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Script Tips: Books That Drew Early Looks

Pre-emptive bidding shows no signs of ebbing among studios in search of hot scripts

More and more, studios trolling for the next “Hunger Games” are acquiring the rights to books before they’re published; a buzzworthy title sometimes gets snapped up before an author has even finished writing. (No, aspiring scribes, it still pays to actually complete your work.)

(From the pages of the March 26 issue of Variety.)

As one studio exec puts it, book-sales figures have never guaranteed dollars at the box office, so there’s room for some risk. Turns out numbers aren’t everything. “By buying rights early,” the exec says, “you are forced to look at the core idea instead of focusing on sales figures, which can be very misleading.”

Here are some titles that were all the rage before they hit the page:

“The Right Hand”
by Derek Haas
(Mulholland Books)

STUDIO: Universal acquired the rights with a low-seven-figure offer in October, and attached Scott Stuber to produce.
PLOT: The fourth in a series that follows a spy so covert the government doesn’t even acknowledge he exists. In this book, he is sent to track down a missing American operative who was captured in the Russian countryside.
HOT: The book drew a lot of attention after a trailer was released to promote it in October. Universal, of course, has had some success with spy pics.
FREE ADVICE: One of the biggest reasons the “Bourne” franchise has been so successful for the studio is not only because of the quality of talent involved, but also because it has made sure to distinguish itself stylistically from traditional spy thrillers. Universal could try to repeat that feat with a director in the mold of Daniel Espinosa, who helped guide another Universal/Stuber thriller, “Safe House,” to more than $100 million at the domestic box office.
PROSPECTS: Besides “Bourne” and James Bond, studios have had trouble delivering a solid spy movie. But Universal knows how to develop and market this type of movie.

“Brilliance”
by Marcus Sakey
(Thomas & Mercer/Amazon Books)

Popular on Variety

STUDIO: Legendary Pictures, in a competitive March auction that saw several suitors vie for the property, including Chernin Entertainment, won out with a low-seven-figure offer. Joe Roth (“Oz the Great and Powerful”) is attached to produce.
PLOT: The film is set in an alternate world, in which 1% of children are born savants, called “brilliants.” A federal agent who uses his skills to become a master hunter of terrorists pursues a savant terrorist who intends to provoke civil war.
HOT: The plot screams like something out of an “X-Men” comic, and you can be sure Legendary will market it in similar fashion.
FREE ADVICE: Legendary has gotten good at not only creating large ensembles but attracting top-tier talent to join those ensembles; just look at the Batman movies and the upcoming “Man of Steel.”
PROSPECTS: The comicbook genre couldn’t be any hotter, and given how “Brilliance” has the look and feel of one, it wouldn’t be a surprise if this becomes one of the company’s top priorities.

“Tin Men”
by Christopher
Golden
(Random House)

STUDIO: Warner Bros. paid in the high-six figures to acquire the rights in January, and has Chernin Entertainment on board to produce.
PLOT: Unknown at this time, but given Golden’s previous works (“The Shadow Saga”), one can expect a supernatural feel to it.
HOT: Sometimes an author’s name will get studios champing at the bit, and Golden (“Talent,” “The Secret Journeys of Jack London”), whose speciality is YA horror fantasy, is one that draws that kind of attention. He’s already developing “Joe Golem and the Drowning City” with Alex Proyas.
FREE ADVICE: Given WB’s relationships with directors like Christopher Nolan and David Yates, who are capable of handling material like this, the bestcase scenario is to interest them in the project and then let them run with it.
PROSPECTS: All of Golden’s properties are still in development, and it’s unknown if his audience will carry over to theaters. That said, if there is one book genre that has seen its fanbase turn out in droves for movie adaptations, it’s YA, and Golden has a knack for it.

“The Screaming Staircase”
by Jonathan Stroud
(Disney-Hyperion)

STUDIO: Universal and Illumination Entertainment landed the rights with a low-seven-figure offer in October.
PLOT: The London-set series follows Lockwood & Co., a ramshackle psychic detection agency that contends with murderous specters and terrifying apparitions. Lockwood and his colleagues must seek a solution to an epidemic of ghosts.
HOT: Similarities to the “Harry Potter” franchise prompted Illumination — better known for producing animated films (“Despicable Me,” “The Lorax”) — to bid aggressively. Author’s “Bartimaeus” trilogy has sold 6 million copies.
FREE ADVICE: Instead of casting familiar names, bet on an open call for the leads that will help the film break them out as stars. Then attach a director like Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum,” “Real Steel”) or Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”), who have been successful in jumpstarting a franchise.
PROSPECTS: You could do worse than model yourself after “Potter,” and Illumination’s track record speaks for itself when it comes to family fare.

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