EXCLUSIVE: Just about every studio in town waged a concerted courtship for the movie rights to the E.L. James salty romance novel Fifty Shades Of Grey, and all but one today is feeling the sting of being jilted after the author and agent Valerie Hoskins went to the altar with Universal Pictures and Focus Features. Rumors raced all weekend that with 10 studios bidding, numbers passed $5 million upfront against a back end 5% or higher. Neither Universal nor Hoskins would divulge how much Universal co-chairman Donna Langley paid — when I broke the story this morning, I’d heard that it was a bit higher than the $3 million against 3.5% Sony paid for The Da Vinci Code, but many suitors figure it had to be around $4 million against as much as 5% of gross. If the picture sparks a trilogy, that is life-changing money for the former TV executive-turned-author. Since this was the wildest book auction in years and so many heavy hitters spent the weekend obsessing over it, I wanted to get the play-by-play from Hoskins, the British agent who, it turns out, is a real spitfire. I caught her just before she boarded a plane back across the pond with James, who left with a seven-figure publishing deal in one pocket, and a seven-figure movie rights deal in the other.
DEADLINE: Hollywood hasn’t seen a book rights auction like this since…
HOSKINS: It was not an auction.
DEADLINE: Generally, when a property is placed on the block for bids and sells, it’s considered an auction, no?
HOSKINS: My understanding of an auction is something that goes to the highest bidder. I can’t think of a better word for our process but it was not an auction.
DEADLINE: Does that mean you left bigger offers on the table?
HOSKINS: No comment.
DEADLINE: During this auction, the book was characterized in a number of ways that included ‘Mommy Porn.’ What would you call it?
HOSKINS: It’s a love story. People fall in love and they rabidly have sex, because that’s what you do when you fall in love. You do, you do! It’s a love story, a romantic one. I don’t really like the phrase ‘Mommy Porn.’ I guess I don’t mind it that much, but I don’t like it.
DEADLINE: I’d never heard the phrase before this.
HOSKINS: It has been created for these books, I think.
DEADLINE: The book was under the radar until The New York Times wrote an article and then every studio had to have it. Did you feel the palpable wave building?
HOSKINS: It escalates things, doesn’t it? I suspect the article, which appeared on March 10, was pretty significant, but even by then there were already a lot of people on it, producers and studios and the book scouts had done their jobs, those wonderful people in New York. Basically, I was getting lots of expressions of film interest and told everybody the same thing. We would sign the book deal first, that we didn’t want any preemptive offers. Erika’s primary career is as a writer and a film might happen and it might not. I’d previously said to Erika that I thought the best way we could make a decision, because of the level of involvement she wanted to have, was that she come out here, see the whites of their eyes and then make a decision based on the people as much as the offers.
DEADLINE: Is that the reason you flew here rather than make the deal by long distance phone call?
HOSKINS: When we saw most of the studios, it was on the lot, because I wanted E.L. to have that unique experience of seeing things that happen on the lot in a professional capacity, which was fun.
HOSKINS: She was a head of production, so she tends to be very good with a budget, I think.
DEADLINE: If not the highest offer, what was your client’s priority?
HOSKINS: The priority was collaborative spirit. I sent out a term sheet of what we wanted, and the priority was that somebody came back with something that was truly collaborative, rather than, we are going to buy your book and take it away from you. All of the offers fulfilled that to a degree, but the Universal offer fulfilled it 100%, and it was done with a sense of quiet confidence. We felt very safe, that what we were being offered would be backed up by the fine print. The goal was to protect the material and its manifestations into movies. To make sure that, as E.L. said, she would be all over it like a rash. It is very sensitive material. It could become sleazy, it could become cheesy, it could end up looking like porn. It needs to be classy, sexy rather than full of sex.
DEADLINE: Studios largely have gotten out of the prestige film game, but Universal has Focus Features. How important was that?
HOSKINS: We didn’t set out with that intention, but that’s what we arrived at in what was an organic process. There used to be Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent, but I think the Universal Focus relationship is quite unique at the moment. In choosing Universal and Focus, we worked out what we wanted for the movie and that was the same corporate structure and arrangement that we have with our wonderful publishers at Random House and vintage. Random House is all there with the money, the distribution, and we’ve got the same with Universal. Then Vintage and Focus Features have a certain imprimatur to them. It all seemed to be a very good marriage.
