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Company Town : At the Box Office, Literary Prestige Is One for the Books

One only has to look at the astonishing opening weekend of Paramount Pictures’ new action adventure thriller, “Congo,” which was universally panned by critics, to be reminded of the power of the person who created the underlying material: “Jurassic Park” author Michael Crichton.

The film’s whopping $24.6-million opening, which shocked industry insiders, underscores the value to Hollywood of an exclusive club of best-selling writers, including Crichton, John Grisham and Tom Clancy, whose books consistently translate into big, big box office bucks.

“The fact that the movie made $25 million suggests his name has enormous value,” says Crichton’s agent, Robert Bookman of Creative Artists Agency.

Clancy’s New York-based agent, Robert Gottlieb of the William Morris Agency, concurs: “Now certain authors, like movie stars, can open movies.” The Crichtons, Clancys and Grishams, the authors responsible for creating these valuable franchises, “are putting out a constant stream of hit commercial movies,” said Gottlieb, pointing out that “not only do these films have a substantial impact on the paperback editions of a book, they also have a ripple effect on an author’s back list.”

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Their success has allowed these authors to amass more creative control over the movies that result from their books and has brought them more lucrative upfront and back-end gross dollar deals when their works sell to Hollywood. Clancy, for example, is involved in helping to select a screenwriter and director for his book-to-movie project “Without Remorse,” for whose rights Savoy Pictures paid $3 million.

Grisham has casting approval on key roles for the adaptation of his book “A Time to Kill,” and demanded substantial creative controls over his latest book sale, “The Rainmaker.”

“The Hollywood community is tending toward developing more creative partnerships [with writers] as opposed to just acquiring rights to their books,” said Gottlieb.

The works of other best-selling authors, such as Anne Rice (“Interview With the Vampire”), Thomas Harris (“Silence of the Lambs”), Pat Conroy (“Prince of Tides”), Scott Turow (“Presumed Innocent”), Stephen King (“Carrie,” “Stand by Me,” “Misery,” “The Shawshank Redemption”) and Robert J. Waller (“The Bridges of Madison County”) also draw movie audiences.

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Despite having no stars, negative early previews and practically across-the-board painful reviews, “Congo” drew one out of three moviegoers in North America over the weekend. Its box office take accounted for about a third of the weekend’s total business of about $75 million. The film, which had the biggest opening of any film so far this year, upstaged all the competition--including such star-driven titles as “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” with Bruce Willis; “The Bridges of Madison County,” with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep; Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart,” and “Casper,” headlined by that famous ghost.

Paramount’s newspaper campaign for “Congo” doesn’t list even one cast member in the credit block, which isn’t that unusual for a movie without recognizable names, said Barry London, vice chairman of Paramount’s motion picture group.

To be sure, this movie--which cost $50 million to $55 million to produce--largely sold to the masses on the basis of Crichton’s popularity as a book author.

Paramount’s newspaper ad for “Congo” reads in large type, “From the Author of “Jurassic Park.’ ”

“Absolutely, no question, that was a very important part of the message,” said London, noting that the thrust of the campaign was to sell a concept movie--"an exciting action adventure thriller set in a remote, inaccessible location--the Congo.”

The film, for which Paramount reportedly spent about $10.8 million in pre-opening and first-weekend marketing costs, was backed by a campaign that included Internet ads and major tie-ins with Taco Bell and Pepsi.

Like many a Hollywood project, “Congo” is “a 20-year success story,” according to its executive producer, Frank Yablans. When he was a producer at Twentieth Century Fox in the late 1970s, Yablans fell in love with “Congo,” which was still in a story outline and a good six months away from being published.

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Fox went through various management shake-ups and a movie never materialized. Then Yablans left Fox to become vice chairman of MGM/UA from 1983-85, during which time the project was fallow.

From the time he returned to independent production in the mid-'80s until two years ago, “I couldn’t get anybody interested,” Yablans said. Finally, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, who used to run Amblin Entertainment for “Jurassic” director Steven Spielberg, set up the movie at Paramount when they launched their own company in 1993.

Crichton’s books have sold phenomenally well over the years, as have their screen adaptations. “Jurassic Park” sold 10 million paperback copies in the United States and Canada alone, and the 1993 movie grossed more than $900 million worldwide.

As a result of the success of “Jurassic Park"--the highest-grossing movie of all time--Crichton’s back list of books, including “Congo,” have benefited from new sales.

“Congo” was a bestseller when it was originally published in hardcover in 1980, but it has jumped back onto the New York Times bestseller list three times since the “Jurassic” movie opened--once immediately after the release and then again in January when a buzz on “Congo” began. According to Clare Ferraro, senior vice president and editor in chief of Ballantine Books, which publishes all of Crichton’s paperbacks, “Congo” will be the No. 1 bestseller on June 18. To date, it has sold 5.4 million copies.

“Of course Michael Crichton’s movies generate sales, but now we know that his books generate as many sales before the movies come out,” said Ferraro, explaining that people nowadays want to read the author’s books in anticipation of the movie’s release.

Ferraro said that two years ago, with Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” and “Rising Sun” being released as movies, “we knew Michael Crichton as a phenomenon had begun--that it wasn’t simply tied to his movies.”

In fact, she said, Ballantine’s marketing department “dedicated the whole year--1993--to Michael Crichton,” exploiting his entire back list, which includes about 11 fiction and nonfiction titles.

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Crichton’s next book--the sequel to “Jurassic Park,” which is titled “The Lost World"--will be published in hardback by Knopf this September. Ballantine will publish the paperback in September, 1996, and will put out a tie-in version in concert with the movie sequel’s release the following year.

“We think it will be extremely commercial,” Ferraro said.

In an industry where very few things are a sure bet, Hollywood can bank on this one.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Booking Success

A huge opening weekend for the film version of Michael Crichton’s “Congo” offers the latest evidence that certain big-name authors are a sure thing for big box office. Movie makers have turned bestsellers by Crichton, Tom Clancy and John Grisham, to name a few, into major commercial hits:

MICHAEL CRICHTON

Domestic gross Foreign gross Movie Opening date Studio in millions in millions Congo June 9, 1995 Paramount $24.6 * Disclosure Dec. 9, 1994 Warner Bros. 83.0 129.0 Rising Sun July 30 1993 Fox 63.2 42.1 Jurassic Park June 11, 1993 Universal 357.0 556.0

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Tom Clancy

Domestic gross Foreign gross Movie Opening date Studio in millions in millions Clear and Aug. 3, 1994 Paramount $122.0 $85.5 Present Danger Patriot Games June 5, 1992 Paramount 83.4 94.7 The Hunt for March 2, 1990 Paramount 120.7 78.5 Red October

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John Grisham

Domestic gross Movie Opening date Studio in millions The Client July 20, 1994 Warner Bros. $92.1 The Pelican Brief Dec. 17, 1993 Warner Bros. 100.7 The Firm June 30, 1993 Paramount 158.3

Foreign gross Movie in millions The Client $53.5 The Pelican Brief 95.0 The Firm 103.2

* Not yet released overseas

Note: Movies made before 1990 based on works by these authors are not listed.

Sources: Studio representatives


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