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Death Takes Edge Off Big Media Deals

By David Streitfeld and Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 25, 1997; Page D01

Utter depravity. Celebrities. High fashion. Sex. Violent death. This one had the ingredients to become the biggest and best media circus since O.J.

Instead, the story abruptly ended with Andrew Cunanan's suicide. Within a couple of months, according to a random survey of key book, film and television people, the tale will be as marketable to the American public as that of the World Trade Center bombers or the Heaven's Gate suicide team or Timothy McVeigh.

In other words, not very.

"Think of all the book deals that won't be done, the T-shirts that won't be sold, all the ink that won't be wasted," Washington book agent Rafe Sagalyn lamented yesterday. "They're probably in tears over at Court TV."

HBO spokesman Quentin Schaffer said: "At this point we have received no fewer than 20 proposals on Cunanan-Versace movies, but we have no plans to do any of them. For us there really has to be something that makes it very, very different."

Only two books and one film about the murders seem to be in the works. Sam Lupowitz, a Miami-based producer, is rushing into production "Fatal Encounter," a $2 million feature film about the parallel destinies of Cunanan and his last victim, high-flying fashion designer Gianni Versace.

"I don't care if everyone in this town thinks I'm an exploitive sleaze," Lupowitz said. "The curiosity factor has got to be immense."

Let's not be hasty here.

"It's over. History. Goodbye," said Villard Books publisher David Rosenthal, who wasn't that interested in Cunanan-Versace even when the killer was on the run. "There's probably a better book in the deaf Mexicans," who were smuggled here, held against their will and forced to sell trinkets. "It's a tragedy with much larger global implications."

Sagalyn had been putting together a deal for a book focusing on the police and FBI pursuit of the serial killer. "It was very hot until this morning," he said. "It would focus on the chase, not Cunanan's history. We were moving toward a proposal within the next three to five days, a six-month turnaround for the manuscript, and potentially a very nice situation."

Now the deal is all but dead. And Cunanan had such potential, too. "This guy was Zelig -- chameleon-like and hard to figure out," said Sagalyn. "The upper middle class, the book audience, could identify with him. Tim McVeigh was never compelling as a personality."

When New York publishing folk hear the words "senseless killing," they think of Charles Spicer. An editor at St. Martin's Press, Spicer has carved out a lucrative sideline publishing "instant" books about Susan Smith, Jeffrey Dahmer and similar high-profile murderers.

Spicer had clipped some articles about Cunanan last month, thinking there might be a book in the four killings he was then accused of. Then came the Versace murder.

"When an agent called me and said it's the gay serial killer who did it, I thought it was a joke," Spicer said. "If someone submitted this to me as fiction, I would have rejected it as unlikely. It's a wonder people still write novels."

Not just any big-deal murder or sensational suicide can expect instant book treatment. The Heaven's Gate suicides seemed like a huge story -- certainly the media went into instant overdrive -- but Spicer yawned.

The difference between Heaven's Gate and Cunanan is the difference between cult and psychopath, the editor said. "Cunanan was a guy who could have fit in any world. He would have seemed normal if you'd met him. The key is the familiar becomes frightening. Cults to us already seem strange."

Spicer will publish the instant book "Death at Every Stop" by true-crime writer Wensley Clarkson by the end of August, probably. No point in waiting any longer. "True-crime stories are covered more in magazines than they were 15 years ago. Just look at Time and Newsweek this week."

Delacorte will want people to shell out real money for a hardback next spring by Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth. The publisher paid what was rumored to be a nice six-figure sum for her to rework and expand her forthcoming magazine story.

Next spring will also see Little, Brown's publication of Christopher Mason's "Undress: The Life and Times of Gianni Versace." The English journalist had recently profiled the designer, and had hoped to write a biography with his cooperation.

"We had been talking about the book for a couple of weeks when Versace became a front-page story," said Little, Brown editorial director Fredrica Friedman. "It has an imperative now because of the unique and dramatic finale, if you will."

Hollywood, meanwhile, showed surprisingly little interest.

"I don't think it's up our alley," said NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks. "You have all the newspapers, the tabloids, the magazines -- what can we add to that?"

Spokesmen at other networks gave similar responses, pointing to the poor performance recently of reality-based television movies like last year's "Texas Cadet Murders" or the three TV melodramas about lover-plotters Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco. More in vogue, they said, are large-event movies, like this year's "Asteroid" or the airplane disaster miniseries "Pandora's Clock."

The subject matter of Cunanan and Versace -- involving gay prostitution and the flamboyantly wealthy lifestyle of the gay designer -- also poses some difficulty for the networks.

"Deal with it realistically, and you'll have problems on the right; deal with it otherwise, and you'll have problems from the left. It's a no-win situation," said Michael O'Hara, a producer who has made TV movies like "Murder in the Heartland," about serial killer Charles Starkweather.

He added: "The most effective TV movies have family at the heart of them, because that's what most people can connect with. Does the average person relate to Gianni Versace? Before he was murdered, I'd say most people hadn't heard of him."

Lupowitz, for one, has found a way around the thorny political issues posed by the murder. He intends to present it as a morality tale. "You will see a message in this movie, that it's a higher-risk lifestyle to be a high-profile fashion celebrity, roaming around without security, gay, picking up guys, than to be a heterosexual, married dentist with two children," he said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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