The Last Book Scout

A year ago, a book editor named Joe Veltre was hired by Miramax to look for “guy books”-thrillers-that could be turned into blockbusters by Harvey Weinstein and the gang. But on Nov. 18, his contract up, the 31-year-old Mr. Veltre left his position as director of development at Miramax to become an agent and rights director at the literary agency Carlisle & Co., returning to the straight-up world of books (he was a senior editor at HarperCollins before his Miramax stint).

If, in his brief foray into book-to-film development, Mr. Veltre learned one thing, it was that the pipeline of hot books that make studios sit up and beg appears to have dried up: “It’s been slim pickings for material for a while now,” Mr. Veltre said.

For book scouts-those literary eyes and ears of A-list Hollywood bosses like Tom Hanks and producer Wendy Finerman, who plumb the publishing world for movie material-it’s tough going these days. For one thing, the population of scouts is shrinking as the demand for their services disappears. At one time, Fox, Universal and MGM all had development offices in New York. Now, Paramount is the only Hollywood studio left in town. Partly, it’s hard economics: An investment in a New York development office isn’t a priority for cost-cutting studios. But the result is that the book scouts left standing-mostly independent scouts or contracted firms-are feeling the pressure to justify their existence more than ever. And there’s only one way: with a major score-the next Michael Crichton, say, or the next John Grisham.

The problem, according to many, is that the publishing biz can’t find the next big thing to deliver to Hollywood. Aside from tired products like the Nora Roberts and Tom Clancy output, the last huge hit was The Lovely Bones , which has been on the best-seller list since the summer. The film rights were optioned ages ago to Britain’s Channel Four, from a half-completed manuscript.

All this is making the scouting world seem as neurotic as, well, Charlie Kaufman, the perspiring, insecure, furiously masturbating screenwriter- cum -fictional-character of the new Spike Jonze movie, Adaptation , who’s hired to turn a meandering, literary nonfiction book, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief , into a screenplay. “I think there’s been a dearth of good cinematic material,” said Nan Shipley, a book scout for Disney and Mr. Hanks’ production company, Playtone. “It may be perception: It’s often out there, but it’s whether people have the ability to recognize it.”

While budget-conscious studios look for new material in comic books, video games and the backlog of book and screenplays they already own, scouts are groping around for an explanation for the lull in the book-to-film market. Ms. Shipley, for one, said literary agents tell her there is less “good material for them to represent.” Or maybe, she said, “it’s the publishing conglomerates not taking the same kind of risks they used to.”

“People have to get their bearings,” said Jennifer Wachtel, the director of book development at Miramax. “They don’t know what to write about. All the typical movie books have a political climate-the Ludlums, the Clancys-and no one was sure what to do with those last year. Who’s the enemy? It’s not the Russians anymore.”

And who wants a movie about terrorists?

In any event, the pool of potential material is smaller. “When I started, I remember having a tracking sheet three pages long,” said Erin Hennicke, a film and television scout at Franklin & Siegal, which works for Universal. “Now it’s down to half a page.”

Most agreed that the fall season in publishing has been a wasteland for movie concepts-from Donna Tartt’s Southern Gothic novel, The Little Friend , to Geoffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex , an epic tale of a hermaphrodite, the most talked-about books were just too … literary. “It seemed that there were a lot of famous authors coming out with big books that were great,” said Ms Hennicke, “but hard to make a movie about-a little sprawling. Or there were little-known authors that were kind of impenetrable. They’re saying sales are up in publishing. But it just seems that there’s not a Nanny Diaries of this season.”

At this point, even Mr. Kaufman’s loopy meta-story about the torturous process of turning a book into a film actually offers a hint of hope. “For a book that is sprawling or weird,” said Ms. Hennicke, “you have it in the back of your brain: Is there a Charlie Kaufman take on this? You’re not as dismissive of those things as you were before.”

Lisa Hamilton, a former scout for the literary arm of Michael Ovitz’s former agency, AMG, said that she’d tried to sell her scouting services to the acquiring company The Firm, but cash was too tight for them to hire her. So she got a job as an editor with Judith Regan’s HarperCollins imprint, Regan Books. Ms. Hamilton opined that it didn’t make it any easier to sell her services to The Firm when the field of fall books was so fallow. “I feel like it’s just that the books are a little different right now,” said Ms. Hamilton. “They’re quirkier and smaller now. There are authors that don’t give a shit about making movies. Donna Tartt doesn’t care about making a movie. The Corrections is great, but that’s going to be a very difficult adaptation.

