Is film biz turning page on novels?

Guest column

Is Hollywood’s 50-year love affair with books coming to an end? At the moment, it seems film companies are primarily interested in comicbooks, videogames, toys, TV shows, games, phrases — anything but books.

There are a number of stock phrases that one hears in relationships to books: “It takes too long to develop them”; “There’s no market for them”; “They will only work if done flawlessly”; “No one is interested in adult fare.”

As someone who sells books to the movies, and with the BookExpo America convention set for L.A. next week, this subject is very much on my mind. It is certainly not a welcoming environment for books, but it is not altogether dire, either.

It seems to me that Hollywood and books are like a long marriage: There are good years and bad years, fabulous and productive years and barren years.

How is it that we’ve come to a time when movie companies no longer care about films that may win the Academy Award?

I think the movie business was changed forever with “Star Wars.” Until the late 1970s, if a film wasn’t an original, it was likely to be based on a book or a play. What was so stunning about “Star Wars” was not its billion-dollar box office gross, but the billions it did in merchandising. There had always been merchandising of movies, but until “Star Wars” it was kind of catch-as-catch-can, not something that yielded enormous revenue.

As a result, the box office has become just one of many revenue streams, and not necessarily the most lucrative one.

In the wake of “Star Wars,” films began to be based on work that was highly merchandisable: “The Addams Family” was based on the TV series; “Super Mario Bros.” was one of the earliest videogames before it became a film; and superhero movies such as “Spider-Man,” “X-Men,” “Blade” and the upcoming “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “The Hulk” derived from comicbooks.

It seems Marvel Comics has become the new Shakespeare. As more and more young people play videogames, we now have videogame-driven movies such as “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.”

One of the games most sought-after by the movies is “Grand Theft Auto,” but the company that produces it has resisted all offers. The game “Doom” is in development. No, the movies have not entirely turned their back on books. Before anyone is too fast to write off books, I should point out that two of the biggest successes of recent years were the “Harry Potter” films and the “Lord of the Rings” franchise.Previously, film companies purchased book rights because their thinking was that there was a built-in audience — the book’s readers — for the movie. Clearly, this was true of “Gone With the Wind,” “The Godfather” and “Harry Potter.” In the case of books like “Snow Falling on Cedars” and “A Thousand Acres,” the book audience didn’t come out.

There was a time when a book audience could make a film successful. That has become harder and harder, as films now are costing in excess of $75 million. There probably isn’t a book audience large enough to support a film of that size, unless it is an extraordinary phenomenon along the lines of “Harry Potter.”

Film execs have shorter attention spans, like much of the rest of the culture raised on MTV, and so have less patience to read books, analyze them and figure out how to make them work. It’s much easier to acquire a Marvel superhero comic than to buy the latest John Updike.

Also, there is the thinking that it is harder to execute a good book than a good concept. Does it matter how good or bad “Anger Management” is, or “Daddy Day Care”? But when is comes to “Cold Mountain,” it is absolutely critical that it be well-executed. Would “Scooby Doo” have done bigger business if it were a better movie?

The movie business has always seemed to me a little like the woman’s fashion business. One year, short skirts are in, the next it’s long skirts; one year it’s the peasant look, the next the princess look. At this moment we are gripped by the comicbook, the videogame and the concept.

Success throws off a million imitators and will choke off a genre. This happens about once a decade. No, books have not permanently gone away. They are very much around and will always be with us. These are not the glory days, but these are not the Death Valley days either. In case anyone has forgotten, the James Bond movies were based on books.

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