Hollywood's 25 Most Powerful Authors 2016

6:00 AM 9/28/2016

by Andy Lewis and Rebecca Ford

Count authors among the creator groups benefiting from the proliferation of new platforms and outlets in entertainment as 11 new writers (from a millennial to a septuagenarian) make their debut on THR's ranking of the industry's most sought-after word nerds.

J.K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin & John Green_Split - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

J.K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin & John Green_Split - Getty - H 2016

Hollywood is rife with jokes about writers — and the punchline of all of them is how powerless they are. But as this list of the 25 most influential authors in entertainment proves, no one in the industry is laughing anymore. “The demand for creators and underlying material has never been stronger,” says Howie Sanders, UTA partner and co-head of the book department, of the race to acquire the rights to books and magazine articles for film and TV.

The success of Game of Thrones (penned by No. 4, George R.R. Martin), FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson (No. 20, Jeffrey Toobin) and 11/22/63 (No. 2, Stephen King) has fueled an interest in longform storytelling on cable and streaming services. The next year will see such high-profile series as Margaret Atwood’s (No. 16) The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, Neil Gaiman’s (No. 9) American Gods on Starz and Liane Moriarty’s (No. 18) Big Little Lies on HBO.

And the competition to make THR’s list (book sales, number of adaptations, projects in development, additional credits and cultural influence all were considered to determine the rank- ings) is tougher than ever, with incumbency providing little advantage. Eleven authors — nearly half — are new to the list since THR last ranked Hollywood’s pens in 2014, including Ernest Cline (No. 12), whose Ready Player One is in production with Steven Spielberg directing, Paula Hawkins (No. 19), whose The Girl on the Train is one of this fall’s most anticipated movies, and Lauren Oliver (No. 23), whose hot YA hit Before I Fall arrives in theaters in April.

  1. 25

    Maria Semple

    Semple, 52, the daughter of the campy Batman TV series creator Lorenzo Semple Jr., had a first career during the 1990s as a TV writer (Suddenly Susan, Mad About You), but she has reinvented herself in the 2000s as a hot novelist. Megan Ellison and Nina Jacobson teamed up on film rights for Bernadette, a comedic novel about an agoraphobic architect who disappears right before a family vacation, and Richard Linklater is attached to direct. Her follow-up novel, Today Will Be Different, a Ferris Bueller tale for soccer moms, hits shelves Oct. 4.

  2. 24

    Patrick Ness

    (Pictured from left: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Patrick Ness and Lewis MacDougall)

    Ness, 44, held on to the rights to his award-winning A Monster Calls, about a boy whose mother is ill and a storytelling monster, so he could adapt it himself. "I don't think a writer should ask permission," says the London-based author. The Juan Antonio Bayona-helmed film had a warm debut at the Toronto Film Festival ahead of its Dec. 23 bow. His BBC show Class, a Doctor Who spinoff that he created and wrote, premieres in October, and he's adapting a graphic novel for eOne. He also is completing his next novel, Release, which comes out in 2017.

    "We didn’t have a ton of money growing up. All I wanted to do was publish a book and hold it in my hands," says Ness, who was photographed with the film's stars, Weaver, Jones and MacDougall. "It was the most amazing moment. Everything after that has just been sort of cake."

  3. 23

    Lauren Oliver

    Oliver, the pen name for 33-year-old Laura Schechter, already has written a dystopian YA (Delirium), children's stories (Liesl and Po) and an adult novel (Rooms) in a career that only began in 2010. A 2014 pilot for Delirium, starring Emma Roberts and Gregg Sulkin, wasn't picked up to series by Fox, but now a buzzed-about movie version of her first book, Before I Fall — a dark spin on Groundhog Day that has a teenage girl (Zoey Deutch) reliving her death until she sets things right in her life — is set for release in April. Oliver also is developing book and film projects (notably the Donner Party-with-zombies tale The Hunger) through Paper Lantern Lit, an incubator she co-founded with fellow writer Lexa Hillyer.

  4. 22

    Emma Donoghue

    Her success with Room (she earned a best adapted screenplay Oscar nomination) led to several other Hollywood offers for the 46-year-old. She not only is adapting her 2014 book, Frog Music, for a film with Monumental Pictures but also is writing a two-part TV adaptation of another author's novel and a feature film based on a memoir, although she's not quite ready to reveal much more about the projects. Her latest novel, The Wonder, about whether a young girl is a miracle or a fraud, is out now, and she'll have a children's book coming out in the spring. "I think The Wonder could be a good film, and I'll definitely be the one to write it," she says, "but I'm not in a rush to sell the rights because I want, like I did with Room, to wait until I find the right people."

  5. 21

    Graham Moore

    After winning the 2015 Oscar for best adapted screenplay for The Imitation Game, Moore set his sights back on the book he'd set aside: The Last Days of Night, a story about the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse during the invention of electricity.

