Hollywood hot for hostage drama

Producers, players rush to make rights deals

Just one week after 15 hostages were freed by Colombian commandos, Hollywood has come knocking.

Several potential projects are already taking shape, and producers have begun tracking down almost everyone involved to make rights deals.

Rumors are rife that Ingrid Betancourt — taken hostage in 2002 as she ran for president of Colombia — will sign with French lit agent Susannah Lea and seek a major book and movie deal.

Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes, the three American contractors freed with her, are back in Texas and mulling their potential rights-deal paydays. D.C.-based McLarty Associates, the consulting powerhouse that helped broker the trio’s freedom, has steered the former hostages to meet with United Talent Agency, which has worked with McLarty in the past.

The trio were captured in 2003 by FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

Meanwhile, Scott Steindorff and Las Vegas-based Phil Maloof are negotiating to get the rights to the Colombian government’s story of how it pulled off the bloodless liberations.

The operation included infiltrating FARC’s intelligence network and employing acting teachers and speech therapists to fool the kidnappers into thinking that the helicopters that landed deep in the jungles were sent by a humanitarian group.

Steindorff filmed “Love in the Time of Cholera” in Cartagena, Colombia, and became friendly with government officials during his work there.

Joel Gotler — whose IPG has an ownership connection to Steindorff’s Stone Village Prods. — is angling to rep the rights and put together a book about the rescue that would be done in concert with President Alvaro Uribe’s government. If the book happens, it would be part of the Steindorff/Maloof film rights package.

There are other rights avenues available as well. Aside from McLarty and potentially the three American hostages, UTA is shopping film rights to “Into the Jungle,” a book that lit agent Peter McGuigan sold to Knopf, written by Victoria Bruce, Karin Hayes and Jorge Enrique Botero. Bruce and Hayes made documentaries about the kidnapping of Betancourt and the American contractors, and Colombia-based Botero has written extensively about FARC. Book will be published next year.

Colombian director Simon Brand is mobilizing a film with RCN-TV.

Separately, Venezuelan thesp Patricia Velasquez (“The Mummy,” “The Mummy Returns”) has landed rights to “Searching for Ingrid,” the memoir of Betancourt’s husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, which details his struggle to find his wife and secure her liberation.

Ivan de Paz of DePaz Films and Lourdes Diaz of Agua Films are producing with Laura Carrillo and Velasquez for Wayuu Prods. They are collaborating with Venezuelan helmer-scribe Betty Kaplan, who wrote the treatment. They hope to shoot next year in Europe and Latin America, according to de Paz.

“We had just finished the treatment and presentation the day before Ingrid’s release,” Velasquez said. “Her release changes our treatment, which had a poetic ending and a call for her freedom and others like her. Now we have a better ending, but the struggle has not ended.”

Story had been kept under wraps for security reasons, but the film’s production team is now free to secure financing from Colombian financiers.

“We have been getting calls from everywhere, but my main goal is to respect the integrity of Lecompte’s story and his family,” said Velasquez, whose Wayuu Taya Foundation is dedicated to improving the living conditions of Latin American indigenous groups.

The big “get,” of course, would be the rights from Betancourt, who just reunited with her children and received a hero’s welcome in France from President Nicolas Sarkozy. As rumors swirl about potential book and movie plans, there will be an October reissue of “Until Death Do Us Part,” a memoir Betancourt wrote in 2001, when she was a senator running for president in Colombia, vowing to clean up government corruption.

She also has a byline on “Letters to My Mother: A Message of Love, a Plea for Freedom,” which consisted mostly of a videotape and long letter Betancourt wrote to her mother while in captivity. Several agents and producers felt that hers is a strong vehicle for a top actress. Not surprisingly, Julia Roberts’ production company has long been interested in telling Betancourt’s story, but it was unclear how her release would impact those aspirations.

In an otherwise sluggish summer marketplace for film material, the Colombian jungle tale has brought welcome activity, even as agents and producers wondered whether it had the staying power necessary for the several years it usually takes to bring a major fact-based film to the bigscreen.

David Kennedy, who’s producing “Dark Shadows” at Warner Bros. with Johnny Depp and Graham King, said he’s near a rights deal that will give him ammo to set up a Colombian rescue feature. When he ran ICM’s TV department, Kennedy packaged the 1977 NBC telepic “Raid on Entebbe,” and he said the Colombian tale has similar can’t-miss elements for a theatrical feature.

“It’s as memorable as Entebbe, the Hindenburg disaster or other huge events that stay with us,” he said. “And you’ve got several possible approaches, from the kidnap of a presidential candidate who is now being called France’s new Joan of Arc to what happened during captivity to the well-orchestrated rescue itself.”

One skeptical lit agent, who wasn’t involved, felt the story isn’t quite as ideal for a film adaptation as others assume.

“It lacks what Americans love in movies: There is no violence in the rescue,” he said.