The New Hollywood Hot Property : The competition for movie rights is so fierce that manuscripts are bought by producers even before they cross the publisher’s desk

One Thursday morning in January of this year, the manuscript of a new novel by Warren Adler, “Private Lies,” was sent out by messenger from the Triad Artists agency in Century City to 15 Hollywood studios and producers so that the movie companies could bid for the rights to turn the novel into a film. The manuscript had not yet been delivered (or even sold) to a publisher, but that mattered not a whit in Hollywood, where a bounty was already being offered by eager producers for purloined copies.

Interest in “Private Lies,” a story about marital infidelity and betrayal involving two couples, set in Africa and promising four starring roles, was perhaps particularly keen because Adler was also the author of the book “War of the Roses,” which was made into a movie at 20th Century Fox in 1989 that grossed $84 million in the U.S.

A little more than 24 hours later, Tri-Star Pictures outbid Warner Bros., Columbia and Carolco and purchased the film rights to “Private Lies” for $1.2 million. It was one of the highest amounts yet paid in Hollywood for an unpublished manuscript (the book will be published next February), but it was only the latest bonanza for a novelist in the frantic futures market of the film business where the first drafts of what are thought to be hot books are circulated among producers and auctioned for movie sales before they even see the ink of galley proofs.

Irene Webb, who runs the literary department at the William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills, recalls having to sell Dominick Dunne’s book “People Like Us” before the author had even finished it because a production company, with an early draft in hand, called to make an offer. “I had to call New York right away and say, ‘Get me the manuscript,’ ” says Webb.


Webb sold the rights to Dunne’s new book, “An Inconvenient Woman,” to ABC Productions for $500,000. “People were begging to bid on it,” she says. “That’s the way people are when it comes to books. When producers get wind that a network wants to do a book, they’ve got to have it, they’ll do anything.”

Writer-director David Lynch’s new movie, “Wild at Heart,” which just won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, was adapted from a novel by Barry Gifford that has not yet been published. Michael Crichton’s new novel, “Jurassic Park,” to be published in October, was purchased by Universal for $1.5 million.

Last year, producer Richard Zanuck paid $1 million cash for the rights to “Rush,” an autobiographical first novel by Kim Wozencraft (published by Random House in April) about a Texas narcotics cop gone bad and back again. “I don’t grill our people on their methods,” says Zanuck, who, like many producers, keeps two full-time scouts on his payroll in New York, “but we, like others, do get a very early look at material.”

This race to acquire new books is part of the current competition in Hollywood that has broken records for spending levels and brought writers--screenwriters, as well as novelists--closer to the big money long enjoyed by stars and directors. The latest sales figures signal a rebound from the comparative literary doldrums of the early 1980s, when even the rights to bestsellers commanded $250,000 and less. Although no writers are approaching the earning power of Tom Cruise or Sylvester Stallone, “Writers are finally coming into their own,” says Todd Harris, the 30-year-old agent who conducted the “Private Lies” sale and has sold roughly 150 books to the movies in the last three years.


Hollywood has looked to books for stories at least since the arrival of sound in the mid-1920s, as is evident from any list of its most memorable films, from “Gone With the Wind” to “The Graduate,” from “The Maltese Falcon” to “Born on the Fourth of July.” Yet, its willingness to pay large sums for these literary sources has waxed and waned, fluctuating with the film industry’s jittery pulse, interest rates and slavish pursuit of the next big thing.

No one in the film or publishing businesses can say for sure why Hollywood has plunged into a new bull market for books, but speculation rests on such factors as the renewed search for adult stories fitted to the aging moviegoing audience, the inflation of costs (and profits) throughout filmmaking, the number of high-profile books bought by trend-setting producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters while still at Warner Bros. (“The Color Purple,” “Witches of Eastwick,” “Bonfire of the Vanities”) and what some in the industry see as a glut of formulaic “original” screenplays, that is, scripts not based on other literary or dramatic material but often written in imitation of other movies.

