In the beginning was the word. Then there was the motion picture. And now it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference.
The film industry is going through a book adaptation frenzy. While this has been an important part of the inspiration for films since the industry began, today books are by far the largest source of material for producers. Promising books or upcoming titles by bankable authors can trigger an optioning scramble before a word is even written, and a reasonable estimate is that adaptations make up around 80% of the projects currently being made.
The adaptation boom is driving producers to seek ever-more reliable ways of ensuring a regular source of filmable material, ranging from the strengthening of informal contacts with publishers and literary agents to formalised joint ventures between production companies and publishing houses.
Earlier this month, the latest of these formal tie-ups was announced. London-based Marv Films - founded by Matthew Vaughn and Kris Thykier after Vaughn's collaboration with Guy Ritchie on films including Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels - unveiled a three-year, first-look deal with Quercus Publishing, which has signed more than 30 writers, concentrating on crime fiction.
The battle for good-quality content
That deal followed the announcement in October of a strategic collaboration between US independent producer Sharp Independent and publishing giant HarperCollins on films based on HarperCollins titles.
Jeff Sharp, president and chief executive of Sharp Independent, makes no bones about the motivation behind the deal - to secure a position in the intensifying battle for good-quality content.
"With the recent influx of private equity into the motion-picture business, there are a lot of well-financed, very smart production companies and studio operations that increasingly seem to be chasing great content," says Sharp. "The publishing industry is in great demand and there is a renewed focus on what it has to offer in terms of original ideas. I think recently the publishing industry has realised that it's in the driver's seat in terms of the content."
Under the deal, a new entity called Sharp Independent At HarperCollins - to be housed in the HarperCollins offices - will initially develop a slate of four or five projects, to be announced in the next month. The new venture will produce the films, seeking external partners for financing and distribution.
Sharp, whose productions include The Night Listener, Proof and Nicholas Nickleby, says the HarperCollins connection will allow him to move into new areas. "It will be related to the diversity of titles that HarperCollins publishes every year," he says. "If you look at the movies I've made over the last 10 years, a lot of them were based on books and most were made for less than $10m, so that's clearly a strength and a sweet spot for us. But I really hope to branch out from that core, including the possibility of larger studio star-driven material and franchise opportunities that would work with some of our better-known authors."
Sharp admits part of the impetus for the tie-up was the deal signed two years ago between Focus Features and Random House to co-produce films from Random House imprints. The first project from Random House Films, Reservation Road, was released earlier this year. "(That) deal was an inspiration to us," says Sharp. "I was working earlier this year with Focus on Evening, based on a book published by Random House, so I was able to see from the inside how valuable the co-branding and marketing opportunities were, how promotional materials were made available in bookstores across the country and how Random House co-ordinated very closely and successfully with Focus on the release of that film."
Peter Gethers, president of Random House Films, believes his venture is of a different order of magnitude to the deal between Sharp and HarperCollins. "That deal is not really comparable to what we're doing, because HarperCollins isn't putting any money into it," he says. "It's not financing movies. It's doing what I didn't want Random House to be doing, which is that basically it has got a partner who's optioning projects, and then it has to go sell it. I don't see a huge advantage in that. We don't have to sell. Random House and Focus together can greenlight a movie in 15 minutes.
"The thing that can make this work is continuity. I didn't want to put Random House in a position where we could be spending a lot of money and maybe making a movie and not having a distributor who was really backing it right from the beginning. Focus had the exact right reputation. It was both literary-minded and literate, which is hard to find in the movie business."
Gethers says Random House Films is close to starting production on film versions of The Husband by Dean Koontz, The Attack by Algerian author Yasmina Khadra and Curveball by Bob Drogin, a non-fiction account of US intelligence failures in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Several others have been optioned and are awaiting rewrites but are being held up by the writers' strike.
One of the key attractions of joining forces, he says, is the ability to combine the marketing of a film and the book on which it is based. "We have the ability to put a lot of books out there and create awareness for the movie by really publicising the book, which is doubly good for us. For certain books, like The Husband, we can sell a huge number of books around the world."
Jeff Sharp agrees and also points to the ability to co-ordinate the release of the film and the book to the benefit of both. "We hope to collapse significantly the window between the acquisition, development and ultimate production of a film by aligning with the author and the project and the property much earlier in the process, so that the development of the screenplay and the film can occur - ideally simultaneously - with the development of the publication of the book. Then the film can be released with a much closer window to the book's publication date, so there can be a tighter marketing and promotion focus on both. It's a way to keep that awareness and buzz going, to engage readership and translate that into ticket and DVD sales down the road."
A number of looser tie-ups between producers and publishers have also appeared around the world. Tellingly, the Berlin International Film Festival and the Frankfurt Book Fair this year began staging joint industry events. In Japan, major publishers such as Kadokawa Publishing and Shueisha join production consortiums regularly, with bestsellers in a range of genres being adapted into major movies. Japanese bookshop chains often install video displays showing trailers to tie film adaptations in with the original novels.
A joint venture between Walden Media, which adapted The Chronicles Of Narnia films, and Penguin Young Readers Group recently snapped up the rights to Ingrid Law's debut novel Savvy nearly a year before it was published, making it the third film project undertaken by the joint venture.
