BY NOW, WE ALL KNOW THAT HOLLYWOOd producers always chase after the same properties, that the sharks circle simply because the other sharks are circling. But still. On Oct. 21, after a frenetic bidding war, Robert Redford's backers at Disney Studios paid $3 million for the rights to Nicholas Evans's unfinished first novel, "The Horse Whisperer." Evans, 44, is a small-time British screenwriter, but the sale puts him in John Grisham's league. And he could have gotten more. Producer Jon Peters, who has a deal with Warner Bros., offered $3.5 million, but Evans's agents didn't want to be greedy.
"The Whisperer" is a sudsy, soap-operatic story about a teenager, Grace, and her beautiful horse, Pilgrim. There's a tragic accident, an amputation, a doomed love affair and a stampede of wild mustangs. (Redford will play the title character, a trainer who heals the horse; he'll also direct and produce.) Evans's book surfaced earlier this month at the Frankfurt Book Fair, in Germany, where his agent, the small British firm A.P. Watt, was pitching it as "a cross between 'The Bridges of Madison County' and 'All the Pretty Horses'." (Yeesh.) On Oct. 14, Michael Lynton, president of Hollywood Pictures, heard about it and got so excited that he had the 215-page manuscript faxed to him. Evans's agents were soon flooded with inquiries. "I called A.P. Watt, and they didn't understand the urgency of the situation," says a Hollywood agent. "They'd rather have tea."
A.P. Watt asked Creative Artists Agency to handle the sale. By Friday, Oct. 21, Disney, Warners and Sony had all bid at least $8 million. (Steven Spielberg passed.) Sources say that Peter Guber, at Sony, was loath to be beaten by his former partner Jon Peters, and that Disney was determined to prove it was stiff a major player. So much drama- and all before lunch. CAA wanted to close the deal before the end of the day. "You don't want people to think about it through the weekend," says a CAA source.
Evans spoke to all the producers from his home in London. Red-ford's people are said to have bristled when CAA insisted he pitch the author personally--"Rob-eft Redford doesn't audition"--but the actor got on the phone and, says Evans, "the guy's integrity just overpowered me." Sold--to the second highest hidden Evans has since peddled his book to Bantam publishers in Britain for roughly $500,000, and he's expected to command $1 million in America. This is heady stuff for a writer whose last screenplay was for the little-seen "Just Like a Woman" about a cross-dressing bankeR "It's totally bewildering," he says. Don't dwell on it, Mr. Evans. You've got a novel to finish.
Big books, big deals. All the precedents, then:
John Grisham's debut, "A Time To Kill," laterr went for $6 million.
Grisham's latest, a death-row meditation called "The Chamber," sold for $3.75 million.
After "Jurassic Park," Michael Crichton's "Disclosure" made $3.5 million.
Evans's "Horse Whisperer" brought $3 million--not bad for a beginner.
In prehistoric 1979, Gay Talese's "Thy Neighbor's Wife" sold for $2.5 million.