The deal to bring Michael Crichton’s Airframe to the screen remains one of the biggest ever – yet the project stalled.
In the 1990s, there was something of a land rush for the late Michael Crichton novels on the big screen. Jurassic Park was the forerunner of this, of course, with the 1993 blockbuster based on Crichton’s book of the same name launching one of the biggest cinematic franchises to date. A sixth film is currently in the works, for release in 2021.
Furthermore, the mighty Congo made it to the screen a year or two later. And even as Jurassic Park was being prepared, there was something of a battle that led to Crichton’s Rising Sun coming out around the same time. Disclosure, meanwhile, would become a major talking point book and movie in the same decade.
The one book that he wrote in the 90s that seemed most primed to become a movie though was the thriller Airframe. I remember reading and enjoying this at the time, a techno thriller first published in 1996 about a quality assurance vice president at an aerospace manufacturer. When one of the planes her company has manufactured goes wrong, leaving three people dead and lots more injured, in she goes to investigate. Given that the book is 352 pages long, you can safely assume that she discovers foul play.
Whilst Airframe was never going to make much of an in-flight movie, it was a keenly sought-after text for movie studios. After all, the Crichton name alone was becoming box office currency, but this was clearly going to be an expensive deal to make.
As this Los Angeles Times article from the year 2000 describes, Crichton became a powerful figure in the movies and TV too, the latter in particular when he created the juggernaut medical drama, ER.
To get a flavour of the power he had at the time, though, go back to Airframe. In the end, the bidding war for the book was won by Touchstone Pictures, then still an active arm of Disney. It paid a jaw-dropping $10m for the rights to the book. To give this some perspective, Dan Brown got $3m for the rights to The Da Vinci Code, whilst E L Grey secured in the region of $5m for her Fifty Shades trilogy.
To date, the price paid for Airframe is believed to be one of the highest ever for a single book.
With Touchstone backing the film, and Disney keen to fast-track it, names started swirling around. Demi Moore, Sigourney Weaver and Gwyneth Paltrow were all mentioned as possibles for the lead role. Work on the script thus got underway.
Which is both where the film came a cropper, and where the power of Crichton was further demonstrated.
For a few years, various scripts came and went, with none of them passing muster with Crichton. Not only had he trousered $10m, but he had the rights to effectively veto any screenplay. Bottom line: he wasn’t happy with what he was seeing. As such, Disney took the surprising and quite drastic decision to take the film off its development slate. Crichton, for his part, returned the advance in its entirety. The $10m deal wasn’t just dead, but Disney got its money back.
Instead, rather than Airframe pressing ahead – and to this date, a movie has never been made of the book – Crichton put his efforts into his next project, Timeline, and getting a movie of that off the ground. That one would happen, but its story would be an extremely bumpy one, and the end result both delayed and derided.
There’s still a chance that Airframe may make it to the screen. A few years ago, the ICM agency inked a deal to develop his thus-far unfilmed books for the big and small screen, working in tandem with Crichton’s widow. There haven’t been fruits of that deal as of yet, but it’s a fair bet that Airframe is one of the projects that’s been considered.
Just don’t expect the rights to cost so much money this time around…
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