Agents get in on the act
Literary agents have joined in. London-based agency Curtis Brown launched its own film and TV arm, Cuba Pictures, in 2004, and, working with the likes of New Line and Capitol Films, has seven projects in development. The first project, the TV film Boy A, played successfully on the festival circuit this year.
And there could be more tie-ups on the way. Links with publishers are likely to become a necessity for producers looking for adaptable material, says David Pearson, director of the UK's International Screenwriters' Festival.
"There are people who land these options before they've even been published, so unless you spot something very early you've got little chance of getting hold of it. I suspect what tends to happen is the bigger players employ people who specialise in keeping these links going, otherwise they don't find out about these things.
"I used to get publishers' advance lists, but I think the truth is a lot of them have gone before that comes out.
"For the average smaller indie or production company, it would be difficult to penetrate that."
FROM BOOKS TO BLOCKBUSTERS
What have been the biggest book-to-film deals this year' Joel Rickett reports
From Atonement to The Golden Compass, this year's box office has been buoyed by literary adaptations. And despite the ever-tighter squeeze on optioned projects going into production, publishers and literary agents have seen no let-up in demand from producers for new material during 2007.
As the Harry Potter franchise approaches the finish line, studios have stepped up the hunt for a successor. Warner Bros paid a reported $1m-plus sum for Derek Landy's gothic detective adventure Skulduggery Pleasant, following its equally pricey acquisition of Philip Reeve's dystopian fantasy Larklight.
"For higher-profile properties deemed to have mass-market potential, the money is still there," says international literary scout John McLay, who believes the modest box-office performances of Eragon and Stormbreaker have not dulled producers' appetites for adaptations. "The presence of film scouts at the major book fairs has been healthier than ever."
In an innovative deal, Relativity Media, the Los Angeles-based financier behind films such as Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby and The Spiderwick Chronicles, acquired much-hyped fantasy novel Tunnels. Authors Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, along with publisher Barry Cunningham of Chicken House, will be executive producers.
Walden Media snapped up Lauren St John's wildlife-friendly debut novel, The White Giraffe, which Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys creator Gabor Csupo will direct, reuniting with Bridge To Terabithia star AnnaSophia Robb.
For more grown-up tastes, the pace has been set by thrillers. Ollie Madden at Warner Films recently optioned Michael Cordy's forthcoming quest novel The Source, with Akiva Goldsman's company Weed Road attached to produce. Earlier in the year, Fox Atomic snapped up Tom Rob Smith's Stalin-era thriller Child 44 for Ridley Scott to direct, while Rogue Pictures and Random House Films bought Scott Sigler's bio-terrorist drama Infested. A thriller of a more political nature, Robert Harris' The Ghost, is to be directed by Roman Polanski with Robert Benmussa and Alain Sarde producing.
Rudin's name is also attached to an adaptation of The Dangerous Book For Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden. Another nostalgic property to be revived is Tintin, with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson lined up to turn the boy hero into an animated movie star.
The classics market was slower in 2007, but two deals stand out. UK television writer Andrew Davies is working on a new version of George Eliot's Victorian epic Middlemarch, to be directed by Sam Mendes after he finishes Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road.
And Jonathan Rhys Meyers is to star as Mandrake, the comic-book hero, in a film to be produced by Omega Entertainment/Baldwin Entertainment Group and directed by Chuck Russell.
- The Golden Compass review, p30
THE COMIC CONNECTION
It is not only novels that are catching the attention of film producers in their hunt for quality content. Richard Brass reports
Comic books and graphic novels are being pursued increasingly by production companies hungry for content with a proven appeal.
In May, US producer Barry Levine and his Blatant Pictures announced a partnership with Gary Smith's UK company Intandem Films to raise a $100m fund for adaptations of comic books from Blatant's sister company, Radical Publishing, kicking off with Legends, a $35m action adventure, and the $25m Medieval.
This year's hugely successful vampire thriller 30 Days Of Night was the result of a deal two years ago in which Lionsgate Films acquired worldwide rights to a pile of comic books by author Steve Niles and a first look at all projects by or found by Niles and his collaborator, actor Thomas Jane.
Pierre Spengler, producer of the Superman films, has recently returned to the comic-book genre with Luchadores 5, the first in a 12-film slate based on titles from the graphic novel publisher Les Humanoides Associes/Humanoids.
Elsewhere, the Spanish producer On Pictures is making its first feature film with a live-action adaptation of a popular comic series, Mortadelo & Filemon, which was adapted originally for the big screen in 2003 and became Spain's top-grossing local film that year.
Meanwhile, the Japanese animation house Production I.G, which was behind the anime sequences in Kill Bill: Vol 1, has reached an agreement with local publisher Kodansha to act as an agent in developing a live-action feature film based on the popular manga series Ghost In The Shell.
And Virgin Comics showed its willingness to take on big themes when it teamed with Toronto-based animation company Kahani World on Secrets Of The Seven Sounds, a full-length animated adaptation of the Indian epic Ramayana, due for release next summer.