Brendan Deneen Takes Macmillan From Publisher to Producer

In English Language by Peter Cook

What profitable, forward-thinking publishing house would not want to run its very own film/TV production company?

By Peter Cook

What solidly profitable, forward-thinking publishing house would want to run its very own film/TV production company? Or, rather, what solidly profitable, forward-thinking publishing house would not want to run its very own film/TV production company? Why scatter precious seed money on the hardscrabble mountainside that is Hollywood? Or, why not mine the incredibly gravid story vein right underfoot when all it costs is a pickaxe and a prayer?

Brendan Deneen of Thomas Dunne Books

As boardroom clamor for sanity and solvency roars down the corridors toward imprint editors, the distinction between heresy and orthodoxy becomes purely a matter of perspective. A little perspective: so far, of the tens of thousands of publishers, a mere handful has started production companies — with Random House Films and Alloy Entertainment as exemplars. Bridges and tunnels and wormholes connecting Publishers Row to Hollywood are anything but new; everyone knows Hollywood loves books, everyone knows moviegoers and TV audiences and awards academies love Hollywood fare based on books. Obviously, despite factious experts, there is lift — the idea can fly. But what makes it fly, this publisher-as-producer contraption?

Brendan Deneen, an editor at the Thomas Dunne Books imprint of St. Martin’s Press at Macmillan offers his bird’s-eye view from the new Macmillan Films — an enterprise born from and borne by a good old-fashioned publishing slush pile Cinderella story:

“I had been looking for a Young Adult time-travel book for a couple years preceding my time here at Thomas Dunne . . . I was an agent before I came here. Technically, I was a manager . . . I was looking through a pile of emails looking for a time-travel book because I really thought a YA time-travel book could be the next Twilight. I found her book. I’d passed on it twice — Tempest — which at the time was called ‘Enemies of Time’. [She] was working at a YMCA in Illinois, [mother of] three kids . . . She is an incredible writer . . . Her name’s Julie Cross.” Deneen asked Cross to work with him to rewrite the book, and the author agreed.

“It was a much different end book with a very similar concept,” says Deneen. “She and I worked together very closely on a re-write . . . I helped her get an agent — at FinePrint [Literary Management], in fact — my old agency…because of the amount of work I did developing it with her I felt that it was appropriate for me to keep the film rights. And luckily she agreed. Summit Entertainment — the producers of Twilight — ended up pre-empting that directly from us.”

The result was a film deal and sixteen foreign rights deals. The book, part of a trilogy, will come out on January 3rd, and, says Deneen, “The blog reviews from people who’ve gotten galleys are incredible. Almost unanimously falling in love with the book . . . I just think that it’s something very special. I feel very lucky to be involved with it . . . And that was sort of the start — that was the start — of Macmillan Films.”

With September’s release of the novel Vacation by Matt Costello, Thomas Dunne Books released further evidence of Mr. Deneen’s hands-on hybridization:

“Vacation is a unique — very unique — situation. Vacation was a short story that Matt Costello first published many years ago in Cemetery Dance Magazine — which was then collected into Cemetery Dance Vol. 2, a good collection of [previously] published Cemetery Dance short stories. I was a Director of Development at Dimension Films. During my first few weeks there I got a copy of that collection. I gave it to my assistant Vince Mitchell. I asked him to read it and let me know if anything was film-worthy. He flagged one story: “Vacation.” I read it and loved it. Totally agreed with him. Gave it to my bosses. Ultimately, either my immediate boss, Andrew Rona, or Bob Weinstein himself passed on it — which I was really shocked about. I thought it was such an obvious thing for film. And Vince and I — my assistant at the time, but we’re also pretty good friends — we just kept talking about it. We ended up going to Matt Costello and asked him for a $1 option for the short story, which he was happy to give because Matt’s a great guy.

“Vince and I actually wrote a screenplay based on the short story. And got an agent — actually got a very good agent. And we almost had it set up with a good horror director and, as happens often, the project fell through; we had another bite, and that one fell through, too. And then it just sort of went away. So when I started as an editor here at Thomas Dunne Books, one of the first things I wanted to do was have Matt write a book — a Vacation novel based on our screenplay! — which was, of course, based on his short story. Which is what happened and now that’s part of the Macmillan Films umbrella and we’re currently shopping that around, have some interest and hopefully that will be happening as a film. So it’s been a very full circle with this project . . . “

What does a publisher-producer produce? Ideas? Money? Both? Mr. Deneen:

“I think what Alloy’s [Alloy Entertainment] doing is really smart: creating IP and selling to a publisher, but controlling the intellectual property. You know, the one benefit we have over Alloy is that we are a publishing company . . . We come up with an idea, we hire a writer, the writer gets a piece of everything including the movie or TV show spin-off if it happens. But we control it. We’re the ones who set it up in conjunction with our agent in LA . . . our agent [Sylvie Rabineau] will get it out there to the right people . . . Between her and myself we’re able to get the material in front of a lot of eyeballs . . . The problem is that generally publishers don’t keep the film rights for books they buy. Usually, we don’t have those rights. Which is why creating ideas is a somewhat easier way of doing this. However there are books at other imprints where we do have the rights; we are absolutely getting that material out to production companies and studios.”

