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London Book Fair Attracts Producers, Execs Looking for Adaptations

This year’s Oscars were as much a celebration of books as they were cinema. Five of the 10 best picture nominees were based on books, and three of those – “Oppenheimer,” “Poor Things” and “The Zone of Interest” – took home the most statues overall. Even the winner for best animated picture, Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron,” was loosely inspired by a 1937 novel Miyazaki had read as a child.

Which is why many of those partying in L.A. on Sunday night boarded planes across the Atlantic days later bound for the London Book Fair, which kicked off yesterday and runs through the end of the week, in search of their next Oscar-contending project. “It feels like there’s an influx of film and television executives, studio executives, producers etc., all coming into town,” Jason Richman, co-head of media rights at UTA, tells Variety.

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With TV also wild about adaptations – some of the biggest shows in the past few months have included “Shōgun,” “One Day,” “Fool Me Once” and “Slow Horses,” all of which began as novels – the London Book Fair is fast on its way to becoming the new must-stop market for the screen industry. LBF’s director Gareth Rapley is not surprised. “A book is almost like a heartbeat to content creation,” he says.

Book to screen adaptations aren’t a novel concept, of course (pun intended). But despite industry contraction – or even because of it – commissioners and producers are increasingly reliant on pre-existing content, including podcasts, articles and even TikToks, to sell a project. “Having a piece of IP will supercharge the conversation,” acknowledges Helen Gregory, creative director at U.K./Australian production company See-Saw Films, which makes “Slow Horses” as well as “Heartstopper” (an adaptation of Alice Osman’s graphic novel) and the upcoming adaptation of C.J. Skuse’s novel “Sweetpea.”

Richard Fee, executive producer at Quay Street Productions which recently produced Netflix’s hit adaptation of Harlan Coben’s novel “Fool Me Once,” agrees that IP is more valuable than ever before. “Everybody is trying to make their project stand out in a really crowded marketplace,” he says.

Books are not only a proof of concept but, in the case of bestsellers, they come with a built-in audience. They also provide reassurance that the material is worth investing in because someone else — the publisher — has shelled out already. “That’s validation for these companies,” Richman says.

Producers are now moving increasingly early to sign option deals – sometimes before the book is even finished. Richman sold Margot Lee Shetterly’s “Hidden Figures” based on the proposal (the film wrapped before she’d even finished the book) and is currently fielding “multiple offers” on a non-fiction book proposal by another author.

“Often, we option books a year in advance of publication,” says Camilla Young, head of media rights at Curtis Brown.

With IP “at a premium”, as Gregory puts it, one way to get a head start is at the major book markets. In addition to London, there’s the Bologna children’s book fair in Italy next month — a magnet for book scouts from Disney and other animation companies — and the historic Frankfurt market in Germany, which is considered more international, every fall.

With no major U.S. book market operating since the pandemic, LBF has found itself positioned to take advantage of what Rapley describes as the screen industry’s “war for content.” “I’m fully aware that there are producers, commissioning editors coming along to London Book Fair,” he says. “And I think it’s a core bit of what we see as the future of London Book Fair as well.” It’s helpful the fair is owned and organized by RX Global, the company behind TV markets including Mipcom.

LBF comprises three strands – exhibits from publishers ranging from majors to indies, an international rights center to connect publishers and content makers and an industry program featuring panels, talks and readings. This year participants include “Daisy Jones and the Six” author Taylor Jenkins Reid; U.K. television host Richard Osman, whose crime novel “The Thursday Murder Club” has already been snapped up by Amblin Entertainment with Ol Parker set to direct; and “Good Omens” actor Michael Sheen, who will be discussing A Writing Chance, a writing competition he co-founded.

There is no sign the appetite for adaptations is letting up, despite the economic slowdown and strikes. Young says she’s still “inundated” with interest for pre-existing content. “Broadcasters are so mindful of the money they’re spending in production, they want to know there’s a safety net, there’s a guaranteed audience,” she says.

Upcoming major adaptations include David E. Kelley’s take on Tom Wolfe’s novel “A Man in Full” for Netflix starring Jeff Daniels and Diane Lane, Blake Crouch’s adaptation of his own novel “Dark Matter” for Apple TV+, Holly Jackson’s “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” on the BBC starring “Wednesday’s” Emma Myers, and Hulu’s adaptation of Georgia Hunter’s bestselling World War II novel “We Were the Lucky Ones.” Quay Street Productions, meanwhile, has already lined up two more Harlan Coben novels for Netflix: “Missing You” and “Run Away.”

Such is the obsession with adaptations that Young has said she’s even heard of screenwriters being asked to write a book about an original idea instead of a screenplay. “There’s a kind of weight to a book that gives the project gravitas,” she says. No wonder director Matthew Vaughn went to extreme lengths to fool audiences into thinking his latest film, “Argylle,” was based on a spy thriller by an enigmatic debut author called Elly Conway before it was eventually revealed that it had been co-written as an accompaniment to the movie by two veteran authors, Terry Hayes and Tammy Cohen, at Vaughn’s behest.

Of course, not every publishing trend will translate onto screen. The latest big thing in books is “romantasy,” a portmanteau of romance and fantasy. Despite the promise of optioning the next “Twilight,” the potential expense in bringing the genre to life mean’s it’s been harder to get execs to bite.

Which begs the question whether it’s really books that are influencing the screen or if it’s the other way round, especially since the success of “Fool Me Once” on Netflix has seen publishers inundated with Harlan Coben-style contemporary crime manuscripts. “There is a flow, but the flow is not always in sync,” says Gregory. “But definitely, the two worlds do talk to each other.”

Fee, who’s working on an original screenplay with Coben that isn’t based on one of his books (“Lazarus” for Amazon Prime Video), agrees the trends flow both ways. “I think it’s a really interesting symbiotic relationship,” he says. “Because in a lot of ways, we’re all trying to do the same thing, which is to just tell great stories.”

Book-to-screen trends to look out for:

Romantasy

Think “Game of Thrones” meets “Bridgerton,” with lots of sex and dragons. “There’s been a big push for lots of romance and more kind of epic love stories. I think that we’re getting asked a lot of that,” says Richman, who cites Rebecca Yarros’s “Fourth Wing” as the potential next “Twilight.”

Books already made into films being adapted for TV

“One Day” was first adapted as a feature starring Anne Hathaway in 2011 by Lone Scherfig before Drama Republic remade it as a series for Netflix. Meanwhile, the last “Harry Potter” came out in 2010 and a reboot is in development at Warner Bros. Discovery for a 10-season series. “Broadcasters [are] not wanting to spend a huge amount of money on untested water,” says Young. “So yeah, there’s a lot of remaking happening.”

Authors as IP

Authors such as Agatha Christie or Shakespeare transcend their own work, their names becoming as valuable IP as their actual writing. Some contemporary authors — such as Harlan Coben — are reaching the same kind of brand recognition. “Harlan’s name has such recognition for audiences,” says Fee. “They know that when they turn up for a Harlan Coben show he’s going to deliver on their expectations.”

Author anthologies

With authors becoming IP, producers are increasingly interested in a series of stories by one brand-name writer. “Lots of producers are now asking like, ‘Can we do a Harlan Coben on another author?’” says Young. “It’s not really an anthology series, but a kind of returning drama with finite stories under a banner of an author’s name.”

More films, less TV adaptations

With a contraction in TV, publishers are once again seeing more interest from film producers. “It was a great year for movies,” says Richman. “We’ve seen a big uptick in the feature market.”

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