DEADLINE: You clearly aren’t going to tell me how much was paid. Was this a deal that guarantees three movies?
HOSKINS: I am not going to comment on that, but this is a collaborative venture. They wouldn’t have made the offer they made if they didn’t intend to make this, but nobody can guarantee making three movies and I wouldn’t expect them to. What happens if they make the first one and it is crap? That won’t be the case, but…
DEADLINE: You met a bunch of producers along with studios. Brian Grazer did Da Vinci Code and has the Universal relationship. Have you figured out who that will be?
HOSKINS: No, we haven’t. What we will do is sit down with the folks at Universal and say, these are some people that we liked and they’ll have some they like. It’ll have to be within reason, because based on the proposed budget of the film, this is not going to have a Harry Potter budget.
DEADLINE: I’d heard from several suitors that the ability to make the movie for around $30 million was a big draw. Is that in the ballpark?
HOSKINS: I don’t know really, we haven’t really talked budget. I think it does need to be done for a price.
DEADLINE: You asked for approvals on things like director, script, lead actors. But I understand you didn’t make a deal like many do, guaranteeing you will be in production in a short amount of time. Didn’t you want that?
HOSKINS: Nope. We made clear to everybody, if we didn’t get something that we were 100% happy with, we were quite happy to go home without the movie deal. That would have been fine. We got a great publishing deal and there was no pressure on us. We did this deal because we wanted to. We did have people saying, we will green light this in 12 months. Well, that’s really not interesting, because you could be green lighting a shit movie. From our point of view, what was important was getting everything right, having all the right components and particularly the right script, the right director and cast. If you have to wait for any of those elements, then it’s not helpful if you’re putting time pressure on it.
DEADLINE: How would you describe what going through the last week was like for you and your client?
HOSKINS: Hysterical. In retrospect, it was huge fun. We weren’t nervous about it at all. Until Wednesday or Thursday, Erika was still doing copy edits on the final book. She was under a lot of pressure and very tired. The people we met with were just fantastic. It’s a privilege to sit down with someone like Brian Grazer, one doesn’t often get that opportunity. The movie-making people were really great. It was also a privilege to see how both men and women had been touched by what is in the books. And it was a privilege to go through the process we went through this weekend.
DEADLINE: Did Donna Langley have any advantage, three English ladies sit down to tea and discussing the home country and all that?
HOSKINS: No, we didn’t choose her because she was a Brit, not at all.
DEADLINE: After Deadline broke the news, other buyers initially groused about having been beaten out and they said it must have been because Langley made the biggest bid. A little later, they came around and said, Donna won this, good on her. Why did you choose her?
HOSKINS: For me, she has a quiet…there’s a confidence in her when she says, we can deliver on this kind of material and we have in the past. They have amazing distribution worldwide, just fantastic. We’ve seen particularly with Working Title, and the way they market and distribute that romantic material, they do it well. And this is a big romantic love story.
DEADLINE: Every time I write one of these stories, our commenters keep referring to Twilight fan fiction. Did this start as something like that and evolve into something else?
HOSKINS: Yeah, it did. I hadn’t heard about fan fiction until earlier this year but if you look it up, and go to a particular website, people post their own fiction online. Harry Potter has the biggest, where people write their own stories with the same characters and locations. This did start as Twilight fan fiction, inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s wonderful series of books. Originally it was written as fan fiction, then Erika decided to take it down after there were some comments about the racy nature of the material. She took it down and thought, I’d always wanted to write. I’ve got a couple unpublished novels here. I will rewrite this thing, and create these iconic characters, Christian and Anna. If you read the books, they are nothing like Twilight now. It’s very 21st Century, don’t you think?
DEADLINE: What did you do to celebrate last night?
HOSKINS: Koi for some sushi, and my second martini of the week, and then we went to the Bar Marmont for a bit of wine. The community here, the people were really great, and any of those studios could have delivered, they are all fantastically good at what they do.