In addition, many of the studios are now in the hands of “the new old players,” as one agent puts it, executives who, like Guber and Peters, have switched from one company to another and are willing to splurge to get their first movies made at their new addresses.

That “there are so many powerful producers now is the main reason,” says Esther Newberg, co-director of the huge ICM agency’s literary department in New York, which recently made sales of close to $1 million for the rights to Robert Daley’s not-yet-published “A Faint, Cold Fear,” a romantic thriller about a cop and a reporter, and an untitled novel by Zev Chafets about organized crime.


“Everything seems to be stepped up and books are included,” says William Morris’ Webb, who sold the rights to Susan Isaacs’ 1988 novel “Shining Through,” about a female American Jewish spy during World War II, to 20th Century Fox for $500,000.

“If something has a buzz on it, they buy it and then worry about what to do with it,” says Huntington Beach writer Kem Nunn, whose highly regarded 1984 surfing novel “Tapping the Source” was purchased by producer Martin Bregman and Universal Pictures for a six-figure sum but has never been made.

Judy Clain, who targets books for movie sales in New York for Triad, says, “In the past, the attitude (in publishing) toward people in the movie business was a little leery, because movie people are known for a lot of talk and no action. But now agents are more willing to talk film rights because Hollywood seems to be spending so much money. It’s a very good time to be selling film rights to books.”

If there is a pattern to the kind of books Hollywood is buying, that too is hard to detect. Crime and punishment (“Rush,” “Presumed Innocent”) are big, but so is social satire (“Bonfire of the Vanities”) and the celebrity bio (“Postcards From the Edge”). Sex is for sale, as always: Just last week, agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar resold “Lolita,” the late Vladimir Nabokov’s 1958 novel about an aging professor’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl, to Carolco for $1 million.


The rising sales figures for books are long overdue, say authors and their agents, who point to the importance of a good story in the equation of a successful movie. “You put talent like Sean Connery and Dustin Hoffman in a movie and you’ve got a hit, right?” one writer says rhetorically. “No, what you have is ‘Family Business,’ ” one of last Christmas season’s box office flops.

Nor are the higher figures for books necessarily the result of new sales techniques or high pressure tactics on the part of agents.

The sale of “Rush” last summer was said by some insiders to have been a manipulative achievement on the part of an agent, Amanda “Binky” Urban at ICM, who supposedly coaxed Richard Zanuck into the belief that the book had more heat on it than was in fact true. But Zanuck and other competing producers have denied this.

“You can’t blame the agents,” says longtime producer and former MGM/UA chairman Lee Rich, who currently owns or controls the rights to 12 books, including five by best-selling horrormeister Dean R. Koontz. “If you don’t want to pay it, don’t pay it.”


“The studios make the marketplace,” says Todd Harris, who has also pulled down six-figure sums for the first novels “Recruiting Violations” “A Time for Wedding Cake” and “Hype.”

“A good story will always sell. It doesn’t matter whether it’s by a best-selling author or not. If ‘War of the Roses’ didn’t exist, (‘Private Lies’) would have sold for the same amount of money. It was a star-driven story that was very commercial.”

Harris claims not to utilize any special strategy or impose deadlines on potential buyers (a practice not uncommon in auctions of screenplays) but says most of his sales nevertheless come within 48 hours of submission. “I let the marketplace establish the time frame,” he says.

Yet, there are cases where the pace of the marketplace makes it hard even for the agents to keep up. It’s not uncommon for eager producers not only to get hold of a book unofficially in advance of publication, but to try to represent the book to studios without having paid for the rights.


“It’s a real swamp from where I sit,” says Al Zuckerman, the New York agent for novelist Ken Follet who recalls how an established producer “ran all over town,” meaning Los Angeles, with Follet’s “Key to Rebecca” some years ago “pretending that he owned it when he didn’t.” Such tactics are made possible, Zuckerman adds, because “there’s this whole system for stealing manuscripts from the minute they arrive at the publisher.”