    "The glitz and the glamour of Hollywood was amazing and fantastic, but I wanted to spend a little time quietly in a dark room finishing this novel," says Moore, 34.

    The Chicago native now is adapting Night, which has been on The New York Times best-seller list since its August release, with Game director Morten Tyldum attached and Eddie Redmayne set to star. He also is gearing up for his third novel, which will see him depart from true stories for the first time in a long time, while also setting up another screenwriting project. "I feel very privileged that I get to bounce back and forth between books and film," he says, adding, "There are a lot more conference calls on a film than on a novel."

  6. 20

    Jeffrey Toobin

    The 56-year-old CNN commentator and The New Yorker writer describes the experience of watching actor Chris Conner play him opposite John Travolta's Robert Shapiro, re-enacting a conversation he had two decades earlier, as "surreal." (Toobin, a huge Saturday Night Fever fan, says one of his coolest moments was catching Travolta doing a quick dance step to pass the time while waiting for a scene to be set.) He's now reteaming with the O.J. producers and writers for an adaptation of his just-released American Heiress about the Patty Hearst case, which he says resonates now because it tackles the timely question, "What makes someone a terrorist?"

  7. 19

    Paula Hawkins

    More recently — until 2012 — Hawkins was working as a financial journalist for publications including The Times of London, covering such unsexy topics as taxes, pensions and mortgages. On the side, she wrote four throw-away romantic comedy novels under the pen name Amy Silver (“I don’t recommend,” she deadpans). Though she found her beat dull, it helped shape her understanding of the underlying psychology of Girl on the Train’s six main characters: three strong women (each flawed in her own way) and the three men in their lives (played by Justin Theroux, Luke Evans and Edgar Ramirez), who fall on the spectrum from weak to loathsome.

    Read Hawkins' full cover story here.

  8. 18

    Liane Moriarty

    Two months after the scribe’s 2014 novel Big Little Lies shot straight to the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list, it was revealed that Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman would produce and star in an HBO limited series adaptation written by David E. Kelley. “I remember saying to Nicole, ‘I know you’re not supposed to get too excited until the day shooting actually starts,’ ” recalls Moriarty. “And she said to me, ‘No, no — if we option it, get excited.’ ” Kidman and Witherspoon also optioned the author’s most recent page-turner, Truly Madly Guilty. The 49-year-old has two other film adaptations cooking: 2009’s What Alice Forgot (at TriStar, with Jennifer Aniston attached) and 2013’s The Husband’s Secret, in the works at CBS Films.

  9. 17

    Ben Mezrich

    The Boston-based Harvard grad has four projects in development, including Wooly, his forthcoming book about the attempt to clone a woolly mammoth from long-frozen DNA, which is being pitched as a real-life Jurassic Park. Other projects include his nonfiction book about the rise of the oligarchy, Once Upon a Time in Russia, and two novels, Seven Wonders (in development withFlynnPictureCo and RatPac) and Sex on the Moon, for which he's writing the screenplay. His newest, 37th Parallel, about the hunt for UFOs in the American Southwest, is in development at New Line with FlynnPictureCo producing. Mezrich, 47, shot to fame in the late 2000s when his book Bringing Down the House was adapted into 21. His 2009 book The Accidental Billionaires became the Oscar-winning Facebook tale The Social Network.

  10. 16

    Margaret Atwood

    The prolific novelist has not one but two TV shows in the pipeline: The Handmaid's Tale at Hulu and Netflix's Alias Grace. Headlined by Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes, the former marks the second adaptation of Atwood's dystopian tale following a 1990 movie with Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway. But Atwood insists it's an altogether new experience: "Streaming platforms give time to develop characters or plots in a way that 90 minutes just doesn't." When the Canadian writer isn't visiting the sets of one of her series (cameo alert!), she's working on the next volume in her graphic novel series Angel Catbird about an unlikely superhero (part man, part owl, part cat). The 76-year-old also enjoys fan conventions, attending Comic-Con in San Diego this year. "I love kitschy fireworks displays and getting my picture taken with people in monster costumes!" she says.

  11. 15

    Jo Nesbo

    Harry Hole, the best-known creation of Norway's most popular novelist, is getting a high-profile film debut, with Michael Fassbender playing the detective in October 2017's The Snowman. If the movie is a hit, it could launch a franchise (Nesbo, 56, has 11 Harry Hole novels in the series). Also in development is The Son, a stand-alone novel, with Jake Gyllenhaal attached. And earlier this year, the Nesbo-created TV series Occupied, imagining if the Russians invaded Norway, debuted in that country (where it was the most expensive series in history) and on Netflix to strong reviews.

