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Grisham Deal Red-Hot, but It's No 'Scarlett' : Movies: Warner Bros. pays $6 million for the rights to the best-selling author's debut novel. 'Wind' sequel drew $9 million.

August 12, 1994|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Grisham, the Mississippi lawyer-turned-author whose Southern-based thrillers have been transformed into hit movies, has sold his 1989 debut novel, "A Time to Kill," for more than $6 million to Warner Bros.

Although not a record for a book purchase in Hollywood, the sale far exceeds the $3.75 million Universal Pictures paid last year for "The Chamber," which at the time Grisham had not yet completed.

The largest Hollywood book purchase ever was for "Scarlett," Alexandra Ripley's sequel to the Margaret Mitchell classic "Gone With the Wind." Producer Robert Halmi Sr. paid $9 million in 1991 for the television rights, and CBS plans to air "Scarlett" as an eight-hour miniseries this fall.

The latest deal culminated Wednesday night, when Warner Bros. made the final proposal to Grisham's New York agent, Jay Garon of Jay Garon-Brooke Associates, and Marti Blumenthal of Writers & Artists in Los Angeles. Under the agreement, Arnon Milchan's New Regency Productions will produce the movie and Joel Schumacher, currently working on the sequel "Batman Forever," will direct.

Under terms of the deal, Grisham will also be a producer with a certain measure of script control. In addition, the deal calls for a $25,000 contribution toward construction of a facility for AIDS-stricken babies at Grisham's favorite charity, St. Jude's Hospital in Memphis.

Like Stephen King, Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, Grisham has been popular with Hollywood, largely because his books have broad commercial appeal and are easily translated to the big screen.

"People like to buy a tried-and-true concept," said Irene Webb, an agent at International Creative Management who helped broker the "Scarlett" deal when she was at William Morris Agency in 1991.

"They buy another Grisham book because he continues to write successful and exciting thrillers," she said. "I think people are willing to spend a lot of money for ideas that seem commercial and that will really attract top talent. It's not that easy to find good stories."

"A Time to Kill"--originally titled "Deathknell"--is the story of a Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of killing two whites who had raped the man's daughter. The story was rejected by 25 publishers until an obscure Southern publisher, Mynwood Press, ran off 5,000 copies. It has since become a smash bestseller in paperback.

The first Grisham novel to become a movie was "The Firm," which starred Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman. It took in more than $158 million domestically for Paramount Pictures last year. "The Pelican Brief," starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, was released last December by Warner Bros. and grossed $107 million domestically. "The Client," starring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, is currently in release for Warner Bros. and has already brought in about $60 million.

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