Ovitz stemmed partly from his brokering the film deal for “Timeline” and visiting the set, in addition to his retaining close ties to Crichton. There is speculation that Ovitz could have an executive producing role on the pic, though studio exex said no producers have yet been tapped.

Parker said the deal was negotiated solely by Silverberg and that Ovitz had not been involved. Ovitz recently completed the sale of his interest in AMG, but it remains unclear whether he will continue to handle the management company’s biggest clients, Crichton and Tom Clancy.

Deal is the latest milestone in Fox’s strategy of ramping up its output of tentpole pics such as “Solaris,” “Master and Commander,” “Daredevil,” “Tripoli,” “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” “X-Men 2” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” “This is really the crown jewel for our strategy of expanding the number of event films and top-level relationships,” Parker added.

“As his novels have shown in the past, this story will be remarkably well-suited to film adaptation. Michael Crichton is one of the master storytellers of our generation, and ‘Prey’ is Crichton at his absolute best.”

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