‘The Matarese Circle’ by Robert Ludlum

STAR:zel Washington is attached to the project.
STAR:zel Washington is attached to the project.
(Evan Agostini / Associated Press)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The deal

MGM acquires the rights to Robert Ludlum’s “The Matarese Circle,” a novel about two high-level spies who are sworn enemies but join forces to defeat a worldwide criminal conspiracy.

The players


MGM and Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media co-financing the film; Denzel Washington attached to star; Nick Wechsler, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Jeffrey Weiner -- chief executive of Ludlum Entertainment -- producing; Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (“3:10 to Yuma”) writing the script. Ludlum’s estate is represented by literary agent Henry Morrison and on film rights by ICM’s Ben Smith. The 1979 novel is published by Bantam.

The back story

When MGM recently paid $3 million for the rights to Ludlum’s Cold War thriller, it was widely seen as a bid by Mary Parent, the studio’s new head, to develop a franchise rivaling Ludlum’s Bourne movies. But the story of how the package was assembled -- and the strategy of the Ludlum estate in approving book-to-film deals -- is also noteworthy. Indeed, Wechsler (“We Own the Night”) approached Weiner three years ago about adapting “The Matarese Circle.” Before it could proceed, however, the estate had to track down and reacquire the rights from a firm that went bankrupt.

Only then could Weiner begin working with Wechsler and Di Bonaventura (“Transformers”) on a pitch updating Ludlum’s action-packed novel. ICM’s Smith presented the new material to Washington, Wechsler said, and “Denzel met with everybody, he grilled everybody on the pitch,” before signing on. When the screenwriters were attached, sponsors approached studios. “Hopefully, it’s another triple-A franchise. It’s great material,” said Parent, who beat out several competitors for the rights.

But as potent as the Ludlum brand may be, Weiner is determined not to flood the market. The author’s estate, which has also approved three other projects at different studios, has a game plan for future deals: “The current plan is to do a Bourne movie every three years, and in other years when we don’t have a Bourne movie out, we’ll have other Ludlum films,” Weiner said. “And we’re going to be careful not to copy Bourne. ‘The Matarese Circle’ is a different story. We don’t need to imitate Bourne to build a new franchise.”