INSIDE THE BELTWAY

Years ago, when I was a fledgling movie lawyer, knowledgeable agents and publicists would talk about ’The buy.’

Years ago, when I was a fledgling movie lawyer, knowledgeable agents and publicists would talk about ’The buy.’

Years ago, when I was a fledgling movie lawyer, knowledgeable

agents and publicists would talk about ’The buy.’



This was a technique widely reputed to be used by the major movie

studios - MGM, Columbia, Universal, Paramount and Warner Bros. (RKO made

films, but as my father observed, ’Like the Los Angeles Country Club,

they don’t admit movie people.’) ’The buy’ consisted of substantial

(several thousand copies of books at a time) purchases of novels from

which the studio had just acquired the rights to make a motion

picture.



To be sure, this was not merely a bonus to the author or the publisher,

but a calculated commercial effort. ’The buy’ was a purchase of

movie-optioned books, but only from selected bookstores, those believed

by the studio to be the stores counted by The New York Times for its

bestseller list. Once on the list, the theory went, the novel would

stay, and its bestseller status would become self-fulfilling.



The Times used only a few bookstores in certain cities to sample and

compile its list, and the Hollywood belief was that certain agents

and/or studios had acquired this closely guarded secret list, thus to

assure their clients’ properties would be seen as popular, and thus

become popular for as long as needed until release of the film.



It didn’t last. The Times began changing stores to confound the

manipulators, prices of books soared, competition became broader and

stronger and independent production lessened the studio incentive.



Finally, in an attempt to drive a stake into the heart of the practice,

the Times began some years ago to place a typographical ’dagger’ beside

the bestseller listing of some books, indicating ’they appear to have

been purchased in bulk.’ (The major beneficiary of this year’s ’buy’

appears to be spiritualist Peggy Noonan’s diatribe against Hillary

Rodham Clinton.)



The effort has been tried - and has almost always failed - with

movies.



On the theory that stern internal discipline might work better than

money, disciples of Scientology were urged to flock to a movie,

Battlefield Earth, starring member John Travolta and based on a book by

founder L. Ron Hubbard - so it would appear in newspaper lists of top

weekly grosses. Alas, the film foundered, and was quickly withdrawn.



Contrast this with one of the great unbought marketing gimmicks of

publishing history - kids by the thousands lined up and counting down at

midnight for the early sale of the new Harry Potter book. As some old

movie folk used to urge, ’Just give the people what they want.’



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