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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

June 03, 1990|SEAN MITCHELL

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.

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