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Running Film Backwards
 Articles: Company film independent production

From Time Magazine
Running the Film Backward
Posted Monday, Mar. 24, 1980

Movie ideas are spun into books and then into "bovies"

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 ancient traditions.

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."

company 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 in Ghastlyville."

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 were written."