The stunning multimillion-dollar sale of the E.L. James erotic novel Fifty Shades Of Grey to Universal Pictures and Focus Features might have a lasting impact on the business of evaluating cinematic potential of books. The last time I’ve felt this kind of ripple was when there was a stampede for the Nicholas Evans novel The Horse Whisperer, which went to Disney in the late 1990s for $3 million in a four-studio bidding war. I recall that some studios caught flatfooted made a concerted effort to build up New York operations, and I won’t be surprised to see it happen again.
In my interview with Fifty Shades agent Valerie Hoskins, she noted that Gotham-based studio executives discovered the material early, and helped whip studios into a slow building frenzy, even before The New York Times called it “mommy porn” and really got Hollywood hot and bothered. Times have been tough for New York-based executives as studios cut back on exec staffing and overall producing deals. They also pretty much stopped paying big sums for books. The longest-running dedicated Gotham-based studio office, Paramount Pictures, shuttered its office after the retirement of Patricia Burke, long an influential matriarch of tasteful material. Her deputy Aimee Shieh took over, but eventually Adam Goodman shut it down, and now Nan Shipley is a non-exclusive scout who also scouts for Playtone. Sony Pictures has a dedicated office, run by creative executive Mark James; Fox has a four-person office, run by Drew Reed; Universal has an office run by Erin Hennicke. New Regency has Michelle Kroes. All of those operations were crowing about Fifty Shades way back in December.
The rest of studios use non-exclusive scouts, who often also scout for foreign publishers. DreamWorks uses Marcy Drogin, who also has a management company and scouts for Participant Media; Shieh scouts for CBS Films; Jerry Bruckheimer has Erik Palma; and Warner Bros has Maria Campbell. John Delaney scouts for HBO and Happy Madison; Jayne Pliner scouts for Imagine Entertainment; and Stacy O’Neil and Brian Stern for Brillstein Entertainment Partners.
Staffing is one thing; getting time-pressed Hollywood-based executives to read books they advocate is another matter. The hot Young Adult book of the moment, Starters, was covered by Gotham scouts nearly a year ago, but only began stirring up the town after an LA Times review. Some of the biggest book-to-film successes of recent years were largely rejected by Hollywood, leaving the Gotham-based execs who championed them in a situation where they wanted to pull their own hair out. The current blockbuster, The Hunger Games, was roundly turned down, first as a partial manuscript, again as a finished book. Producer Nina Jacobson eventually found footing at Lionsgate where it was bought by Alli Shearmur, the former Universal executive who championed The Bourne Identity while she was at that studio. The Twilight Saga, initially optioned by Paramount for MTV Films after it was uncovered by the studio’s Gotham office, was discarded because the studio didn’t renew an option payment for another $25,000 or so; Harry Potter, of course, was discovered by an assistant of producer David Heyman who found it in a pile of unsolicited manuscripts. That was done in the UK. The Da Vinci Code was also roundly rejected by studios, probably because of the polarizing religious aspects of the novel, until Sony Pictures’ Amy Pascal and the late John Calley made a deal for around $3 million against 3.5% of gross after the book popped as a bestseller. All of these have become billion-dollar franchises, and Hunger Games is well on the way to achieving that.
Some might argue because I’m a New Yorker, I’m biased and that Hollywood-based executives get the same material. I would argue that New York execs who mingle with book editors and lit agents for a living get the sniff of a cinematic novel first. More importantly, it’s their main business to thoroughly evaluate whether a book is worth the time of those top studio executives. I’m sure that now, their opinions won’t be so easily disregarded and that studios will put more emphasis in beefing up those operations.