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THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Company Town : At the Box Office, Literary Prestige Is One for the Books

June 13, 1995|CLAUDIA ELLER

One only has to look at the astonishing opening weekend of Paramount Pictures' new action adventure thriller, "Congo," which was universally panned by critics, to be reminded of the power of the person who created the underlying material: "Jurassic Park" author Michael Crichton.

The film's whopping $24.6-million opening, which shocked industry insiders, underscores the value to Hollywood of an exclusive club of best-selling writers, including Crichton, John Grisham and Tom Clancy, whose books consistently translate into big, big box office bucks.

"The fact that the movie made $25 million suggests his name has enormous value," says Crichton's agent, Robert Bookman of Creative Artists Agency.

Clancy's New York-based agent, Robert Gottlieb of the William Morris Agency, concurs: "Now certain authors, like movie stars, can open movies." The Crichtons, Clancys and Grishams, the authors responsible for creating these valuable franchises, "are putting out a constant stream of hit commercial movies," said Gottlieb, pointing out that "not only do these films have a substantial impact on the paperback editions of a book, they also have a ripple effect on an author's back list."

Their success has allowed these authors to amass more creative control over the movies that result from their books and has brought them more lucrative upfront and back-end gross dollar deals when their works sell to Hollywood. Clancy, for example, is involved in helping to select a screenwriter and director for his book-to-movie project "Without Remorse," for whose rights Savoy Pictures paid $3 million.

Grisham has casting approval on key roles for the adaptation of his book "A Time to Kill," and demanded substantial creative controls over his latest book sale, "The Rainmaker."

"The Hollywood community is tending toward developing more creative partnerships [with writers] as opposed to just acquiring rights to their books," said Gottlieb.

The works of other best-selling authors, such as Anne Rice ("Interview With the Vampire"), Thomas Harris ("Silence of the Lambs"), Pat Conroy ("Prince of Tides"), Scott Turow ("Presumed Innocent"), Stephen King ("Carrie," "Stand by Me," "Misery," "The Shawshank Redemption") and Robert J. Waller ("The Bridges of Madison County") also draw movie audiences.

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Despite having no stars, negative early previews and practically across-the-board painful reviews, "Congo" drew one out of three moviegoers in North America over the weekend. Its box office take accounted for about a third of the weekend's total business of about $75 million. The film, which had the biggest opening of any film so far this year, upstaged all the competition--including such star-driven titles as "Die Hard With a Vengeance," with Bruce Willis; "The Bridges of Madison County," with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep; Mel Gibson's "Braveheart," and "Casper," headlined by that famous ghost.

Paramount's newspaper campaign for "Congo" doesn't list even one cast member in the credit block, which isn't that unusual for a movie without recognizable names, said Barry London, vice chairman of Paramount's motion picture group.

To be sure, this movie--which cost $50 million to $55 million to produce--largely sold to the masses on the basis of Crichton's popularity as a book author.

Paramount's newspaper ad for "Congo" reads in large type, "From the Author of "Jurassic Park.' "

"Absolutely, no question, that was a very important part of the message," said London, noting that the thrust of the campaign was to sell a concept movie--"an exciting action adventure thriller set in a remote, inaccessible location--the Congo."

The film, for which Paramount reportedly spent about $10.8 million in pre-opening and first-weekend marketing costs, was backed by a campaign that included Internet ads and major tie-ins with Taco Bell and Pepsi.

Like many a Hollywood project, "Congo" is "a 20-year success story," according to its executive producer, Frank Yablans. When he was a producer at Twentieth Century Fox in the late 1970s, Yablans fell in love with "Congo," which was still in a story outline and a good six months away from being published.

Fox went through various management shake-ups and a movie never materialized. Then Yablans left Fox to become vice chairman of MGM/UA from 1983-85, during which time the project was fallow.

From the time he returned to independent production in the mid-'80s until two years ago, "I couldn't get anybody interested," Yablans said. Finally, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, who used to run Amblin Entertainment for "Jurassic" director Steven Spielberg, set up the movie at Paramount when they launched their own company in 1993.

Crichton's books have sold phenomenally well over the years, as have their screen adaptations. "Jurassic Park" sold 10 million paperback copies in the United States and Canada alone, and the 1993 movie grossed more than $900 million worldwide.

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