NEW YORK — "The Devil Wears Prada," the 20th Century Fox rendition of a bestselling novel published by Random House Inc., has racked up a surprising $83 million in ticket sales so far. A $100-million domestic gross is in sight. The Random House cut of the movie bounty for "Prada"? Nada. The most it can expect is a bounce from the sale of special paperbacks tied to the film, a gross that could approach $7 million.
Galled by decades of this kind of equation, New York publishing houses have launched ventures intended to get a bigger piece of the Hollywood action. And who could blame them? Publishers almost never control the film rights to the books they put on the market.
"There is such a thing as film envy in many parts of the publishing community," said Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly. "Movies based on books can make a lot more money than books, and people in publishing have watched for years as film companies make profits on novels they've developed. They want a bigger role."
In the boldest of the new ventures, Random House, the nation's largest publisher, has formed a partnership with Focus Features, maker of such literary-based hits as "Brokeback Mountain," "The Constant Gardener" and "The Pianist." The publisher will not only open its vast holdings to the filmmaker, but it will also put up half the money for the movies that result, on projects costing up to $20 million. It marks the first time a major U.S. publisher has gambled on such a scale in Hollywood.
At HarperCollins, a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., publishers recently announced a plan to transform books into television series through an aggressive in-house partnership with Fox TV Studios. Elsewhere, Penguin Group (USA) is allying itself with Walden Media to develop movies and television properties based on its books. Simon & Schuster, part of the corporate universe that includes CBS and Paramount, continues to pursue a host of book-to-movie projects, as does Hyperion, which is part of the conglomerate that includes Disney films and ABC.
"We're seeing a lot of new ventures because now, more than ever, content is king when it comes to movies and TV, and nobody has more content than the book world," said Samuel Craig, director of the entertainment, media and technology program at New York University's business school. With the book business flat for years, "the challenge for publishers is to find new ways to exploit material they already have, to tap into an entirely new source of revenue beyond book sales," Craig said.
For both big-name and obscure authors, new approaches to turning books into movies could also be very attractive. Currently, agents sell book and film rights to a manuscript separately, often at different times. But Dean Koontz, for example, sold the film rights for his latest thriller, "The Husband," to the Random House-Focus partnership because he was encouraged by the filmmaker's "courtesy and respect" in adapting his novel. "I haven't had that experience on previous adaptations of my books, to say the least," he said.
For less well-known authors, the partnership offers the chance of a deal for a small but worthy book that might otherwise be ignored by Hollywood -- and selling film rights early often boosts foreign sales as well.
Mining for Hollywood gold in a New York-made bestseller is an old quest. So is "synergy," that widely derided concept that large conglomerates with publishing, movie and TV arms could profit from sharing content across divisions. Critics of the synergy model say compelling a book publisher and a movie division to work together by corporate decree is unworkable, because they do not share the same priorities and may as well be on different planets. Others say a culture clash is inevitable: If Big Apple publishers have movie envy, their West Coast rivals are equally uncomfortable with New York literati.
"There's publishing fear in Hollywood," said Amy Schiffman, an agent who handles book-to-movie deals for the Los Angeles-based Gersh Agency. "Some people on the West Coast are intimidated by those in the New York book business. They think publishers know something that they don't know -- that they're smart, and more intellectual, that they really understand the written word better than others do."
To bridge the gap, Hollywood used to rely heavily on a small army of New York-based scouts to tip them off to books that might be turned into movies. Although scouts are still influential, the playing field has been transformed in recent years by the emergence of specialized agents like Schiffman. Based mainly in Los Angeles, they broker the sale of film rights and are equally at home in the book and movie worlds. Publishers are under no illusion that these agents will be losing power any time soon. But the new ventures coming out of New York publishing houses suggest the book world has a few cards of its own to play.