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Hollywood Throws Big Bucks at Untested Novelists

Hollywood’s paying a lot more – and pushing the films through faster – in the hopes of capitalizing on the Next Big Thing

Paramount Pictures liked “Out of Range,” a two-book mystery series by CBS’ “Without a Trace” creator Hank Steinberg, so much that it gobbled up the screen rights for a price in the high six figures.

Except neither book has been written yet – not even in manuscript form. The deal was made on the basis of a book proposal from the first-time author (pictured).

From “Gone With the Wind” to the “Bourne” series, it’s not unusual for Hollywood to bring a bestseller to the big screen – often paying a hefty fee along the way.

Now they’re paying a lot more – and pushing the films through faster – in the hopes of capitalizing on the Next Big Thing.

Some other recent examples:

>> In June, Warner Bros. and "Green Lantern" producer Donald De Line won a bidding war for the rights to Ernie Cline's still-unpublished debut novel "Ready Player One," with Cline hired to write the first three drafts of the screenplay. Cline got in the mid-six figures for what is called a cross between “Tron” and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Also read: Big Payments to 5 Authors.

>> ”Matched,” rumored to be the next “Twilight,” recently picked up by Walt Disney Pictures, with a book by first-timer Allie Condie that will be released later this month. From the Amazon page: “Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander's face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is her ideal mate …”

>> “Here Lies Bridget,” about a high-school girl who is killed in a car crash and must confront people she’d wronged to keep from going to hell. Set for publication by Harlequin in January, it’s not just a debut novel, but a debut by a 21-year-old, Paige Harbison. It was bought by Galgos Entertainment, which is producing a Halle Berry-starrer based on a novel by her mother, Beth Harbison.

>> Shonda Rhimes (creator/producer of “Grey’s Anatomy”) bought the film rights to “Bitch Is the New Black” early in the publishing process. A caustic memoir about growing up black by a writer for the New York Times, Helena Andrews (at right), the book doesn't hit stores till June.

 >> “I Am Number Four,” about an extraordinary teen who masks his secret identity to elude a deadly enemy. Even before it was published, the book — first of a six-part series by the infamous James Frey writing as Pittacus Lore — made its way through the studio, courtesy of Michael Bay.

DreamWorks not only took a good look; it made a quick decision.

“When Michael Bay calls and says he is excited about something, everyone takes it seriously immediately,” says Mark Sourian, the studio’s co-president of production. “It was certainly a big franchise adventure, and given his (Bay’s) pedigree, it was a natural fit. We bought it and very quickly developed it. The process was rapid.”

Starring Timothy Olyphant, the DreamWorks film is due out in February, with a budget of $50-$60 million.

Sourian said he reads various genres with an open mind but admits that Young Adult novels are especially read with an eye for the next big hit.

“Everyone is looking for the next ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Twilight,’” he told TheWrap. “It’s an understatement to say that they are huge franchises, they are phenomenons. The business, particularly in the realm of fantasy, has become a big business.”

“Twilight,” in fact, is a good example of what happens when a studio doesn’t move quickly enough.

The Stefanie Meyer blockbuster was optioned by Paramount back when the first book was still in manuscript form. The studio held the option until the first book hit the New York Times bestseller list, but through a series of missteps surrendered it before it became a global phenomenon. Summit then stepped in and picked up the rights.

Similarly, HBO struck gold with “True Blood,” based on the bestsellers by Charlaine Harris.

The book series was discovered by Alan Ball in a bookstore; he asked Sue Naegle, president of HBO Entertainment, to have a look. The rights were already owned by someone, so they had to wait about a year.

“I did think it would be a big hit,” Naegle told TheWrap. “I thought the books were a good match for Alan’s voice.”

In the long run, the delay may have benefitted "True Blood" and "Twilight."

"It helps when you have pre-exposure, because the number of copies that move can help a studio decide how much money to invest and know how big an audience there is," said Jason Dravis, a literary agent and the president of Monteiro Rose Dravis Agency, which recently sold the young adult series to "The Hunger Games" to Lionsgate.

"Not that there is any certainty," he added. "'Harry Potter' did well, but 'Golden Compass' was a huge book series and did not find an audience."

"In general, studios are being more selective about the properties they buy," Dravis told The Wrap. "But if you've got a unique and original perspective with a message that crosses different boundaries, there's still a market."

Another fast-track project was “The Help,” based on the book by Kathryn Stockett about a white female writer who collects stories about the plight of black maids working for white families.

Of course, there is one huge drawbook to adapting a popular movie. Fans can be sticklers for details, as with “The Help,” which was also made at DreamWorks.

“When we were casting the movie, we got calls from people not even in the film business, asking who’s going to play this person and that person,” says Holly Bario, Co-President of Production.

Holly Bario, co-president of production at DreamWorks, and the studio’s CEO Stacey Snider had read the book, and both “loved it,” Bario told TheWrap. “Everywhere we went, people were reading it. We both have kids in school, people were reading it at the airports — it was sort of following us.”

Bario said she was putting a slate of movies together and heard there was a script based on the book. They got the script in early spring and made the film in July. It’s expected to be released next year.

Other than vampires and young adults, another hot adaptation target is the graphic novel.
“For the most part, graphic novels are branded and have a built-in audience," Caren Bohrman, CEO of the Bohrman Agency, told TheWrap. "So if you bring in a writer and director and the right kind of team, you already have 2 milion geeks who are going to see that."