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COMPANY TOWN

Seuss Rights Sold for Up to $9 Million

Movies: Universal strikes deal with author's widow for 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' and 'Oh, the Places You'll Go.'

September 16, 1998|CLAUDIA ELLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In one of Hollywood's biggest book auctions ever, Universal Pictures has agreed to pay as much as $9 million for the rights to two of Dr. Seuss' classics: "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "Oh, the Places You'll Go."

The company negotiated the deal with the widow of Theodor Geisel--otherwise known as Dr. Seuss--on behalf of Imagine Films, Universal's biggest product supplier, which plans to produce full-length, live-action movie versions of each of the books.

The immediate focus will be adapting "Grinch," which Imagine's Ron Howard will direct and Brian Grazer will produce. Jim Carrey will star as the reclusive creature who wreaks havoc on the holiday in the fantasy world of Whoville. Carrey also starred in Imagine's 1997 box-office hit for Universal, "Liar Liar."

Sources said Universal paid $5 million for all rights to "Grinch" and could wind up paying as much as $4 million for "Places," once the rights are untangled from a previous deal at TriStar Pictures. That would make the deal one of the largest rights deals in Hollywood, alongside book-to-movie sales for authors John Grisham, Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy.

The size of the deal underscores the value that entertainment conglomerates place on characters and stories already well-established with the public.

Beyond capitalizing on the Seuss properties in movie theaters and on home video, Universal stands to benefit significantly from exploiting the potential family franchise in its theme parks and merchandising businesses. The studio's new 110-acre Islands of Adventure theme park attraction in Orlando, Fla., opening next summer will feature "Seuss Landing" as one of its five themed islands.

"It's a global event movie that can be a perennial and have applications all across our company," said Universal Pictures Chairman Casey Silver, who said he hopes to have "Grinch" in movie theaters either by Christmas 2000 or the following year's holiday season.

The "Grinch" property was sought after by some of Hollywood's highest-profile creative types, among them Tom Shadyac ("Liar Liar," "The Nutty Professor"); the Farrelly brothers (hot off "There's Something About Mary"); screenwriter Gary Ross ("Dave," "Big"), who just directed his first feature, "Pleasantville"; and John Hughes.

Sources said all prospective bidders had to agree to pay a minimum of $3 million--a floor set by International Creative Management, which handles Geisel's estate--before they could even meet with the author's widow, Audrey, at her home in La Jolla.

On Monday, Silver and Howard boarded a plane from New York and met Grazer, Meyer and Imagine production head Karen Kahila in La Jolla to make their pitch.

By that evening, Grazer said, Universal had clinched the deal.

"Apparently, Ron's take was the one she wanted," said the producer, who described Audrey Geisel as being "very sharp, somewhat reserved and tough--she had you jump through a lot of hoops."

During his lifetime, Theodor Geisel resisted most offers to license the characters he created for his 47 children's stories. But after his death in 1991, his widow agreed to various merchandising deals and today there are clothes and accessories galore, plus CD-ROMs and more.

Audrey Geisel had been reluctant to make movie deals. To win the movie rights to "Cat in the Hat," Steven Spielberg had to make several visits to her home, along with "Forrest Gump" screenwriter Eric Roth, before he and production company DreamWorks SKG secured the rights.

Grazer said the Grinch movie will be "live-action augmented by special effects in order to create a very unique world," where even the live-action characters "will look different."

Howard said he's been a fan of the "Grinch" book and a loyal viewer of the animated TV special that has been a holiday-season staple since 1966.

"Grinch is a great character," Howard said Tuesday. "He's a great sort of anti-hero who winds up growing and doing the right thing."

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