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The Big Deal : Since the days of Ernest Hemingway, writers have wanted good movies made of their work. One mogul thinks he knows how: Publish a book and turn it into a film.


NEW YORK — The book may be yours, baby. Trust me--the movie is mine.

--Hollywood producer to New York author in "City of Angels"


It's a story as old as Hollywood itself.

Scene 1: A New York writer sells his soul (excuse me, his novel) to a big movie studio, with visions of Malibu real estate dancing in his head.

Scene 2: Reality intrudes. The author plays no role in the creative process, watching in horror as his work is mutilated on the screen.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 29, 1996 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 4 View Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
From page to screen--An archival photograph of Ernest Hemingway and Fred Zinnemann was published with a Feb. 8 article about sometimes difficult working relationships between writers and Hollywood. The Times is unaware of any difficulty in Hemingway and Zinnemann's relationship and did not intend to imply otherwise.

Scene 3: Writer flees the movie set in despair, vowing never again to suffer such humiliation . . . at least until the next deal comes along.

The front gates of Hollywood studios are impressive portals, but they might as well say "Abandon Hope" to the writers who pass through them. Ever since moguls began acquiring the creative rights to novels in the 1920s, writers have bitterly criticized the film industry's treatment of literary material. Most of them are long forgotten, but others--including F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway--were some of America's greatest authors.

Their complaints echo in our day. In 1990, Tom Wolfe swiftly cashed his $750,000 check for the rights to "Bonfire of the Vanities," then cringed as Warner Brothers turned his literary marvel into a cinematic bomb. In a recent TV Guide interview, author Caleb Carr ("The Alienist") noted acidly that "the writer in Hollywood is still basically the biggest jerk in town."

Is there any hope for these ink-stained kvetches?

Perhaps, but it depends on your definitions of "novel" and "writer," not to mention your view of the increasingly blurred lines between book and movie deals. There are indeed signs that authors can assert more control over the film versions of their novels, yet there's a stiff price to be paid.

It helps, in other words, if the idea for your book comes from a producer.

Just ask Brandon Tartikoff, the coolly confident progenitor of "Cheers," "The Bill Cosby Show," "Family Ties" and other hit television series. At first glance, the former head of entertainment at NBC and Paramount Studios would seem to be an unlikely patron saint for misunderstood writers. But in his own shrewd way, given new realities in publishing, he's trying to help.

"I care about writers," says Tartikoff, relaxing in the Manhattan offices of New World Entertainment, which he chairs. "And I think this new venture we've developed can actually help them when a film is made of their work."

He's talking about Brandon Tartikoff Books, a division of Warner Books that is unique in New York publishing. At a time when many authors scramble to sell their novels to publishers, then gear up for a similar battle with Hollywood, Tartikoff's imprint signs only those titles that have a good chance of becoming a movie. While Warner Books manages the literary end, he promotes the film deal and makes a concerted effort to treat his authors with respect.

A friendly, soft-spoken man, Tartikoff, 45, isn't seeking the presidency of the Writers Guild, nor is he a sucker for a hard-luck story. During his years at Paramount, he explains, he became sensitive to writers' concerns, especially through his work with Tom Clancy on the stormy set of "Patriot Games."

"I'm saying to [writers], I will give you the most assurances that any human being can give you that your next experience in Hollywood is going to be far more pleasurable than the last one was," Tartikoff says.

"I'm not going to say it's going to be perfect, but I'm going to be your blocking back. I'm going to make sure the bad people don't get to you, and that you can look in on your creation and have input and real involvement."


As a business deal, it's win-win. Tartikoff helps acquire literary properties that, with sufficient publicity and sales, can whet the public's appetite for his future movies. Meanwhile, Warner Books can exploit the movie link by publishing paperback editions of titles that eventually become films.

Sponsors of the imprint also suggest that it could help eliminate the awkward "back channels" between publishers and producers for manuscripts and book proposals. Typically, studios have tried to get early and unauthorized looks at works in progress; now, with more writers offering their proposals to Hollywood first and New York publishers second, the tables have turned. It's a game that everybody plays but no one on either coast particularly likes.

Hollywood VIPs like Oliver Stone and Peter Guber are exploring similar book-movie companies, Tartikoff says, adding that the long-term financial rewards can be huge. But the most intriguing payoff is for authors. So far, Brandon Tartikoff Books has published "Superstitious" by R.L. Stine and "Strange Highways" by Dean Koontz, both of which will become movies. Those deals were fairly conventional, with writers producing books that the company acquired.

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