EXCLUSIVE: On Comic-Con’s opening night, the must-see movie footage was New Line Cinema’s IT, a buzz film the studio is so bullish on that it has practically green-lit the sequel being written right now. When Paramount is out pitching agencies on films it hope will turn its fortunes, a new Lorenzo di Bonaventura-produced Pet Sematary is high on the list. As buzz builds toward Sony’s August 4 release of The Dark Tower, the movie’s backers are all ready to go out with a limited prequel TV series that has a commitment from Idris Elba and The Walking Dead‘s Glen Mazzara ready to run the show.
It has been 43 years since Stephen King published his first novel, Carrie, and Hollywood has since turned that title and his subsequent works into movie classics (Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) and some misfires (The Children Of The Corn remakes and sequels, for instance). Never in King’s long career has there been as prolific a period for his fiction in Hollywood as there is now. Projects are being made on platforms that include movies, TV series, miniseries, stage plays, animated films, and even a virtual reality project. After revealing the most exciting of the new deals, I’ll explain the reason King’s stock is so high.
Assaf Bernstein, maybe the hottest new director in Hollywood after directing the acclaimed Israeli TV drama Fauda, has signed to direct an adaptation of the 1995 King novel Rose Madder. It will be produced by Bread & Circuses’ Craig Flores, Primary Wave’s Brad Kaplan and Ace in the Hole’s Bernstein. The filmmaker, who helmed The Debt and wrapped his first English-language film Look Away, found out King was a big fan of his TV series and was receptive when the writer-director approached on Rose Madder, a novel that was part of a thematic trilogy that focused on abused women (the others are Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game, the latter an upcoming Netflix film directed by Mike Flanagan and starring Carla Gugino). A battered wife married to a small-town policeman who runs the town, Rose flees, but finds that her husband has followed and is killing anyone who helps her. Said Bernstein: “Stephen King’s literary universe has greatly influenced me as a writer and filmmaker, and Rose Madder is a terrifying and exhilarating thriller that will make for a compelling parable of the battle between the sexes. Rose and Norman undergo a fascinating transformation, sometimes horrifying, at other times touching, and occasionally both at the same time. Rose is a once-in-a-lifetime role for an actress.”
The Andres Muscietti-directed King novel adaptation IT doesn’t come out until September 8, but the filmmaker is already hard at work mobilizing the second installment. The first film covers the childhood of a core group of friends who see Pennywise terrorizing their town. It was the inspiration of Toby Emmerich when he took the reins at Warner Bros to tell the childhood part of the story in the first film, and then make a sequel that brings the gang back together as adults, bonded by a pact they made to return and confront the menace when it came back after 25 years to claim more children.
King’s seminal horror tale The Shining is in the early stages of being mounted for the stage as a play by Simon Stephens, the Tony-winning playwright of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time, and Ivo Van Hove, the Tony-winning director of A View From The Bridge. It gives the chance for a reconsideration of the indelible stamp Stanley Kubrick put on the novel with a movie King didn’t love despite the unforgettable visual images. The film changed King’s narrative thrust — which he wrote as a man’s descent into madness from the vantage point of wife and child — to a full focus on Jack Nicholson’s blocked novelist Jack Torrance. King told Deadline last year that he likened the result to “a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.” King’s main problem: “The character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.” King has hit on Broadway with Misery, and missed with Carrie. There is separately a take on The Green Mile being done for the Japan stage.
The Dead Zone series exec producer Lloyd Segan is back in business with King on a potentially ground-breaking premise. They will adapt the 1994 King novel Insomnia as a scripted VR series, and are in talks with Google to make it happen. The Fate Of The Furious and Straight Outta Compton helmer F. Gary Gray is circling to direct a terror story about a man stricken with extreme insomnia that unlocks an ability to see messengers of death, these gnome-like creatures that cut the strings of the life aura that everyone possesses. All this is set against a pro-choice convention. The plan is to film an hour, initially, broken into five- or 10-minute segments that can be viewed at home with systems like Valve, PlayStation, Xbox.
