Can lit fit on one-sheet?

Market-driven studios look for instant gratification

Literary films such as “Seabiscuit” and “About Schmidt” might not get made in Hollywood’s current marketing-mad climate, said top independent agents specializing in book-to-film deals, speaking Thursday at Book Expo America in Los Angeles.

“Business has really been terrible,” said Lynn Pleshette, an agent running her own shop for nearly 30 years. “The studios don’t want to think about tomorrow, they just want instant gratification. The literary classics I represent will endure, but they don’t want to hear about them. They want something they can instantly market.”

Sylvie Rabineau of the Rabineau, Wachter & Sanford Literary Agency, said Hollywood has cooled to the kinds of family dramas her company has specialized in, as Hollywood execs look for films they can put on a one-sheet, and explain in a tagline.

Indies out of the picture

Further complicating the situation, whole classes of buyers, such as indies that would finance a book’s development, or on-the-lot producers with big discretionary funds, have disappeared.

And the climate is no better in New York, Jody Hotchkiss of Hotchkiss & Associates told the audience of 75.

“I can’t tell you how many times people have said they’re looking for the next ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ or the next ‘Ordinary People,’ ” Hotchkiss said. “There’s a lot of lip service being paid to doing these kinds of movies. But fewer and fewer of them are being done, at least at the studios. I’ll make an impassioned plea for some small, interesting novel and the producer will say, ‘Yeah, well, what’s the one-sheet?’ ”

He did acknowledge that “a lot of smaller passion projects are getting made,” and rattled off a dozen films released last year that were literary, perhaps a bit “difficult” and aimed toward a more high-brow demographic than the audience quadrants most often found at an action pic.

No ‘Seabiscuit’ now

Nonetheless, Hotchkiss argued that a film such as U’s “Seabiscuit,” which won a large advance five years ago based on just the book’s outline and now is headed on screen in July, was a deal that wouldn’t have been done if it had come along more recently.

“That was the old days, a long time ago,” Hotchkiss said. “I don’t believe that would have sold at all as a movie at the time it became a book.”

But there are opportunities to get interesting books made into films, the three said.

All three agents are connoisseurs not only of books, but of the reading habits of producers inclined to make book-based films. Rather than pitch studios, all three are more likely to target specific producers whose past work indicates an interest in a “same thing but different” project.

And all three are broadening the kinds of projects they might handle.

Rabineau has profitably tapped the well-written fiction for children and young adults coming out of the U.K. post-Harry Potter.

‘Lion’-handler

After New Line optioned Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, Rabineau’s firm began repping two of the author’s backlist titles. And the firm also handled “Lion Boy,” a still-unpublished trilogy by mother-daughter team Louisa and Isabel Young that created enough buzz in Britain that DreamWorks bought film rights.

Hotchkiss, meanwhile, has broadened the projects he considers now that he has his own firm.

One offbeat example: “Eating on the Lam,” a TV cooking show starring an ex-mobster in the FBI’s Witness Protection Program who would drive a Winnebago to an undisclosed location each week to shoot the show.

Pleshette, meanwhile, says she’s relying more and more on big agencies to help cobble together deals, working closely with them to bring in one of their directors or screenwriters on a book she reps.

The panel was moderated by Jonathan Bing, a Variety senior writer and book columnist.

Book Expo America’s exhibit floor opens today and runs through Sunday at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The Expo is owned by Reed Exhibitions, a sister company of Daily Variety.

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