Letter From Hollywood: What makes Sammy sell?

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence