Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: CBS Films has redrawn its plans to launch a film franchise based on the Vince Flynn novel series about CIA agent  and Mitch Rapp. Ed Zwick has come aboard to direct an adaptation of American Assassin, a bestseller published last fall by Atria. Though it was the 11th book in the  Rapp series, American Assassin was a prequel that told the story of how, as a college scholar and athlete, tragedy forged Rapp’s path to become a ruthless hunter of terrorists for the CIA.

CBS Films, which first acquired the rights to Flynn’s popular book series in 2008, originally intended to start with Consent to Kill, an action-packed thriller that contains several twists that change Rapp’s life permanently. CBS Films got as far as attaching Antoine Fuqua to direct and courting Gerard Butler, Colin Farrell and Lost’s Matthew Fox to play Rapp.

Instead, Flynn’s prequel novel provided a way to start the series at the very beginning of Rapp’s covert career. That means they will tap the strong crop of young leading men, much the way that Paramount Pictures signed Chris Pine to re-launch its Jack Ryan series. Consent to Kill will come later.

Zwick is writing the script with partner Marshall Herskovitz, and they will join Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Nick Wechsler as producers. Zwick last directed Love and Other Drugs, and Defiance and Blood Diamond before that.

“We were prepping Consent to Kill when Vince told us he was going to tell Mitch Rapp’s origin story in American Assassin,” said CBS Films president/CEO Amy Baer. “From there it was a natural decision to introduce audiences to Mitch Rapp, the man before he became the legend.”

Flynn, whose series has sold over 13 million copies in the U.S., said in a statement: “I have no doubt that Edward Zwick will do an incredible job of bringing Mitch Rapp to the big screen. Ed is among the smartest and most innovative filmmakers in Hollywood and I am fully confident that he is the right man for this job.”

This deal marks a continuing transition by CBS Films into a more active presence on the film circuit. I’d been tough on Les Moonves’ movie division and how it was shackled by a budget ceiling that forced it to look for partnerships on promising films like the Flynn series. But Baer and COO Wolfgang Hammer have been aggressive lately on several fronts. They’ve acquired properties with franchise potential like Marie Wu’s novel trilogy Legend and Lenore Appelhans’ young adult novel Level 2 (the movie rights were acquired before other studios got the material and the deal closed as CBS Films’ sister company Simon & Schuster closed the publishing deal). CBS Films is also partnering with Warner Bros on a screen adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal apocalyptic novel The Stand.

CBS Films has also been aggressive in the acquisitions space.  After releasing the Jason Statham-Ben Foster-starrer The Mechanic, CBS Films acquired U.S. rights to the Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz-starrer Gambit, and the thriller The Woman in Black, the first major post-Harry Potter release for Daniel Radcliffe. CBS Films’ Hammer was a player on the Croisette during the Cannes Film Festival on several completed films, most notably the John Hillcoat-directed The Wettest County in the World, which went to The Weinstein Company. That kind of aggressiveness is how you put a film shingle on the map, and Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp book series gives the division a real shot at launching a franchise. CAA reps Zwick, Flynn’s repped by ICM.