  12. 14

    Diana Gabaldon

    The former environmental science professor always dreamed of being a novelist but put it off in favor of a career with a regular income. "[Then] I turned 35," the Arizona-born writer tells THR. "I knew Mozart was dead at 35, so I figured I better get started." She originally started Outlander, which was inspired by a late 1960s Doctor Who episode involving a Scotsman from 1745, as "practice," she says, but the more she wrote, the more the story grew. In June, Starz renewed the show for a third and fourth season, covering the third and fourth books. And with Lord John Grey introduced this past season on TV, Gabaldon, 64, is hopeful that her spinoff literary series might also become a spinoff TV series.

  13. 13

    David Grann

    The New Yorker writer, 49, has a knack for true-life (often historical) tales that attract Hollywood's attention as no less than six of his articles have been optioned. A massive bidding war for his forthcoming 1920s-set book about Oklahoma oil, the murder of Native Americans who controlled it and the birth of the FBI topped out at $5 million. Appearing first will be the film adaptation of The Lost City of Z, about explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in the 1920s while hunting for a mythical lost city in the Amazon.

  14. 12

    Ernest Cline

    The 44-year-old writer's overnight success — he scored a publishing and film deal for the book on the same day in 2010 — took nearly nine years. "I had the genesis of the idea way back in the summer of 2001: What if Willy Wonka was a video game designer instead of a candy maker?" he tells THR — but he didn't finish a first draft until early 2010. The dystopian tome has spent 73 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, and Steven Spielberg is filming the movie adaptation (set for a March 2018 release). Armada, his follow-up, also appeared on best-seller lists and has a film in development. And there's a third novel — top secret — in the works.

  15. 11

    Gillian Flynn

    "I think people have always been interested in the violence of women, the dark side of women, but it's being tapped now in the proper way," says the Chicago-based author of Gone Girl, who now is juggling multiple screenwriting projects (and not just for her own books). Flynn, 45, spent the summer in L.A. as an executive producer and writer on HBO's adaptation of her 2006 novel Sharp Objects, which will star Amy Adams.

    "I had not read that book since it came out 10 years ago. So to revisit it and flesh out the characters has been very fun," says Flynn.

    She also wrote the script for Steve McQueen's next project, the heist film Widows, which will star Viola Davis and will shoot in Chicago in the spring, and penned the scripts for the HBO series Utopia, which, after a stumble and the loss of David Fincher (who helmed the film adaptation of Gone Girl), is back on track and looking for a director. While she's executive producing the adaptation of her short story "The Grownup" at Universal, her next project will be a novel "involving murder, violence, families and the folklore of Middle America."

    “I’m looking forward to going back to my underground lair where the only voices I hear are the ones in my head,” she says.


  16. 10

    Dennis Lehane

    A decade after their first collaboration, Gone Baby Gone, Boston natives Lehane and Ben Affleck are reteaming for Live by Night (Jan. 13), a Prohibition era-set gangster film that also stars Affleck. Lehane's writing has become catnip for A-list talent (think Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood). As for why he gravitates toward the darker side of the human spirit, the 51-year-old married father of two is somewhat baffled. "I don't know. Stephen King has a great line: 'I have the heart of a small boy. It is in a glass jar on my desk,' " he says. "Maybe it's something like that. That, to me, is where the drama lies." On the TV front, he's a consulting producer on Netflix's family drama Bloodline.

  17. 9

    Neil Gaiman

    That American Gods, Gaiman's classic novel of ancient Norse gods alive in modern America, is coming to Starz in 2017 is a surprise to the author. When he wrote it — as a rebellion against the movie scripts he was churning out during the late '90s — he considered it unadaptable. He encourages producers "to change things as they move medium to medium" but admits that with The Sandman, his classic comic, "I have thrown myself in front of the bus" to stop inferior adaptations. Gaiman, 55, also tells THR that he has just completed the scripts for a six-hour BBC adaptation of Good Omens in honor of co-author Terry Pratchett, who died in 2015; filming begins in 2017.

  18. 8

    John Green

    After a hectic few years that saw the release of The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, the number Green is most proud of isn't his movies' grosses or his books' weeks on the best-seller list — it's 348, the number of nights he has been home in Indianapolis in the past year to tuck his two kids into bed. But the 39-year-old still is busy creating for Hollywood. His treatment for an original movie about the underdog soccer club Wimbledon AFC has just found a writer (Richard Cordiner), and he's excited about the script and director Luke Shellin for Let It Snow, the intersecting short-story book he wrote with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle. One roadblock: His novel Looking for Alaska has been in turnaround at Paramount for years, and the studio has refused to sell the rights back to Green. "I am hopeful a movie adaptation will be made someday, but I don't foresee it in the near future."

