Mike Fleming

Salinger Documentary Harvey WeinsteinEXCLUSIVE: The Weinstein Company has acquired theatrical rights to Salinger, the Shane Salerno-directed feature documentary on the reclusive author of The Catcher In The Rye. The deal is seven figures, around $2 million, and covers world rights except for the previous deal that licensed U.S. television rights to PBS’ American Masters. The plan is to release later this year for Oscar season, and the deal came after Harvey Weinstein, David Glasser and the acquisition team were shown the film Sunday morning, the day of the Academy Awards. TWC was the only distributor that saw the finished film, and closed the deal right after. While everyone was partying over the Oscar weekend, TWC acquired Grace of Monaco with Nicole Kidman and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom with Idris Elba. All three of these films will be in the Oscar season discussion, as will Fruitvale, the film that came out of Sundance with strong buzz, and which TWC also acquired. After two years of winning Best Picture, Harvey Weinstein watched Argo best his two candidates, Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained. Looks like he really, really wants to be in the winner’s circle again.

That validates an unusual sales strategy that Salerno employed on the film with his lawyer Robert Offer. It was first shown to American Masters, which quickly closed a 7-figure licensing deal. The plan is to make it the 200th installment of that prestigious series, early next year. It was then shown to Jon Karp and his editors from Simon & Schuster, and right after they saw it, they closed a 7-figure publishing deal for a biography that Salerno wrote with David Shields.

Now, the documentary distribution rights are being sold to the only distributor that saw the film. I’m told that the entire deal for theatrical, publishing and U.S. TV rights will be north of $5 million, one of the richest pacts ever for a feature documentary.

For Salerno, this completes an eight year odyssey, and he has been made whole after investing $2 million of his own money into the documentary and the book. It also closes the circle for me; shortly after I arrived from Variety to Deadline Hollywood, Salinger passed away. This was not long after I’d seen an early cut of Salerno’s film. I thought it was absolutely fascinating. I haven’t seen it since, and the discretion shown in the dealmaking process indicates there are secrets that were held back. But here is what I said about it back then:

“I found the film, which doesn’t have narration, to be exhaustively researched and arrestingly powerful. Most importantly, it answers a lot of questions I and everyone have had about the author. There is previously unseen footage and photos, and a rich depiction of that unfathomable period in Salinger’s career when The New Yorker magazine was able to publish a new “J.D. Salinger” story fairly regularly.

There also are details of: his WWII soldiering in Normandy and interrogation of Nazi prisoners; his love affair with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona, and the crushing disappointment of losing her to Charlie Chaplin while Salinger fought in Europe; Salinger’s habit of locking himself away in his New Hampshire cinder block bunker for weeks at a time to write; his penchant for taking a week to craft a single sentence; the damage his silences caused his family; the futile efforts of friends to re-introduce him to the world; Salinger’s protectiveness towards his work; his refusal to sell anything to Hollywood, turning down 8-figure offers and first-class filmmakers like Billy Wilder and Steven Spielberg; his determination to maintain total control over his prose (so that when a New Yorker editor once added a comma, Salinger never spoke to him again).

Even more intriguing, Salerno’s documentary also reports on what J.D. Salinger literary works might be in the famed secret vault, where 45 years of unpublished writings are rumored to be kept.

Salerno told me the project began when he purchased the rights to Paul Alexander’s book Salinger: A Biography and tried to turn it into a feature. He realized during interviews with Salinger’s peers that these 80+-year-old men wouldn’t be around much longer. That’s when he switched focus to the documentary, which was still based on Alexander’s book. Salerno succeeded in getting to many sources just before they died, though sadly didn’t get there in time for others.

A feature would have been a challenge anyway, since Salinger was so litigious and protective of his privacy. (He sued successfully to stop a book that contained his unpublished letters, and halted a Catcher in the Rye sequel novel by another author.) Salinger never sued over Alexander’s book, however.

But other attempts to put Salinger on the big screen have been unsuccessful. W.P Kinsella’s book Shoeless Joe incorporated Salinger as a kidnapped character. When it was adapted for the screen into Field of Dreams in 1989, Salinger was turned into a fictionalized reclusive author “Terry Mann” played by James Earl Jones. In another project, Sean Connery acknowledged that the inspiration for his role in 2000′s Finding Forrester was Salinger, yet that character was fictionalized as “William Forrester”.

Salerno went into the documentary expecting it to be a 6-month project. But it grew into a five-year obsession.”