Literary Lion

Richard Price was a bit baffled when producer Scott Rudin offered him $2 million on the spot for the film option to Freedomland, the story of a journalist on the trail of a Susan Smith-like figure. Price, who was telling Rudin about the project over a casual lunch, wasn’t really surprised by the amount – options have been known to run that high. It’s just that Price hadn’t even written the book yet. “Scott’s from the blitzkrieg school,” says Price, who accepted the bid before the waitress had tallied the bill. “He’s like Paul Getty and the art market – when he wants something, he swings a lucrative hammer.”

Rudin, the tantrum-prone, New York-based producer of mainstream hits like In and Out and The Addams Family, has introduced the Hollywood hard sell to the comparatively genteel world of literary publishing. Coming eventually to a multiplex near you, courtesy of Rudin, will be cerebral works such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld; Donald Bogle’s biography of Dorothy Dandridge, the black film pioneer; and Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer-winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes. While each won critical acclaim, none has the obvious mass-market appeal of, say, The Firm, which Rudin produced in 1993.

In an industry that insists on happy endings, breakneck action, or gaudy effects, even the wildly popular Ashes seems like a long shot – especially to McCourt. “Who would want to make a movie about a miserable childhood in an Irish slum?” the author asks. But Rudin and co-producer David Brown jumped on the book, putting up $100,000 of their own money when Paramount balked.

While most producers alternate their occasional literary projects with spec scripts, Rudin – guided by his vice-president of development, Eric Steel, a former HarperCollins editor – focuses increasingly on quality books. Books he considers quality, that is.

“I don’t need the marketplace to tell me what’s good,” he says with characteristic bravado. Film agent Ron Bernstein, who optioned DeLillo’s Underworld to Rudin for just under $1 million, notes, “Scott doesn’t buy Doris Lessing. He wants literary stuff that’s still commercial.”

He also has his own ideas about the pace at which deals should be struck, often upending the careful plans of agents who try to call the shots. Literary agent Nicholas Ellison sent James Webb’s The Emperor’s General to a few select producers, expecting to conduct an orderly auction the next week. But days ahead of schedule, Rudin was on the phone with an offer Ellison couldn’t refuse. “Scott had one number,” says Ellison, “I had another, and in 22 seconds, the deal was struck for $2 million.”

With preemptive strikes (and assistants who read and evaluate manuscripts overnight), Rudin dominates the market for high-profile books. But can he transform his increasingly esoteric choices into profitable films?

So far, his record is decidedly mixed. Nobody’s Fool, originally a Richard Russo novel, grossed $40 million, but Searching For Bobby Fischer – made for only $15 million – lost money.

And one of Rudin’s most hyped ventures, an adaptation of Caleb Carr’s best-selling The Alienist, has consumed as much as $3 million without even making it into production. A disgusted Carr claims that Rudin, who bought the rights to his book in 1993 for $500,000, lost enthusiasm for the project after deciding the period piece lacked enough “good elements” to make a movie. Though acknowledging that “it’s hard to get a good script,” Rudin insists he’s still committed to the film, even after five years and six screenplays. But Angel of Darkness, the sequel to The Alienist, comes up for option next year – and may well make it to the screen before its precursor does.

“I knew Scott could be extremely petty, abusive, and tyrannical,” says Carr, who worked as a reader for Rudin in the mid-eighties. “There’s no single person in Hollywood who is more publicly praised or privately reviled. He’s a very tragic figure.”

Rudin’s inability to deliver The Alienist, with its comparatively linear plot, has not gone unnoticed by authors of more impressionistic works. Even Bernstein, DeLillo’s agent, admits the turmoil has him concerned for the future of his client’s tome. “What can I do about it? It’s an imprecise science,” he says. “And I have to say, it worries me.”

Literary Lion