The Breathing Method, based on the 1982 short story, has Weinstein Television and Jason Blum producing, Scott Teems writing and Doctor Strange’s Scott Derrickson directing a dark miniseries about a club of lawyers that is intertwined with an horrific death of a pregnant woman en route to deliver a baby from an illicit affair with one of the club members.
DreamWorks Animation is negotiating an option for House On Maple Street, the 1993 King short story about kids who mistrust their new stepfather, for good reason. It’s early days, but this would mark King’s first animated film.
INTERNATIONAL TV SERIES
The team behind the French series Versailles has optioned the King short story The Ten O’Clock People with the intention to do an English-language, European-based TV series.
Episodic is feasting on King-generated content more than anyone – Spike TV’s The Mist, Audience Network’s Mr. Mercedes, Hulu’s JJ Abrams series Castle Rock are going right now — and there are new ones forming. An adaptation of the King short story N has Gaumont backing it and 3 Arts’ Erwin Stoff and Will Rowbotham producing an hourlong series that has a pilot script from Ant-Man And The Wasp scribe team Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Ferrari, with Annabelle: Creation’s David F. Sandberg aboard to direct. The tale involves a letter that gets passed around, one that makes those who read it go insane. It will be shopped early fall.
David E. Kelley and Under The Dome’s Jack Bender need to first get a strong response from AT&T-owned Audience Network on its 10-episode adaptation of the King novel Mr. Mercedes with Brendan Gleeson as the retired detective haunted by a tech-savvy serial killer, but if the show pans out after its August premiere — I’ve seen the first four episodes and they are very good — future seasons will be fueled by the King novels Finder’s Keepers and End Of Watch, both of which feature Gleeson’s detective character.
THE REASON FOR THE KING UPSWING
Why the sudden surge in activity?
The consistent performance of the modest budget-high gross genre game certainly helps, as does the fact that many up-and-coming filmmakers grew up on King’s novels and short stories and his richly drawn characters. As their stock rises, those filmmakers become hellbent on adapting their favorite King tales.
The secret weapon is how approachable the pop culture junkie King is to up-and-coming artists, and how easy and transparent King and reps have made the process of optioning his bestselling works. It is completely without the bureaucracy and red tape that saps the patience of artists trying to turn IP into something. There is never an advanced guarantee how these projects will work out, but King has certainly smoothed out the path to get to that judgment day.
Essentially, the author has created a deal template that would be ideal for Hollywood save for the fact studios love to make deals that give them all the controls and put millions of dollars of development costs against dormant projects that make them prohibitive to revive, no matter how grand the vision of the next filmmaker who comes along. King experienced enough of the debilitating effects of those kinds of deals early in his career to require a better system, one that doesn’t saddle studios with upfront costs, and doesn’t hobble his books with legacy costs when things don’t work out.
The price to option any of King’s novels or short stories is $1. That buck buys 90 days to get a mutually approved writer, and if you clear that hurdle, you have six months to get an approved script draft. Then you have six months to start photography. Now, that ticking clock isn’t absolute: King often grants extensions if he likes the way things are going, as evidenced by the decade it has taken to finally bring The Dark Tower to the screen in a streamlined version that took a tentpole-sized budget down to one that’s about $60 million. King doesn’t expect to be paid until the movie or series goes. Some would wonder why one of the most successful authors in modern publishing would make such deals. First of all, he averages two books a year, usually a novel and a short story collection, so six-figure option checks aren’t needed to pay his light bill.
Most importantly for King, that deal structure eliminates the frustrations most authors suffer when they cash a big Hollywood check and lose all control. King has approvals over everything from writer, director, producer to network, to consultation of cut. Projects that languish either because of studio indifference or because a creative can’t crack it, come back to King, unencumbered by development costs and overhead charges. Most King projects get reignited with new filmmakers with completely new visions, and so old drafts are more albatross than asset. King just wants his books back so the next artist down the line can try with a clean slate.
