EXCLUSIVE: Chockstone Pictures partners Steve and Paula Mae Schwartz have teamed with Nick Wechsler to acquire screen rights to Spiral. They and other monied producers are snapping up books studios used to buy. ICM agent Ron Bernstein, who brokered the Spiral deal, said the book is the kind of big-idea suspense novel by a first-time author that once would be sold for a lot of money on a weekend to a major studio. But those studio-fueled auctions have become rare. So, according to Bernstein, agents are unapologetically steering good books to monied producers unafraid to write checks when studios seem terrified.
Studios will buy book packages. Just today, Fox acquired the Jane Heller novel An Ex To Grind, with Cameron Diaz and Benicio Del Toro attached. But the majors don’t seem as excited by a good yarn anymore. Many have shuttered New York scouting offices and few spend grandly on books, which take longer to percolate than specs and pitches. But from Twilight to Shutter Island and The Blind Side, there are enough fresh successes to break a co-agent’s heart when so many good ones go unsold or squeak out five-figure option deals. Turning to wealthy producers and directors is the alternative, like when Oliver Stone acquired the upcoming Don Winslow novel Savages as his possible next film. Studios are content to let those producers invest the development sweat and then pay a premium for fully-formed packages ready to go into production.
That has opened the door for new players like Steve and Paula Mae Schwartz with Spiral, a nanotechnology thriller novel written by Cornell professor Paul McEuen that will be published March 2011 by Random House imprint Dial Press. Schwartz and Wechsler teamed on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and will soon start casting The Host, an adaptation of the novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer that will be directed by Andrew Niccol.
The pair made their fortune creating the world’s largest PR agency for emerging technologies. “I’m a serial entrepreneur who can smell an opportunity,” said Steve Schwartz, who runs his company with wife Paula Mae and son Roger, and who often makes films with Wechsler, a seasoned producer. “Studios are buying and developing less and that has created so much opportunity. After The Road, Nick, Paula and I wanted to do a science fiction project. Ron sent this one over on a Friday, and by the end of the weekend, we went for it.”
Bernstein sold McCarthy’s The Road to the producers, and was impressed by how quickly they mounted a quality adaptation of the difficult Pulitzer Prize-winning subject matter. Why beg a studio when he had a motivated buyer who’d already come through?
“Studios move much too slowly now, and this was richer in many ways than a studio-sized deal,” Bernstein said. “Mark my words, Spiral is going to be a bestseller and this guy’s going to be the next Crichton. But studios will say, there’s no evidence to prove that, therefore everybody sits and does nothing.”
Studio scouts counter that they evaluated Spiral as a partial manuscript and again when it was completed and lit agent Jane Gelfman set the publishing deal. The themes and suspense were offset by the fear that the nanotechnology storyline was too comparable for comfort to Prey, a Crichton novel Fox bought years ago for $5 million. The studio never licked script problems, but what if that changed?
“If you want to reach for a reason, you can always find one to not do something,” Bernstein said. “Five years ago, there would have been a high-six figure option, with two under-bidders for Spiral. There would have been excitement over finding somebody new, but they seem to think that doesn’t matter anymore. I have to remind you that Paramount put Twilight in turnaround and Fox did the same with The Blind Side. What does that tell you? Their instincts have gotten all gummy.
“Studios are only comfortable when decisions are validated by something like a comic book. But Kick-Ass didn’t exactly kick ass last weekend, did it? We’re in this cycle where they think the only thing that work are superhero and comic book movies. At some point, the public will get burned out. Books will be here when that happens.”