The system is called “sneaking,” and it involves secretaries, editorial assistants, copy store employees, book club personnel, trade publications that get books for early review, editors and even the writers themselves.

Explains Richard Curtiss, a New York literary agent: “There are people placed around the (publishing) business who, in exchange of quid pro quo--in other words, favors--will direct a copy of a manuscript that should be exclusive and confidential into the hands of a scout, and then that manuscript ends up on the desk of a producer. A mass market editor, for example, might trade a copy of a manuscript in exchange for first opportunity to acquire novelization rights to a hot film.”

What often happens next is that “readers” working for producers or studio story departments “cover” or synopsize the manuscript, evaluating its movie potential, a controversial practice generally resisted by agents.


“People (in Hollywood) knew about this book of Zev’s by the time I sold it to Random House,” agent Esther Newberg says of the still untitled Chafets novel, which was bought by “Top Gun” producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. “What happens is that you have a very small window in which to try to sell the book before some 22-year-old kid reads it, doesn’t like it and gives it bad coverage.”

Sneaking has even changed the way some agents do business. “If I have a hot literary property now,” says Zuckerman, who is not atypical, “I don’t deliver it to a publisher until I show it to movie people first.”

While Hollywood has ruined more than its share of novels (“In Country,” “Bright Lights, Big City”), it has redeemed others (“Midnight Cowboy,” “The Godfather”) and made many novelists rich and others famous. Writers as diverse as Larry McMurtry (“The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment”) and Margaret Atwood (“A Handmaid’s Tale”) became much better known as novelists because Hollywood bought their books. A movie might misfire commercially--statistically, most do--yet still generate considerable publicity among the more modest-sized book-buying audience.

Al Zuckerman estimates that the 1981 movie based on Ken Follet’s thriller “Eye of the Needle,” though not a success, sold an additional 1.5 million copies of the novel.


The movie deal for Margaret Atwood’s dark fable “A Handmaid’s Tale” prompted a 1 million-copy reissue of the book in paperback, according to her publishing agent, Phoebe Larmore, and made it a bestseller all over again.

Warren Adler, who spent 20 years as a Washington businessman, had written 15 books in relative obscurity until James L. Brooks bought the rights to his 1981 novel “War of the Roses” and turned it over to screenwriter Michael Leeson and director Danny DeVito.

A cautionary tale about a contemporary marriage twisted by greed, “War of the Roses” was optioned prior to publication, as it happens, by Richard Zanuck and his then partner David Brown, for $35,000. They paid Adler to write a screenplay, but the project languished, and by the time 20th Century Fox bought the book for Brooks six years later, the price had gone up to $400,000.

“The kinds of books I write apparently are the kinds of things these fellows like out here,” says Adler, 61, who has had five other books sold or optioned for films (though none produced).


Adler has been critical of producers and studios in the past, but he is the first to acknowledge that Hollywood has made him a literary star. “ ‘War of the Roses’ has been published in every country in the world now. That’s what happens once a book is set to be a movie. A worldwide movie is the best promotion for a book imaginable because movie people are the best promoters of anything. They really know how to do it.”

Kem Nunn has lived for six years largely on the movie sale of “Tapping the Source"--considerably more than he has made from book royalties. While it’s been “frustrating,” he says, that no movie has been made, the money allowed him to write another novel, “Unassigned Territory.”

Hardly anyone has heard of Tulsa, Okla., novelist Jay Cronley, but six of his books, including “Funny Farm,” “Quick Change” and “False Labor,” have been sold or optioned to marquee talent such as Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Barry Levinson. Cronley’s novels sell on average only 5,000 to 10,000 copies--not much in publishing terms--but his agent estimates he has made “10 times more” money from movie sales.