That doesn’t mean the author is an overbearing presence, with filmmakers feeling his hot breath down their necks all the way from Bangor, ME. King is so busy generating new books – he tries to generate seven pages of fiction per day, seven days per week – that he doesn’t have the time or desire to impose his will beyond the approvals that are in his contract, unless it is to head off an obvious train wreck in the making. As he told Deadline: “I want a dollar, and I want approvals over the screenwriter, the director and the principal cast. We try to make these people understand, the people that are doing the deal, that I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I’m not a hard guy to get along with. In all the time we’ve been doing this, I’ve never put up a red light to anybody about anything that they wanted to do. Because if they want to make changes, if they want to be a little bit out on the edge, I’m all for it. I like it.”
That is evidenced by the repeat business and relationships that have been forged organically. King’s passion for the ABC drama Lost prompted him to preside in roundtable discussions and that led to his relationship with Bender and with JJ Abrams, the latter of whom is doing the series Castle Rock. That title, and all of the IP it encompasses, owned by Warner Bros, is a direct result with an enduring creative relationship with Rob Reiner, whose directing breakout film came with Stand By Me, based on a King short story. Reiner was transitioning from All In The Family, and Norman Lear gave him the money to make the film. When Reiner showed it to studios, every one of them passed – remember, the cast was unknown and the film was R-rated — all but the late Guy McElwaine, who ran Columbia Pictures and said yes. His only ask: Reiner did the narration himself and McElwaine suggested he reconsider, which Reiner did. He secured Richard Dreyfuss.
The first time Reiner showed Stand By Me to King, the author wordlessly dashed out of the Aidikoff Screening Room while the credits were rolling, and stayed away for long after. That left a panicked Reiner to wonder what in the world he had done to offend King. When the author came back, he apologized, and told Reiner he was so moved by seeing his boyhood best friends brought to life (all had died at that point) that he was overcome with emotion and didn’t know Reiner well enough for the director to see him cry. They embraced. When Reiner was forming a production company, he asked King if he could name it Castle Rock after the fictional Maine town where King located many of his novels. Reiner also demurred when King let Frank Darabont adapt his short story Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption, the result being so good that Castle Rock was ready to have Reiner direct Tom Cruise. Darabont hung on for dear life and the rest is history.
Ted Turner bought Castle Rock and the company and its name went to Warner Bros as part of Turner’s sale of his empire to that studio. That is why Abrams got the title for the TV show, along with such early IP as Stand By Me, but also The Shawshank Redemption (word is the prison will be included in the show), Salem’s Lot and The Shining, among others.
King gets involved in some projects more than others, and that is likely to be the case with Sleeping Beauties, the upcoming novel he wrote with son Owen King. Owen is writing the pilot for what is envisioned as a 10-hour series adaptation of a tale about women who fall asleep and stay that way in a cocooned state. The series is set up with Anonymous Content’s Michael Sugar, who’ll take out the pilot script and a show bible in the fall.
Also percolating on the movie front are several projects with Akiva Goldsman, a manic King fan who wrote the original draft of The Dark Tower and shares screen credit on the upcoming film along with producer credit. He is set to direct an under-$20 million budget Blumhouse adaptation of Firestarter, and he is also working on a movie version of Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining that focuses on Danny Torrance, who with his mother survived the attack by his father at the Overlook Hotel.
The Fault In Our Stars director Josh Boone, currently directing X-Men: The New Mutants, is also heavily invested in King. He has both the King thrillers Lisey’s Story and Revival (the latter with producer Michael De Luca) percolating, as well as the long-awaited adaptation of The Stand. King’s most ambitious property this side of The Dark Tower, the post-apocalyptic tale The Stand has been through several attempts with filmmakers at Warner Bros to boil such a huge plot into a single film. But don’t be surprised if it gets resurrected as a limited series, possibly for CBS All Access.