What Does a Publisher-Producer Look Like?

“I had no real professional editorial experience: they took a chance on me,” Mr. Deneen admits, “I appreciate Tom [Dunne] and [Associate Publisher] Pete Wolverton taking a chance on me.”

Hardly a leap of blind faith, though; Mr. Deneen had been well-fledged throughout the previous decade:

“I came to New York when I was twenty-five not knowing anyone except my girlfriend, who is now my wife. I came to New York knowing less than nothing about the industry. All I knew was that I wanted to write and act . . . I took a job at William Morris at twenty-eight years old in 1999; I took that job to maybe get an agent for my writing . . . But what luck: I started as assistant to [the late] Owen Laster at William Morris.”

After an ad on Mediabistro caught his eye, Mr. Deneen found himself learning from cross-pollinator extraordinaire Scott Rudin. Next came a stint under Andrew Rona (Dimension Films); he then topped off his filmdom education working in development for both Bob and Harvey Weinstein. After a “falling out with Harvey,” Mr. Deneen resisted the temptation to uproot his family to go west where jobs were offered him; he remained in New York and lucked into FinePrint Literary Management — where unlucky timing soon found him at wit’s end struggling:

“The economy was tanking . . . the screenwriters were striking, I had a one-year-old daughter . . . and a huge pay cut . . . I loved it [literary management] but it became, for me and my family, ultimately economically unfeasible . . . It was a very tough decision. As of December ’09, I was prepared to leave the industry altogether . . . I’m trying to stay realistic about the way life takes you on these journeys, if I may wax philosophic. It’s been intense. I’m certainly happy to be now at such a venerable institution. If I were a religious man, I’d say I feel very blessed.”

A Publishing-Producer: Nature or Nurture?

Everyone grows up wanting to do certain things . . . I grew up reading comic books and reading books and watching movies . . . Those are the three things that I love to do . . . I was pitching Marvel and DC when I was in high school. Got close once. An original idea when I was fifteen. Which didn’t happen, but…I wrote my first novel when I was a senior in high school. It was awful . . . When I was a junior in college, I wrote my second one while I was away [University of Glasgow]. It was based on the R.E.M. song ‘Driver 8.’ I sent them a copy and never heard from them. Which is, you know, a shame . . . then, there’s a kid’s story called Mortimer the Lazy Bird. Which I still love . . . It got produced off-off-Broadway in 2000.

And then, a fourth novel: Freakshow, just finished it. Based on Dante’s Inferno about a kid who runs away to the circus. The kid is Dante, the circus is Hell and the ringmaster is Virgil . . . I have an agent who loved it. I was so happy to be done. He asked me to do a couple of rewrites — which I need to do. But I don’t know when I could get myself in the mind-space to do yet another rewrite on this book. I hope to finish it this fall, though . . . It’s just a hobby — a fun thing . . . [like] comic books.

I write and publish Flash Gordon, we publish another bunch of books including the Atlas Comics — a rebirth, which was a 1970s short-lived line of comics that was created by Martin Goodman who also created Marvel Comics. When he retired from Marvel, he created Atlas Comics which only lasted a year but produced 28 titles; I reached out to his grandson Jason Goodman and together we re-launched three of the old Atlas titles with more to come . . . when you get an opportunity to do the things that you grew up loving and you’ve always wanted to do, it’s hard to say no to exciting opportunities . . .

The most important thing is my day job as an editor at Thomas Dunne Books. That’s my job. Everything else — when I have free time, I budget…of course, my writing gets pushed back because it’s the thing that is most hobby-ish of all my hobbies . . . I’m an editor at an incredible division of St. Martin’s Press and I work with this film division that hopefully we’ll expand in the near future . . . And I get to write and publish comics in my spare time.

Several projects are under wraps at nascent Macmillan Films: Seal Team 666 — to be written by Weston Ochse; Grimm City, co-created with Gareth Jefferson Jones and to be written by K.W. Jeter — a Philip K. Dick protégé; Single-Minded; and Cityscape, for starters. Under Macmillan/Holtzbrinck thrive some 50+ imprints. “I’ve met with the heads of some of the other imprints,” says Deneen. “Everybody’s interested.”

For any publishing house contemplating its own production wing, wouldn’t putting up a shingle and hiring a handful of Brendan Deneens armed with telephones seem a safe way to hedge the bet? Aren’t Hollywood’s development ranks teeming and ripe for cherry-picking? Is the next book-to-film franchise craze hiding in a nearby slush pile or neglected backlist? Could those ever-elusive new profits materialize from sheer chutzpah and caffeine-powered spitballing? Might not putting a handful of first-class daydreamers on the payroll add to the fun and profit of it all?

Einstein once borrowed from Hollywood to observe: “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

DISCUSS: Do Books Translate More Easily to Film Than TV?

About the Author

Peter Cook

Peter Cook is a writer living in California. His work includes screenplays, stage plays, and nonfiction.