The fact that many publishing houses and movie studios are now owned by the same conglomerates--Paramount and Simon & Schuster are jointly owned by Paramount Communications, for example; Warner Bros. and Little-Brown by Time-Warner Inc.--apparently has not been a factor in the accelerated book-to-movie process. The story departments for the studios want the best movie books they can get, regardless of the publisher, and authors’ agents have no reason to favor one studio over another except the one offering the most money.


Richard Zanuck, who was head of production at 20th Century Fox from 1962-70 and later bought “Jaws” (for $175,000) from Peter Benchley, says the market for film rights is “very cyclical. I remember when books were really in for a long while. In the ‘60s books were selling (to Hollywood) like hot cakes. Now, it’s heated up again. Maybe it’s because there are less original quality screenplays. You don’t find ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ very often.”

Zanuck and Brown paid $400,000 in 1967 for William Goldman’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” then a record for an original screenplay. The new record was set when the Geffen Co. in April purchased a script, “The Last Boy Scout,” by Shane Black, the author of “Lethal Weapon,” for $1.75 million--which is still less than was paid in 1979 by United Artists for the film rights to Gay Talese’s nonfiction book about sex in America, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” That figure, $2.5 million, is believed to be the largest amount ever paid for a book of any kind. And, since none of three movies UA executives Steven Bach and David Fields said they hoped to get from “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” ever materialized, the sum is thought to represent a high folly mark that led to a cooling off of the literary marketplace during the first half of the 1980s, a period also marked by soaring interest rates and industry labor troubles.

The market took an upturn in 1986 when MGM/UA paid $1 million to buy Scott Turow’s courtroom thriller “Presumed Innocent” for producer-director Sydney Pollack (who later took it with him to Universal), and Warner Bros. paid $1.3 million for a first novel by Harry Saint, “Memoirs of an Invisible Man,” intended as a vehicle for Chevy Chase though yet to be made. The escalation has continued up through “Rush” and “Private Lies,” but some writers and publishers point out that these and other million-dollar sales are still the high-end exception, and have not turned all eyes in the book business toward the West Coast.

Unlike the titles mentioned above, most books that draw interest from Hollywood, like most original scripts, begin with the much smaller sums of option money--that is, a down payment made by a producer or studio toward a larger purchase price that is only paid if the movie is ever made. Agents claim that option money is rising in the current market, but in the not so distant past the average novel that was not a bestseller could often be had by a producer for as little as $2,500 against a purchase price of $25,000-$40,000. At those levels, a screenwriter might easily make more for adapting a book than the novelist got for either writing it or selling the rights.


Since movie companies option maybe 2,000 books a year, of which only a few dozen, or roughly 5%, are ever made into feature films, the hubbub of Hollywood sounds not nearly so loud in Midtown Manhattan as it does in Beverly Hills.

“Movie people are notorious for wasting a lot of your time and then it ends up only being an option,” says Phyllis Fleiss, director of media rights for Crown Publishers in New York.

Furthermore, publishers don’t have quite the incentive in these negotiations as do writers since in most contracts writers retain a lion’s share of any film sale.

“On the other hand,” Fleiss says, “It helps to be able to say (to book clubs and paperback houses), ‘We’ve got a movie. It never hurts. It’s just another form of publicity.”


These days, film producers sometimes even kick in money for a book’s advertising budget in the hope of helping to make it a bestseller, as Carolco has promised to do for whatever publisher buys D. Keith Mano’s new novel, “Topless,” which Carolco bought recently for $550,000.

Movie companies also sometimes agree to what are known as “bestseller bumpers,” meaning they agree to pay an author extra money for each week that a book they purchase remains on the New York Times bestseller list.

According to Lee Rich and others, the days of the 10% option are over. “Options are going for big money,” says Rich. “It’s more like $100,000 against $500,000. Options are where the big increase has come. So many books never found their way to the screen, I guess the writers and their agents figured, ‘Let’s get the money up front.’ ”

A recent example of the newer kind of deal was the Pleshette-Green Agency’s sale of Neal Stephenson’s novel “Zodiac,” about a New Age Sam Spade hunting down criminal polluters of Boston Harbor, to Warner Bros. for $370,000 cash, with an additional $370,000 to be paid if the movie ever goes into production.