“A lot of authors are snobs about the film world,” she added. “They think literature is above film. There’s a secret snobbery about it.”

Of course, there’s often good reason for literary writers to be wary, since their work is likely be mutilated beyond recognition by the time it sees a screen. Take About Schmidt , which opens on Friday: It was adapted from a 1996 novel by Louis Begley, but by the time director Alexander Payne was through with it, Jack Nicholson was playing an “average guy,” an Omaha insurance executive instead of a Manhattan lawyer, and driving a Winnebego instead of a Saab. Mr. Begley, for his part, has taken the whole adventure lightheartedly; he introduced the film at a MoMA screening Tuesday night.

And the adaptation process for Ms. Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History , has certainly been plagued with frustration: The best-seller was optioned in the early 90’s and spent the next 10 years in one development hell or another. It was not until last year, when Miramax picked it up to let Gwyneth Paltrow produce it and her brother Jake direct, that the book began crawling in earnest toward the screen.

Drew Reed, vice president of production for Wendy Finerman Productions, said that he’d just about had it with book people pushing all that literary crap. Mr. Reed is on the lookout for the next commercial superstar, a Grisham Jr. But he doesn’t see new commercial authors being cultivated at publishing houses. Instead, he’s getting highbrow material that is, he said, unfilmable. “If I were a scholar or bookstore owner,” he said, “I might be quite happy with the way publishing is going right now.” For his purposes, though, it’s dire. “I think it’s very interesting when editors say, ‘Oh my God, it’s a movie.’ Then you look at it, and it’s about a geisha girl in contemporary Tokyo … Jesus!

“Are these literary novels worth the money that’s being paid for them?” he continued. “If not, shouldn’t the [publishing] corporations say, ‘This is a business-it’s show business , not show art , right? Let’s put out some books that are commercial and sell.’ But I haven’t heard any corporation making that mandate. Publishing is so traditional and entrenched, there would be huge resistance to something like that.”

A central complaint about the literary novels is their plots: Often, they have none-or they have a sprawling one that can’t be worked into a screenplay without sending the Mr. Kaufmans of the world into night sweats. “It’s funny,” said Hardy Justice, the vice president of creative affairs for Tribeca Productions. “I think there’s something in the American literary world that feels guilty about plot. If you’re reading it and enjoying it, you’re suspicious. You don’t feel that way about movies.”

Mr. Hardy pointed to the growth of young-adult books being turned into movies-among them Artemis Fowl , a sort of anti– Harry Potter that Miramax and Tribeca are producing jointly. Mr. Hardy acquired Michael Chabon’s recent young-adult effort, Summerland , which was published by Miramax Books. He said he understood why Mr. Chabon would write a kid’s book. “In a weird way, their audience will let them do things in a children’s book that they won’t let them do in an adult novel,” he said. “There’s a lot of adults reading Harry Potter . It’s almost like their slumming-slumming for plot.”

But maybe there’s hope on the horizon for Mr. Chabon’s more obscure literary output-in the form of the screen adaptation of The Hours , a book by Pulitzer Prize–winner Michael Cunningham, which is being produced by Scott Rudin. Mr. Reed said that if a movie based on a highbrow novel could sell, maybe studios would take some chances on these small, quirky books-and that, in turn, would stimulate the scouting economy. “I think it’s a test,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if The Hours does really well. We start to hear from our employers in L.A., ‘Find me something like The Hours !’, and that will open the door to more of these literary novels.”

But as it stands Mr. Rudin, who has aquired the option for Mr. Chabon’s next novel, may be the only guy in town who is able to get these kinds of books on celluloid, but he doesn’t see the studios following his lead. After all, no one came storming the publishing houses’ gates after the success of A Beautiful Mind , which was adapted from a brainy nonfiction book by Sylvia Nasar. Why? “They’re hard work,” said Mr. Rudin. Such literary projects require “a lot of development work and are expensive. You either believe they’re rewarding or you don’t.

“I think it comes down to a passion for a certain kind of material,” he added, “and having the juice to get it done.”

In other words, you need clout. And it’s the clout of an A-list producer or actor behind an idea that most scouts just don’t have. And meanwhile, for every Beautiful Mind , there’s a bomb like The Shipping News to make studios think twice-which brings scouts invariably back to the next Crichton. Where is she?

Not surprisingly, scouts say it’s a cyclical business and the dry spell can’t last. “They cannot scout books from L.A.,” said Ms. Shipley. “It’s not possible. All you can do from L.A. is get on the bandwagon. We have access so early to so much material, I think they’ll come around again.”