PAGING HOLLYWOOD / BOOKS INTO MOVIES

The buyer: MGM

The deal: MGM acquires the rights to "The Matarese Circle," a novel about two high-level spies who are sworn enemies but join forces to defeat a worldwide criminal conspiracy.

The players: Denzel Washington attached to star; Nick Wechsler, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Jeffrey Weiner —- chief executive of Ludlum Entertainment —- producing; Michael Brandt and Derek Haas ("3:10 to Yuma") writing the script. The 1979 novel is published by Bantam.

The back story: When MGM recently paid $3 million for the rights to the Cold War thriller, it was widely seen as a bid by Mary Parent, the studio's new head, to develop a franchise rivaling Ludlum's Bourne movies. But the story of how the package was assembled —- and the strategy of the Ludlum estate in approving book-to-film deals —- is also noteworthy. Indeed, Wechsler ("We Own the Night") approached Weiner three years ago about adapting "The Matarese Circle." Before it could proceed, the estate had to track down and reacquire the rights from a company that went bankrupt.

Only then could Weiner begin working with Wechsler and di Bonaventura ("Transformers") on a pitch updating Ludlum's action-packed novel. "Denzel met with everybody, he grilled everybody on the pitch," Wechsler said, before signing on. When the screenwriters were attached, sponsors approached studios. "Hopefully, it's another triple-A franchise. It's great material," said Parent, who beat out several competitors for the rights.

But as potent as the Ludlum brand may be, Weiner is determined not to flood the market. The author's estate has approved three other projects at different studios. "The current plan is to do a Bourne movie every three years, and in other years when we don't have a Bourne movie out, we'll have other Ludlum films," Weiner said. "And we're going to be careful not to copy Bourne. 'The Matarese Circle' is a different story. We don't need to imitate Bourne to build a new franchise."

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