Joel Gotler, a leading book rights agent, recently sold “The Plummer,” a nonfiction book about the man who destroyed the Philadelphia Mafia, by Joseph Salerno and Stephen J. Rivele, to Universal for a $400,000 option, plus $450,000 more if the movie is made.

Lynn Pleshette, the agent who made the “Zodiac” sale, is one of those who believe books are benefitting from the sludge pile of screenplays that has accumulated over the last decade--a pile raised high by an excess of studio “development” deals and a new generation of screenwriters nourished on a restricted diet of television and movies.

“There’s a real problem with original screenplays now,” says Pleshette, who has made movie and miniseries deals for novelists William Kennedy, Sue Miller and Valerie Martin, among others. “The young people (screenwriters) coming up are so derivative. When I read original screenplays, they’re almost always like something that’s been done. Or they’re a cross between two other movies--'Lethal Weapon’ meets ‘Wuthering Heights.’ ”

That so many original screenplays are written in the vicinity of Los Angeles and its sometimes all-consuming movie business atmosphere, the agent suggests, only contributes to the dearth of originality. “Producers are looking for a point of view that’s not between Encino and Pacific Palisades,” she says. “Most of the books we get, there is a vision, there is a voice.”


Novelists, who work in a less restrictive medium, are not so closely aligned with Southern California as a rule and are less prone to the Hollywood disease of trying to anticipate trends--the sort of creative thinking that propels screenwriters to pound out the next body-switching comedy or space Western or whatever their agents think is selling this year.

“Books are the area where unusual stories come from,” says ICM’s Newberg. “So many novelists I know are better writers than screenwriters.”

While a book is of no use to a movie producer until a screenwriter has been paid to adapt it to the different demands of film, the raw material of fiction is often more alluring to moneyed movie people than any but the best original scripts.

“Books are a known quantity and have already been tested by an audience,” says Triad’s Judy Clain. “You attract strong talent and directors with good material. Books are classy. And a book could become anything--as opposed to a bad script.”


And so it is that in Hollywood, where the screenplay is the primary literary form, the novel retains its mystique and market value. To all but publishing’s biggest cash register stars like Stephen King, Tom Clancy and Danielle Steele (for whom even a $1 million movie sale might qualify as supplementary income), movie money and attention is harder than ever to ignore. Because of videocassettes, cable and growing foreign sales, the stakes have never been higher in Hollywood, which one way or another must keep discovering new sources of fuel to keep its high-octane engines running and can well afford to pay higher prices at the pump.

The prices have reached such a level that it’s increasingly difficult for producers without access to big studio money (and spies in New York) to secure options to desirable material. Hall Bartlett, who directed and produced the adaptation of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” in 1973 and “Children of Sanchez” in 1979, became so frustrated in his attempts to get the rights to another best-selling book, he decided to write his own novel specifically for the purpose of selling it as a miniseries. So far his plan has only been half-successful: Random House published the book, “The Rest of Our Lives,” but it failed to become a bestseller and no miniseries resulted.

“It’s an exciting business,” observes Warren Adler. “It’s like wildcatting in the oil fields. There’s no sure thing. How do you hook into the public mind?”

Despite getting rich and famous from “War of the Roses” and “Private Lies,” Adler makes clear that to his way of thinking, movies remain secondary. He sees them mainly as an extension of his books.


“I don’t write my books for the movies. The money is great but more important than the money is people taking my books seriously. I’m shooting for my books to last. Otherwise I couldn’t spend all those days alone in a room doing this. But it’s what I love. I love novels. It’s a one-on-one communication system. The novel is still to me the greatest art form in the world.”

* Prelude to Big Money: How two plays hit the Hollywood jackpot. Tuesday in Calendar.