Modern adaptation

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- As they eye the profits made by Hollywood studios on books adapted for the screen, New York publishers can't help but be jealous. They also want to boost the visibility of their titles in a market that has been flat for several years. Now, HarperCollins is trying to attack both problems by putting a producer smack dab in the middle of the publishing process.

Last week, William Morrow, which is owned by HarperCollins, announced the publication of Michael Zadoorian's "The Leisure Seeker," a poignant novel about the final cross-country odyssey of a couple facing Alzheimer's and terminal cancer. At the same time, indie producer Jeff Sharp announced that his company had optioned the film rights.

It might seem like just another book deal -- but the story of how this one came together speaks volumes about the rapidly shifting terrain in the book-to-film world and the increasing convergence of New York literati and Hollywood filmmakers. Although the two businesses are radically different, HarperCollins and Sharp have found some intriguing common ground -- and a plan that just might enable the publisher to share in the profits of successful adaptations.

"This partnership was based on the idea that publishers and filmmakers should have closer links when books are turned into film," Sharp said.

It all began with a passionate pitch. At a meeting of William Morrow editors late last year, Jennifer Pooley briefly described the plot of Zadoorian's novel. Her summary moved many in the room, and when Pooley asked who else wanted to read it, 15 hands shot up.

One of them belonged to Sharp, producer of "Boys Don't Cry," "Proof," "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Evening." He was in the meeting because he had just launched a book-to-film unit, Sharp Independent, at HarperCollins; his mandate was to sift through submissions and pick out titles ripe for adaptation. Although he had optioned a few books that were already slated for publication, he had not yet jumped into the mix and participated in discussions about whether to move forward with a manuscript.

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A literary buzz

While editors were buzzing over the distinctive literary voice in "The Leisure Seeker," Sharp heard a movie taking shape and made mental notes: The tale of parents saying a final goodbye to their children would connect with the potent baby-boomer film market. It had memorable characters. Sharp believed the novel might become an offbeat road movie in the tradition of "Little Miss Sunshine," "Thelma & Louise" and "Harold and Maude."

"We would have bid on this novel anyway, with or without a movie deal," said Lisa Gallagher, Morrow's senior vice president and publisher, describing the company's quick move to snap up the book with a preemptive bid. "But having Jeff right there in the room with us is definitely something new. It's a different model when someone like him is in on the ground level, participating in the conversation and watching as decisions about books get made."

Publishers are traditionally shut out of the money when studios make millions from adaptations, because authors typically sell film rights to studios or production companies. The main windfall for publishers comes from the sales of paperback tie-ins to movies. Meanwhile, the publishing world cranks out the content that stokes the Hollywood engine: HarperCollins has published several books that have become recent box office hits, including "The Pursuit of Happyness."

Some companies have tried to play a more aggressive role. Random House, for example, created a partnership with Focus Features two years ago. If the two parties greenlight a project, the publisher helps pay production costs and shares in the profits from movies that do well.

HarperCollins' deal with Sharp's production company takes a different approach, by integrating him into the daily mix at the publishing house. Ideally, he's able to get an early glimpse of material before rival companies learn about it through the grapevine. The advantages for Sharp are obvious. But there's also a payoff for HarperCollins. Publishers are hoping that, at the very least, their authors will gain more visibility through a connection with film projects and sell more books. Just as important, the publisher may pocket an as-yet-unspecified portion of revenues if the resulting movies do well. The details are still evolving, however, and the publisher is not succumbing to any Hollywood daydreams. Yet.

"If one of the films from our books actually makes a lot of money, we're not counting on [profits], with Hollywood accounting being what it is," noted Michael Morrison, president and group publisher of the firm's HarperMorrow division. "But if there is some profit, and we make money, great."

A key rationale for the deal is the potential synergy that exists for books and movies under the umbrella of News Corp., the media conglomerate run by Rupert Murdoch that controls HarperCollins, the Fox TV network, 20th Century Fox, MySpace and other units. Although there is no firm requirement that Sharp put together deals with Fox, he sees the clear incentive in doing so, because the opportunities for linkage, at least on paper, are vast.

"This kind of access is extraordinary," said Sharp, sitting in his sparsely furnished digs at HarperCollins. "Getting financing for films is a huge challenge. But the money for financing is out there. The big challenge is access to content. That's really the name of the game."

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Talk of synergy

The roots of the deal stretch back to a 2006 Christmas party, where Sharp met with HarperCollins Chief Executive Jane Friedman. The two friends talked about the need for a better partnership between filmmakers and publishers. He began outlining a possible joint venture with Friedman, who has a reputation for innovation, and the plan was launched last year.

For all the talk of synergy, however, there are some obvious limits: Literary agents can still advise their clients not to sign with Sharp and seek better film deals elsewhere. No author will be required to sign a film option as a condition of getting a HarperCollins book deal.

"If they [HarperCollins] can get more movies made from books, it's a win for everybody," said Simon Lipskar, an agent with Writers House. But even though Sharp's access to material is a plus, he added, "it's a little hysterical to think he's got a big advantage. There's no literary submission with any heat in this town that film scouts can't get their hands on."

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josh.getlin@latimes.com

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