From Time Magazine
Running the Film Backward
Posted Monday, Mar. 24,
Movie ideas are spun into books and then
Ever hungry for usable material, Hollywood
is finding that adaptable novels are as
scarce as cheap real estate. Movies are
quick to take the best; television consumes
the rest. In order to guarantee a supply
of usable plots, moviemakers are reversing
In the era Before Television, studios
followed the Ben Hur route: General Lew
Wallace wrote the book, it became a bestseller,
MGM bought the property and transformed
it into big box office. In the decades
A.T., film companies learned to acquire
novels before publication—particularly
if the author was a known quantity, like
Irving Wallace or Jacqueline Susann. Publishers
also learned to produce prose spin-offs—novelizations
of hit movies. The current flood includes
Alien, The Rose and Star Wars.
But now some producers and editors have
begun to run the film backward, a process
similar to watching spawn swim downstream
to salmon. An idea is "developed"
by film executives, a writer is recruited
to amplify the notion into a novel, and
then the book is converted to celluloid.
The trend has become widespread: Simon
& Schuster Editor David Obst recently
moved his offices to Hollywood, and Bantam
Books has established a film-production
company in Los Angeles. Its acquisitions
editor Charles Bloch regards the cinema-literary
process as "a sophisticated methodology
of people who have an interest in both
books and movies so that they can put
two and two together and get five."
Sometimes the author starts the equation:
Charles Sailor was one-third through his
messianic thriller The Second Son when
his money ran out. The author went to
MGM and two days later had a deal: $325,000
plus 5% of the producer's gross and a
role in the film, plus a $200,000 advance
from Avon publishers for paperback rights.
"If you come to the studio with something
written down, they'll pay more,"
says Sailor. "They know you could
take it elsewhere. It's easier for them
when you're selling air."
Air was all that Paul and Sharon Boorstin
offered MGM Vice President John B. Tarnoff.
"The Boorstins came to us with a
verbal presentation: a story in the tradition
of Rosemary's Baby. We gave them a $50,000
advance on the movie rights, and they
went to Richard Marek with whom they made
a book deal." Like many current contracts,
the Boorstins' calls for a series of escalating
bonuses depending on how many weeks The
Glory Hand remains on the bestseller lists
and whether it is picked up by a book
club. Says Paul Boorstin: "The new
trend in Hollywood is to finance the writing
of the novel by buying the movie rights.
It makes sense."
film independent production
It also makes dollars. When Paramount
approached Agent Irving Lazar with a story
about a terrorist attack on New York,
he brought in clients Dominique Lapierre
and Larry Collins (O Jerusalem!). The
result: The Fifth Horseman, which has
earned the authors $500,000 before publication
and filming. "It's a very natural
trend," concludes Lazar. "It
will be an inspiration to some writers."
And many agents. Take Ziegler/Diskant
Inc. When Independent Producer George
Englund came to them with an idea for
a story set in gambling casinos, they
recruited Paul Erdman (The Crash of 79)
to write the novel. A few weeks later,
Erdman had contracts worth seven figures
from Warner Bros, and Simon & Schuster.
He is now feeding a scenarist pages of
the novel as he completes them.
When two Hollywood producers planned a
movie about the assassination of the Chilean
Ambassador to the U.S., Ziegler/Diskant
brought in Freelancer Taylor Branch and
Attorney Eugene Propper, who had prosecuted
the killer. The collaborators produced
a five-page outline purchased by Viking
for $175,000 and Warner Bros, for $300,000.
Sometimes the idea springs from outlines,
sometimes from headlines. One idea managed
to come from a shudder. In the Hollywood
Hills last year, Obst and Independent
Producer Peter Guber (The Deep) gazed
down at the urban sprawl. "What would
happen if all this burned to the ground?"
Guber wondered. Replied Obst: "I
don't know. Let's do a book-movie in which
fire is the villain." The Great Los
Angeles Fire by Ned Stewart will be published
by Simon & Schuster this fall; Columbia
will make the film. Obst has the courage
of his confections: his license plate
reads TIE-IN. As for Guber: "The
whole thing gives you the opportunity
to turn a hit movie into a smash book
and a smash book into a smash movie. It
has a potential for widespread distribution
and profit for that thing I call a 'bovie.'
Not everyone is bullish on bovies. Irving
Wallace, who has sold nine novels to film
makers, has doubts: "The studio will
be telling the writer: 'Can't you get
some visual excitement into it!' "
Garson Kanin, whose bestseller Moviola
resulted from a complex collaboration
between Wolper Productions, NBC and Simon
& Schuster, feels that while the trend
may be "very good because it gets
a kind of interest and attention for the
book, danger can come if film people try
to steer the writing. Then we're back
That is precisely where Hollywood is now,
according to Scenarist Josh Greenfeld
(Harry and Tonto): "The studio chiefs'
idea of an idea is not an idea. Besides,
a book shouldn't be a step in the development
of a movie. You may get a good feature
out of the deal, but you'll never end
up with a good book."
For film-book writers, the next few years
will determine whether they are working
in Ghastlyville or Oz. No matter what
transpires, one group will never suffer:
the producers. If fresh material ever
runs out, they need only heed the advice
offered by Will Rogers half a century
ago: "If the movies want to advance,
all they have to do is not get new stories
but do the old ones over—as they