Zelnick at Liberty to use library card

Fitzgerald, Cain, Churchill contributed to publication

NEW YORK — Zelnick Media — latest venture of former BMG Entertainment and 20th Century Fox topper Strauss Zelnick — has inked a deal to exploit thousands of stories and essays from classic American weekly Liberty magazine, a smaller cousin to Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post.

Treasure trove includes stories by P.G. Wodehouse, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James M. Cain, Ring Lardner, Dashiell Hammett, C.S. Forester and Sinclair Lewis, as well as essays by Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, Benny Goodman, Charles de Gaulle, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Zelnick enlisted Marc Toberoff’s Intellectual Properties Worldwide to develop film and TV projects from the stash and Arthur Klebanoff’s Scott Meredith Literary Agency to explore publishing opportunities.

Zelnick’s pact is with Liberty Library Corp. and Robert Whiteman, its owner since the early 1970s.

Liberty published from 1924-50 — through the Jazz Age, the Depression and WWII. Zelnick called it “a magnet for the era’s most gifted writers.”

IPW chairman Toberoff and production prexy Todd Harris have just begun wading through the properties, starting with titles by the best-known authors like Cain, Budd Schulberg, Ben Hecht, Lardner, Wodehouse, Lewis and Irving Wallace.

“When you look at recent hits, from “The Lord of the Rings” to “Cheaper by the Dozen” to sci-fi greats like ‘Minority Report’ or ‘A.I.’ — these are properties that were around in the beginning of the century,” said Toberoff.

Biopic possibilities

Some of the essays look ripe for bio pics, he said.

He said IPW, with a staff of 10, may bring in one or two more people to work exclusively on the Liberty library. Company hopes to have zeroed in on 20-40 commercial prospects in the next few months. An overall deal with a studio is a possibility, Toberoff said.

More than 120 movies were made from Liberty properties, mostly in the 1930s and ’40s, including “Sergeant York,” “My Man Godfrey,” “Destination Tokyo” and “Double Indemnity.” Talking horse skein “Mr. Ed” was also adapted from the pages of Liberty.

“We might be involved in getting rights back to stories that were previously made,” Toberoff said.

Whiteman said he bought the Liberty Library in 1972 from Lance Prods., owned by scriptwriters Lorraine and George Lessner. Lance is said to have outbid NBC for the rights in 1950.

Whiteman’s claim to fame is as sole agent for the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” franchise from an exclusive pact with Robert Ripley in 1947. He’s held those film, TV and publishing rights throughout the past half-century.

Los Angeles-based IPW has held rights to hundreds of properties, including “Grand Hotel,” “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Police Woman” and “Hart to Hart.” Toberoff produced pics “My Favorite Martian” and “I Spy.” IPW is developing “Fantasy Island” at Sony and “My Bodyguard” at Dimension.

Gotham-based Zelnick Media was founded four years ago and has been rapidly expanding its portfolio to near $1 billion in revenue. Investments include the Time Life direct marketing biz, catalog/online retailer Lillian Vernon Corp., Japanese music company CME, entertainment market research house OTX — along with Bob Pittman — Pro Cycling Tour parent Threshold Sports and a stake in National Lampoon.