“Every once in a while, there is a change in Hollywood where people turn back to making movies with great stories, great actors, great creative teams, and that’s when you come to New York,” said John Lyons, the independent producer ( Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me , Pieces of April ) turned brand-spanking-new president of production for Focus Features, the mini-major studio owned by Vivendi/Universal.
Mr. Lyons’ hiring on July 14-as well as recent appointments made by DreamWorks and Fox-indicates that Hollywood is once again looking to New York for creative inspiration. In the late 90′s, virtually every Los Angeles–based movie studio cut back or eliminated the New York–based creative and development staffs that mostly monitored the publishing and theater industries for film fodder. But now that trend seems to be reversing.
For instance, though Mr. Lyons will take the reins from Focus’ previous chief of production, Glenn Williamson, he will not be taking his predecessor’s office. Mr. Williamson was based on the West Coast, but Mr. Lyons-who has long worked in New York, both as a producer and a casting director for the Coen brothers, the Manhattan Theatre Club and Playwrights Horizons-will operate out of Focus’ Bleecker Street offices, further bolstering the company’s already substantial New York presence. The company’s co-presidents, David Linde and James Schamus-late of the New York production company Good Machine-are both based in New York as well, and with so many high-ranking executives ensconced on the Hudson, Focus is beginning to resemble Miramax, the Disney-owned company that has dominated the New York film scene for two decades.
But Focus is not the only entity to be staking out Gotham real estate.
DreamWorks SKG, the Hollywood studio co-owned by Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, is creating a New York–based development office by hiring Lisa Hamilton as its new book scout.
That job was previously done by independent scouts on a freelance basis. Ms. Hamilton, who has a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard, was most recently an editor at HarperCollins, and before that worked at the New York office of Mike Ovitz’s now-defunct management company, Artists Management Group. She’ll work out of an office on East 59th Street and Madison Avenue.
Ms. Hamilton confirmed by phone that she would be taking the DreamWorks position, but refused to elaborate on the details of her deal. A DreamWorks spokeswoman confirmed Ms. Hamilton’s hire.
Over at Fox, another A.M.G. graduate, Drew Reed, has taken over a recently resuscitated position as Fox’s New York book scout. Mr. Reed, who had been working for Forrest Gump producer Wendy Finerman when she had a production deal with Fox 2000, stayed on at the company when Ms. Finerman’s arrangement was terminated and she moved her company to Sony. Mr. Reed declined to comment for this story. Representatives for Fox, which has not had a full-time New York development arm in three and a half years, confirmed Mr. Reed’s hire.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has just renewed a two-year contract with independent book scout Maria Campbell. According to a Warner Bros. spokeswoman, the company, which pulled its last full-time creative executives out of New York in 1998, is also in the early stages of considering expanding its New York presence by adding a mid-level creative executive to augment Ms. Campbell’s work.
The tides that wash studios into Gotham and then carry them out again are as old as Hollywood itself. Interest in New York tends to reflect the industry’s attitudes about the kinds of movies it wants to make, and its always-fluctuating relationship with the book-publishing industry. Increasing studio presences in New York, even in the form of a single executive, means that Los Angeles is sniffing around for source material on the pages of books and the stages of Broadway.
Mr. Lyons told The Observer that the current rush back to the city may reflect a mood shift in Hollywood.
“I think there is a little sense of exhaustion creeping in with all the high-concept action-sequel movies that have dominated the box office for the past year,’ said Mr. Lyons. He did not mention titles, but could have been referring to movies like The Matrix Reloaded, Charlie’s Angels 2, X2 and 2 Fast 2 Furious .
“I think it’s one of those moments where we want to turn back to storytelling, and for that you come back to New York, back to the theater and to the book business,” said Mr. Lyons by phone.
In the past, even one successful film adapted from a book-such as 1994′s Forrest Gump , based on the Winston Groom novel-has sent Los Angeles–based moguls scurrying to the publishing companies that dot Manhattan.
But the fever inevitably breaks, as it did in the late 1990′s, when Warner Bros., Universal, Sony, Disney, Lion’s Gate and Fox Searchlight diminished their presences in New York, or shut their offices entirely.
The current rekindling of Hollywood’s relationship with the book business shouldn’t be too arduous, since publishing is looking more and more like the movie business every day. In recent years, many publishing companies have merged and been purchased by international business conglomerates in a process that has mirrored what’s happened within the film business.
Then there are the summer blockbusters (J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix , Hillary Clinton’s Living History ), sleeper hits (Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones ) and big advances (the $8 million for Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier’s second novel).
Last year’s great Oscar successes included New York–produced films based on books and staged work, including the Scott Rudin/Paramount adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours , and Miramax’s adaptation of the Broadway musical Chicago . This fall, literary adaptations like Miramax’s Cold Mountain , directed by Anthony Minghella, and The Human Stain , an adaptation of the Philip Roth novel directed by Robert Benton, are likely to garner attention and awards.
And we haven’t even mentioned the third installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings .