Producers experiment with packaging

Digital books among techniques employed to get pics made

The novella "Embassy" recently was sent around to producers by Joel Gotler, president of the Intellectual Property Group, inviting them to team with him to create a movie package to offer major studios. What was unusual was not that the thriller was written in five days by New York real estate investor, hedge-fund manager and author Richard Doetsch, or that it was published by Simon & Schuster but isn't available in bookstores. What was new was that "Embassy" has been published as a Vook, a hybrid of text and embedded video that intertwine to tell the story of a hostage crisis and can be read and viewed full-screen online or on any mobile device.

The Vook, Gotler says, is "the hottest thing right now."

What the Vook offers, along with a dramatic "Die Hard"-style story, is compelling video that helps sell the concept -- an element many producers are adding to market their projects alongside a script, book or graphic novel.

Why so much effort? In a consolidated marketplace, with fewer buyers making few movies and creating fewer TV pilots, they are demanding a higher level of proof that whatever they buy can be made into a movie or TV show.

"It's more work now," Gotler says. "You need a compelling story, but that isn't enough. You've got to bring in either a director, a writer, co-financing or a co-production deal. We're trying to think outside the box."

Many movies come from obvious sources -- best-sellers, remakes or high-concept marketable elements including toys, video games or classic TV shows -- but there still is a market for original material, especially family movies, comedies, horror and action pictures. However, the bar has been raised as to what it takes to make a sale. There are a lot fewer pitches or even spec scripts being sold, unless they come with elements that elevate their value.

"Right now, the development dollars are hard to come by," says Erwin Stoff, a partner at 3 Arts Entertainment, which manages talent and produces projects. "People are way more careful about what they are buying, so the more you have to offer going in, in terms of a comfort level in that what they are buying is a movie they will want to make, the greater the likelihood you are going to sell it."

Stoff recently sold "Water for Elephants," a best-selling historical novel by Sara Gruen. To make the deal, he partnered with producers Gil Netter and Andrew Tennenbaum; attached his client, writer Richard LaGravenese; and director Francis Lawrence.

"We had one of the most respected screenwriters and a very in-demand director and a property with heat," Stoff says. "It was still not the easiest of materials to sell because people are far less into speculative buying than they were."

In this case, "Water" found its level at Fox 2000, which is known for taking on challenging projects.

Producer-manager Doug Drazin of Epigram Entertainment says he recently submitted two scripts that "two years ago would have been bought. Now, it's, 'Yeah, bring an element attached.' So I'm saying, 'OK,' and what I'm finding is agencies are more open to reading material because they realize they have to do more packages themselves."

The shift has hit cost-conscious studios and networks, most of which have pared development staffs, a process that accelerated during the 2007 WGA strike. As a result, they look to packagers, especially manager-producer hybrids, to come in with material that won't require extensive additional development.

"They want stuff that is as close to ready to go as possible," says J.C. Spink of BenderSpink, which has a track record in breaking new writing talent. "If you can come up with stuff that makes sense, they're really excited to be in business with you."

Spink uses the analogy of a Crock-Pot, or slow cooker: "It used to be a quick-fried sale; now we've gone to the Crock-Pot sale, adding ingredient by ingredient and letting it simmer. It's definitely harder to set things up, but what is good is that for the first time as a business, we are setting up stuff that they will really make."

That often means not only enlisting one's own clients but also working with other managers, talent agencies and producers to gather elements that make projects attractive to buyers. "It's always been a business of matchmaking," Spink says. "It's just the matchmaking has gotten a lot more specific."

Spink recently sold to DreamWorks a book titled "I Am Number Four," written by Jobie Hughes. It was brought to BenderSpink by its client James Frey. "We found the right elements in terms of filmmakers with Michael Bay directing and Steven Spielberg executive producing," Spink says. "We hired a writer after the fact. It was the Bay attachment that got it set up."

What Spink hesitates to attach is an actor.

"There are only about 20 actors that get a buy everywhere," he says. "Every other actor, some studios like and some don't. In a market where you are down to 12-13 people who can actually pay a fair amount of money for a script, I find that attaching actors can actually be a problem. What's been successful for us is finding the right material and packaging it with a writer."

Sometimes, however, having the right actor can help.

Lucy Stille, who heads the literary-rights department at Paradigm, recently represented "The Fabulous Fraudulent Life of Jocelyn & Ed," an article that appeared in Rolling Stone about modern grifters that she felt was a surefire movie idea. Before going to studios, she gave it to Annette Savitch, a partner with Natalie Portman in Handsome Charlie Films.

"She loved it," says Stille, and gave it to Tracy Letts, who wrote "August: Osage County" not long after he won a Pulitzer Prize for drama "because she knew Tracy had a deal at Warner Bros."

"The combination of a terrific article, Natalie and Tracy got us a deal at Warner Bros.," Stille says. "I doubt, had I just sent the article cold to Warners, I would have done that. So all of us are spending much more time trying to put the right smart pieces together. The truth is, a lot of executives at the studio level don't have the time or inclination to do that."

When it makes a package stronger, Stille won't hesitate to reach out to CAA or ICM for clients. She says that while she looks out for Paradigm clients first, "we want to do what is best (to sell a book as a movie). If that means reaching out to another agency, we're secure enough to do it."

Although this evolution is more pronounced in the feature world, consolidation and cutbacks also have changed the game in television. "Packagers have become more important because buyers have smaller and smaller budgets," says Brian Volk-Weiss, head of production and senior vp talent management at New Wave Entertainment/Dynamics. "People are being laid off, so there's a real need at the buyer level to have a lot of these components put together."

Volk-Weiss compares it to the way NASA worked during the 1960s and '70s, when the agency created every tool and piece of hardware in-house. "Now NASA has a lot of budget cuts and goes to vendors to lower overhead," he says. "The same thing is going on with studios and networks right now: If they used to have six people developing shows or 10 developing features, they now have three and four, respectively. There's a real impetus for outsiders who are not on their payroll to develop, and that's where packagers come into play."

Five years ago, Volk-Weiss says, New Wave was "scared" to attach too many elements to a pitch or script because it might give buyers a reason to say no. That idea pretty much has been turned on its head. "You don't want to be in a room anymore where the buyer goes, 'Great, but who is going to write this?' " he says. "Basically, they want all the pieces put together."

Volk-Weiss says his company almost always prepares a short video to help sell a concept. "I go into a room with 20 people and pitch an idea with a brown dog, and you've got 20 people thinking about 20 different brown dogs," he says. "When you go in with tape, you are showing the buyer exactly what we mean. That's why we have such a high pitch-to-sale rate."

Having the video already created is among the exciting things about the Vook, says Brad Inman, the technology's creator and CEO. "We think our technology, and video clips, is something that can be used to set up bigger movies and bigger events."

For now, one can read and watch the Vook on an iPhone for $4.95 or online for $6.95, with a selection of titles from Simon & Schuster that includes "Embassy," an exercise book and a cookbook.

"You're going to see a lot of experimentation going on here," Inman says.