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Company Town | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Making Book on It

Hollywood Is Paying More Than Ever for Hot Novels

August 23, 1996

The eye-popping rise in star salaries is not the only thing driving up the cost of making movies these days.

This week, Warner Bros. shelled out a whopping $8 million for the latest John Grisham bestseller, "The Runaway Jury."

The sale may be an aberration, yet it points up the industry's ferocious appetite for hot literary material, particularly by such brand-name authors as Grisham, Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy.

Given Grisham's marquee value, agents weren't surprised by the kind of money his new novel fetched. But they're sure buzzing over a rumor that Crichton's agent, Creative Artists Agency's Robert Bookman, plans to ask $20 million for his client's next book, "Airframe," a timely story about an airline disaster. The thinking is that if Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise can demand that kind of money because they can sell tickets, why not authors such as Crichton?

Bookman said he's neither read nor priced the new Crichton book yet, which won't be delivered to the publisher until next month, but he said, "Michael Crichton should be viewed as a bankable star because he opens movies." The biggest grossing movie of all time, "Jurassic Park," was based on Crichton's book.

Studio executives acknowledge they're dishing out big bucks for movie ideas--be it a script, completed book or book proposal, magazine articles or pitched ideas. But, in most cases, the big money is primarily being spent either on properties from proven authors and screenwriters or on a high-concept idea such as "Independence Day," which is visualized as an instant movie with mass appeal.

Although executives say the market is particularly hot for books, Hollywood's collective fever for the once irresistible spec script seems to have cooled considerably.

In the early 1990s, some writers became very rich by selling their screenplays at auction to the highest bidder, rather than solely working on assignment for movie companies. In the heyday of the spec script buying frenzy, literary agents could attract big bucks for practically anything that even resembled a good movie idea, though many of them weren't.

On a daily basis, the industry trade papers would report on one million-dollar sale after the other, not to mention the multitudes that went for considerably less.

"I feel the spec market has really cooled this year," said Touchstone Pictures President Donald DeLine. "We haven't pursued any high-end spec scripts for a while."

In fact, one of the last big spec scripts the studio purchased, "Ring of Fire," for which it paid $800,000, has been shelved indefinitely because of two competing volcano projects at other studios.

Hal Lieberman, production president at Universal Pictures, which has been spending liberally on projects to ramp up under its new management, said companies still spend "if the material is there and the idea is great . . . but you have to think twice today about the marginal buy."

Studio executives also say that although they may be spending handsomely, it's not always as much as reported.

Universal executives were irate this week over what they said was a misleading trade story that the studio had paid $1.25 million for a two-page book proposal. In fact, they say, it was a $200,000 option deal, which if a number of factors gel, including best-seller bonuses and the movie getting made, could potentially net out at more than $1 million. Another report that same day said that Universal paid "a high six-figure option" for a book, which sources say actually cost the studio $100,000.

Executives say agents, looking to hype their clients, will often exaggerate the figures.

Agents all over town concur that the spec market has softened. Even the William Morris Agency's Alan Gasmer, known in the industry as "king" of the spec script auctioneers, reluctantly said, "We like to say the spec market is sluggish."

Jeremy Zimmer, of United Talent Agency, said, "You're not seeing as many specs being sold every week, it's just not the case anymore." Not unlike other areas of the business such as the box-office performance of some movies and the plight of the mid-level actor, Zimmer said, "the middle ground is dropping" for spec scripts.

"A lot of people are willing to take a flyer on something for very little money, or they're spending a lot of money for something they feel has a brand name identity like Grisham, Crichton or [screenwriters] Ted Tally and Jeb Stewart," Zimmer said. "But the $350,000 against $700,000, mid-six-figure sale is not really common anymore."

A number of agents believe the slowdown in the script market is attributable to the huge backlog companies have amassed over the last couple of years.

"It's because everybody bought up so many spec scripts in the last year to 18 months," Gasmer said.

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