By Sharon Waxman
LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) - How badly did Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan want "50 Shades of Grey," the erotic novel that became the must-have property over the past week?
Badly enough to offer a staggering $9 million for the trilogy of novels for his New Regency production company, TheWrap has learned.
Despite that bid, the property went to Universal Pictures and its arthouse sister Focus Features on Monday after a weekend war between nearly a dozen Hollywood bidders.
In fact, TheWrap has further learned that Universal and Focus paid far lower than Milchan's offer.
Universal paid $4 million for the first novel against $5 million from the box-office gross, according to a knowledgeable individual. The studio also built in provisions to option the next two novels, the individual said.
E.L. James, the television writer whose novel has landed on the New York Times bestseller list, told interviewers on Monday that she sold the property to Universal and Focus because the arthouse studio has "a great background in handling difficult material."
And, she said, the studio gave her significant control over script and casting.
That makes some sense. What makes less sense is how far the chairman of New Regency was willing to go to get the rights.
Two individuals close to the negotiation confirmed that Milchan offered $9 million for the rights to all three novels about a college student, Anastasia Steele, who pursues an erotic relationship of sadomasochism and submission with a 27-year-old billlionaire named Christian Grey.
The novel has taken fire across a female readership, and sparked the Hollywood bidding war.
Milchan did not respond to an email requesting comment.
The two sequels, "50 Shades Darker" and "50 Shades Freed," probe into the couple's deepening relationship.
The $9 million sum would be fairly unprecedented in Hollywood for an unproven literary property, with no actor, director or writer attached.
But there's more to this story than the high competition of Hollywood. Milchan seems desperate to breathe new life into the company he founded some three decades ago, lately known for making "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movies.
In September Milchan fired co-chairmen Bob Harper and Hutch Parker and brought in Paramount's former president of production Brad Weston to replace them.
Then in December Milchan wrote a somewhat bullying note to his staff, demanding a change in culture and reflecting anxiety that his company was becoming irrelevant.
"We're not here to continue the old regime creatively, but to create a new world," he pleaded at the time."
"If this is not within your reach, please be honest with me. I've done it for the last 35 years and built a great company -- I do not feel I deserve to have it evaporate. I need a timeline for Regency to become the home of great TV and movie makers."
Milchan, who comes from a fortune built on Israeli arms sales, might be more accustomed to strong-arming than nurturing (a trait Israel and Hollywood probably share.) And he isn't afraid to pay, it turns out.
This time, too much money was not enough. (Editing by Chris Michaud)