Letter From Hollywood: What makes Sammy sell?

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The Independent Culture
When Budd Schulberg presented the manuscript of his now-notorious Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run? to his publishers at Random House in 1940, he was warned not to expect much in the way of sales. "The trouble," editor Bennet Cerf said, "is that people who read novels have no interest in Hollywood, and the people who go to movies don't read books."

As it turned out, Sammy proved the wise-cracking Mr Cerf entirely wrong, becoming a bestseller that ran and ran much like its unscrupulously ambitious hero - a humble office boy who tramples and cheats his way to the top of a Hollywood studio. The film and publishing worlds have continued to prove him wrong ever since, reaping the rewards of tie-in editions of books that are made into movies and churning out novelisations of box- office hits for the supermarket check-out counter.

Now, Schulberg's compulsively odious "all-American heel" Sammy Glick seems to be heralding a new trend in the strange confluence between literature and big-screen entertainment: the book that sees a boost in sales before the film version has even been made.

Since the summer, the unerringly strong sales of Schulberg's novel have become noticeably stronger, particularly in the Los Angeles area. In July it even made the LA Times's bestseller list. The reason? Apparently no more than a buzz in the entertainment industry that the comic actor Ben Stiller (now appearing on British screens in the adolescent farce There's Something About Mary) wants to turn it into a movie.

And where Sammy has led the way, others appear to be following. Bret Easton Ellis's shocker American Psycho started piling on sales a few weeks ago when it was rumoured that Leonardo DiCaprio was thinking of playing the lead. When DiCaprio finally declined, so did the sales.

For the most part, this is pretty arcane stuff, of course. A Hollywood executive might go out and buy 20 copies of a book for his staff, and actors might follow suit to see if they should instruct their agents to pursue a role, but most people outside the industry are unlikely to be caught up in this first wave of enthusiasm.

Until, that is, a film goes into production. According to Steve Chvany, a manager at the Hollywood store Book Soup, sales of books on their way to the big screen appear to follow the dictates of the studio's publicity machine rather than the publisher's. And that means that in many cases the excitement is all over once the film actually comes out.

Book Soup sold 100 copies of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient in the run-up to its Oscars scoop last year, but has only shifted eight since then. Chvany said that interest rapidly moved on to Ondaatje's other novels, particularly In the Skin of the Lion - presumably to scout out its movie potential - before falling off there too.

It was the same story with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Behrendt's hardy bestseller about dysfunctional relationships in Savannah, Georgia, which was adapted for the screen by Clint Eastwood last year. Book Soup sold 162 copies in the run-up to opening night, and only 38 since.

Current big sellers include What Dreams May Come, now a Robin Williams vehicle which has just come out in the States, and Toni Morrison's Beloved, soon to hit cinemas in a mega-production directed by Jonathan Demme and starring, of all people, Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah, of course, is a category unto herself, an arbiter of taste for the media age as well, according to the advance publicity, as a surprisingly accomplished actress; anything she recommends on her chat show automatically sells more, and anything she pans has a tendency to suffer. Since Toni Morrison is a particular passion of hers, it is not just Beloved that has put on sales. The entire back catalogue of Morrison's works has been performing 40 per cent better than usual.

One has to wonder whether these capricious movements in sales really reflect the discerning taste of the public, or if there is something more calculating afoot. Properties in Hollywood, whether they are novels, magazine articles or original screenplays, are rather like companies quoted on the stock market. Quality is not really the point so much as the confidence of those in a position to invest money.

If the buzz is right, a book's fortunes may soar as surely as Microsoft's market capitalisation - only to falter or collapse again if the movie project falls through or runs into difficulty. It doesn't matter if it is a masterpiece or a heap of trash, as long as it attracts the attention of the right people.

"There are still too many people out here more interested in boosting their own stock than in making pictures," says one of the characters in What Makes Sammy Run? And what was true of Hollywood of the late 1930s and 1940s has become little short of a mantra today.