  19. 7

    Matthew Quick

    When Quick sold his first novel, 2008's The Silver Linings Playbook, to publisher Farrar Straus and Giroux, he was living in his in-laws' basement. Even now, he says, the biggest luxury a book deal or film option buys is "the time to write, to pursue my craft." With every one of Quick's seven novels having been optioned (along with his screenplay about a Vietnam vet), his involvement varies from project to project — but since mental health plays a role in most of his stories, he tries to make sure filmmakers get that right. Quick, 42, still remembers how starstruck he was the first time Silver Linings producer Harvey Weinstein invited him to lunch at Tribeca Grill. "He ordered the HW club, which is named for him, and said, 'Tell me what you think of my sandwich.' "

  20. 6

    Michael Lewis

    "I got lucky again. I'm 3-for-3," says Lewis, the author of Moneyball, The Blind Side and The Big Short, all of which found success on the big screen (he has had less luck with his five TV pilots: "I'm like Charlie Brown with the football, and the [TV] industry is Lucy"). His latest, The Big Short, earned five Oscar nominations, including best picture; Adam McKay and Charles Randolph won for best adapted screenplay. Still, Lewis doesn’t take much credit for what hits the big screen. “I found a way to tell a story that I thought was really interesting, and if that lights a spark for a filmmaker, then that’s what I did,” he says.

    Lewis now is focused on completing his next book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, which will hit shelves Dec. 6. "It's probably the most movie-like book I've ever written, a bromance about two Israeli psychologists," says the Berkeley, Calif.-based author, 55. "It's like Brokeback Mountain but they f— each other's ideas."

  21. 5

    EL James

    The Fifty Shades phenomenon shows no signs of slowing. Grey, James' retelling of the story from Christian's point of view, was the second best-selling book of 2015 (about 1.4 million copies sold; the original trilogy got a bump as well). Add to that the trailer record for Darker, says the 53-year-old James, and it should be "a wake-up call to filmmakers that there is a vibrant, fervent community of women that is underserved by Hollywood at the moment when it comes to commercial, sexy love stories." Few have leveraged that interest more judiciously than James, who negotiated significant control as a producer on the films. For the sequel (Universal, Feb. 10), her husband, TV writer Niall Leonard, penned the script (she jokes she told him to make it more expensive).

  22. 4

    George R. R. Martin

    "The books get bigger and bigger," says Martin, 68, of his series A Song of Ice and Fire, the source material for HBO's Game of Thrones, which just nabbed its second drama series Emmy, as he muses about a larger canvas for the fantasy epic. "It might need a feature to tie things up, something with a feature budget, like $100 million for two hours. Those dragons get real big, you know." In the meantime, fans of the books still are waiting for the final two installments: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring (Martin has given the HBO showrunners advance plot info). Backstage at the Emmys, Martin teased the possibility of a Thrones prequel and in August announced that his alt-history Wild Cards property is heading to TV via Universal Cable Productions.

  23. 3

    James Patterson

    Though Patterson, 69, long has been the world's best-paid novelist and perhaps most prolific, writing in more than a dozen genres (including detective thrillers, romance, kids' stories, YA and novellas), he has had a mixed track record in Hollywood: 1997's Kiss the Girls was a modest hit for Paramount, but 2012's Alex Cross grossed only $34.6 million worldwide for Summit. Following that disappointment, Patterson stepped up his efforts through his James Patterson Entertainment shingle. Now he has the CBS summer series Zoo (recently renewed for a third season), a first adaptation of his Middle School series coming in October (Patterson is co-financing) and an eponymous true-crime docuseries coming to ID Discovery in 2017.

  24. 2

    Stephen King

    King, Hollywood's most adapted author ever, has an astonishing seven movies and two TV shows in production and another 27 titles in preproduction. The one that excites fans most is the long-gestating Dark Tower film adaptation, which opens Feb. 17 with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. On Sept. 21 (King's 69th birthday), a companion TV series filling in the movie's backstory was announced with plans for a 2018 premiere and a cameo from Elba (and possibly McConaughey). Also in the works: a remake of It and a David E. Kelley-scripted 10-episode adaptation of Mr. Mercedes. Still, King finds time to vent on Twitter about his two passions: the Red Sox (pro) and Donald Trump (con): "Texas may go for Trump, but they have a saying for guys like him: 'He's so low, he could put on a top-hat and crawl under a rattlesnake.' "

  25. 1

    J.K. Rowling

    Even without the Harry Potter series and its blockbuster film run, Rowling would make the cut: a TV miniseries based on her first adult book (The Casual Vacancy), an upcoming BBC series based on her Cormoran Strike novels (published under the Robert Galbraith pen name) and a hit West End play (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), the script of which became the best-selling book of the year so far. The Nov. 18 film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, set in the Potter-verse but without Harry, brings the biggest test yet for Rowling, 51, who penned the screenplay (her first) for Warner Bros.