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Movie Deal on Unwritten Grisham Book Sets Record : Film: Universal will pay $3.75 million for rights to next legal thriller by best-selling author of 'The Firm.'


Universal Pictures has made a record-setting $3.75-million deal for the rights to the next book from best-selling author John Grisham--an untitled legal thriller that is still unwritten.

The agreement eclipses the $3.5-million deal Warner Bros. made four weeks ago for the new book by "Jurassic Park" writer Michael Crichton. Ron Howard, best known for films such as "Parenthood" and "Backdraft," will direct the movie based on the upcoming book by Grisham, whose previous works include "The Firm" and "The Client."

Despite the recession, recent book sales in Hollywood, including Grisham and Crichton's, underscore the heightened value movie companies are placing on hot books that they believe will translate into big box office dollars.

The latest deal establishes Grisham as one of Hollywood's hottest writers. The novelist, who lives in Oxford, Miss., and generally eschews involvement with the film industry after his books have been sold, now has sold movie rights to four books for a total of more than $8 million.

Grisham's "The Firm," starring Tom Cruise, which Paramount bought for $600,000 in 1991, is the current top-grossing movie. Since its release three weeks ago in the United States and Canada, it has taken in about $75 million and industry experts project that it could gross $350 million worldwide.

Meanwhile, Crichton's monster hit "Jurassic Park," directed by Steven Spielberg, has grossed more than $240 million in the United States and Canada and has a good shot at being the biggest-grossing movie ever worldwide.

Grisham received $2.5 million for movie rights to his last book, "The Client," and $1.3 million for "The Pelican Brief." The latest Grisham transaction is described by various sources as a "complicated step deal," where the author will be paid the money over a period of time as certain conditions are satisfied.

However, the money is guaranteed even if the movie is not made, a source close to the deal said.

Sources said Grisham's agents were looking to better Crichton's new movie deal and were hoping to get $4 million. Universal reportedly made an original bid of $3.25 million before raising the ante to $3.75 million.

No one connected with the deal would comment, including Grisham; his Hollywood-based agent, Marti Blumenthal of Writers and Artists Agency; his primary New York book agent, Jay Garon, and the author's West Coast legal counsel, Keith Fleer. Universal officials, including MCA Motion Picture Group Chairman Tom Pollock, in London for Thursday night's royal premiere of his studio's "Jurassic Park," also declined to discuss the deal.

Grisham's deal transcends the recent agreement with Crichton, who will receive $2.5 million for the book rights, a $500,000 producer's fee, plus the potential of an additional $250,000 production bonus and $250,000 bestseller bonus.

The purchase price for Grisham's book rights alone is said to be bigger than the $2.5 million Crichton is receiving and that Grisham himself reaped in September when he sold "The Client" to Warner Bros. and Arnon Milchan's New Regency Productions. Those sales shared the record with the $2.5 million sale of Gay Talese's book "Thy Neighbor's Wife" to United Artists in 1979.

One entertainment industry insider said: "The upfront purchase price is better than any book so far to date--an unprecedented number--irrespective of any (profits that the author could share in if the movie grosses a certain amount)."

Grisham's deal represents the most ever paid for an unfinished manuscript. Although all the record deals preceding it were for completed works, Grisham is only now beginning to sketch out the characters and story line for his novel. It is about the oldest man on Death Row--a white supremacist lawyer convicted of murdering two Jewish youths--who hires a rookie attorney. The attorney turns out to be the man's grandson.

Grisham is expected to deliver the manuscript early next year for publication by Doubleday in February. In the Grisham tradition, the author will not adapt his own material for the film. A screenwriter has not yet been named. Howard will direct the movie version of the book next spring.

Some industry insiders were surprised that the Grisham deal was not made by either Paramount, which backed "The Firm," or Warner Bros., which bought his "The Pelican Brief" in addition to "The Client."

Sources say Grisham's agents were waiting for the writer to complete his book before they tried shopping the rights around town, but when word got out he was beginning a book, various studios began making inquiries.

Paramount attempted to make an offer for this book and Grisham's next one, but the author did not want to commit himself to such an arrangement. Warner would not bid on an unfinished book even though it is now filming "The Pelican Brief," starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, and "The Client," starring Susan Sarandon.

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