Get on the phone with Ron Bernstein (like many agents, he loves to gab) and he’ll happily share his views on who’s up and down at the studios — and inevitably, he’ll talk about his latest deals. On a recent call, he hyped the Redstone family power saga by James Stewart and Rachel Abrams, “Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Hollywood Media Empire”; sure enough, within weeks it sold to producer Steven Paul, who’s developing the juicy Shakespearean drama for television.
Bernstein is Hollywood’s most respected media rights agent. He’s repped the source material for the Coen brothers’ Best Picture winner “No Country for Old Men” (Cormac McCarthy), Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (Doris Kearns Goodwin), Danny Boyle’s “Jobs” (Walter Isaacson), and Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” (Marie Brenner).
Now, he has a new job. After a 23-year run at ICM, which CAA bought in 2022, Bernstein recently joined the Agency for the Performing Arts as senior VP of media rights. In his office, he has a hand-drawn thank-you note from client Margaret Atwood, portraying him as a superhero, complete with a cape and lightning bolt.
What makes Bernstein different from other Hollywood agents isn’t his career longevity or his age (he turns 82 next week). Pre-ICM, when Bernstein was at the Gersh Agency, his colleague Nancy Nigrosh asked him to describe what literary agents do in a simple sentence. He responded: “What literary agents do is undocumented performance art.”
Performance is part of his persona. He dresses to be seen in colorful duds from a closet that favors Gaultier, Gucci, and Gigli, as well as vintage kimonos and embroidered robes. He’s also a renowned and peripatetic collector, moving from English Art Deco to Arts and Crafts, collections that he sold at auction; he also sold his home that was impeccably furnished with Austrian Art Nouveau. “Now I’m collecting Memphis Milano,” he told me on the phone.
But none of that would matter if he wasn’t so very good at his work. As Nigrosh told me recently, “I see Ron as a trusted champion, a maven in all respects. He knows the business.”
His current roster includes an enviable assortment of authors: Atwood, Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, Mark Bowden, Alice Hoffman, and Candace Bushnell. The agent helped their works become “A Handmaid’s Tale” (the sixth and final season will air in 2024), “A Series of Unfortunate Events” (film, TV series, video game), “Black Hawk Down,” “Practical Magic,” and “Is There Still Sex in the City?” (in development at Paramount TV).
“What sets Ron apart is his flamboyant style, his sense of humor and his extraordinary taste,” wrote his filmmaker client Alex Gibney in an email. “He’s a deep reader. So he knows what writers do and how to interpret and value their work. You meet a lot of agents who know how to sell. Ron’s one of the few who knows exactly what he’s selling and why.”
After more than 40 years in the business, tenacity keeps Bernstein at the top of the book-selling pyramid. After decades of failed attempts to turn longtime client Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta detective series into a two-hour movie, in February he closed a massive deal with Amazon Studios, which gave the project a two-season straight-to-series order to star and be produced by Nicole Kidman and Jamie Lee Curtis. And when everyone figured that mercurial Tommy Wiseau would never allow his semi-autobiographical stage play “The Room” to be made into a movie, Bernstein wore him down. The scrappy 2003 indie earned terrible reviews — and cult status.
Over the decades, Bernstein saw his business morph from TV movies of the week to studio two-hour features to streaming series. There’s still a market for IP, but it keeps evolving and Bernstein keeps up with it.
Among Bernstein’s claims to fame is Emmy-winning “The Handmaid’s Tale.” As Atwood’s agent, he sold it to Hulu in 2015. The series launched in 2017 and with it, Hulu’s reputation. After taking a year to untangle all the rights, it took a while to find the right approach to the story. It was originally developed at Showtime where, Bernstein said, it “went in the wrong direction.” That changed with showrunner Bruce Miller at Hulu.
“Bruce Miller understood it in its skin,” Bernstein said. “The first couple of seasons are flawless. Its success is due to the fact that Trump was elected. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, would ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ have resonated at the same level? The clothing of that show, the red cloak and bonnet, became a worldwide symbol of women victims. Atwood got the idea for it from a Dutch cleanser can.”
After graduating from Wayne State University, Bernstein began his career at the Lantz-Donadio agency in New York where he worked with James Baldwin at the end of his career (“he was charismatic, to spend time with him was extraordinary”). He also worked with artist Edward Gorey, who liked to wear a raccoon coat and tennis shoes and whose miniature books were published by the Gotham bookstore. When stage play “Dracula” made Frank Langella a star, it “galvanized Gorey’s career,” said Bernstein. “He designed the costumes and sets in black-and-white. The only color was red in the second act.”
In the early ’80s, when Bernstein ran his own scrappy New York firm, he repped curmudgeonly authors like Joseph Mankiewicz, Anthony Burgess, and Larry Kramer. That was the reign of the two-hour TV movie of the week. “The networks were very productive, doing 20-30 a year,” he said. “In those days, I would get four or five bidders for a Nora Roberts title. It was that competitive, a lucrative business.”
He even sold a Joan Rivers TV movie, “Your Wife or Your Money,” which he described as “perfectly terrible. We thought CBS would maybe do a series of shows starring Joan. That was that!”
In 1986, Bernstein moved to Los Angeles and launched a 13-year stint with Gersh, where he started its book division, repping Alice Hoffman (“Practical Magic”) and and Jefferey Deaver (“The Bone Collector”). In 2000, he moved to ICM, where his authors included Mikal Gilmore (“Shot in the Heart”) and Mark Bowden (“Black Hawk Down”).
The TV movie became stultified in the pre-streaming ’90s and gave way to TV series such as Joyce Carol Oates’ Lifetime title “We Were the Mulvaneys” and the two-hour studio movie. Bernstein was also behind feature adaptations such as Wil Haygood’s “The Butler,” McCarthy’s “The Road,” and David Sheff’s memoir “Beautiful Boy.”
In 2005, Didion published “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which Bernstein considers “one of best memoirs ever written.” He didn’t think it would work as a film, so he and producer Scott Rudin set it up as a one-woman play starring Vanessa Redgrave. The piece traveled to France with Marion Cotillard and Australia with Cate Blanchett. “It became a stage play for seminal actresses in a particular country,” said Bernstein.
Less successful was another Didion adaptation, “The Last Thing He Wanted.” It had initial interest from Todd Field, who collaborated on a script with Didion, but the $30 million-budgeted film wound up at Netflix with director Dee Rees and stars Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck. It was a critical flop; Bernstein was unsurprised.
“The drafts were not there,” said Bernstein. “Because her novel writing is very spare, in order to dramatize, you need to fill out more than what is on the page. The film leaves out who the characters are.”
Inevitably, the Hollywood high-end book movie that Bernstein loved gave way to the streamers. There’s not much of a studio market for literary adaptations anymore.
“I can’t think of an acclaimed literary novel in the last decade that has had success as a movie,” said Bernstein. “There’s no ‘The Hours,’ ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ or ‘The World According to Garp.’ I had hoped to get a limited series out of [Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel] ‘The Goldfinch,’ but I brought it to Netflix too early. They said, ‘Bring me Christopher Nolan.'” (The 2019 adaptation directed by John Crowley (“Brooklyn”) wound up a legendary noble failure at Warners.)
Clearly, streaming is the market for Bernstein’s clients now. Recently set up at Amazon is “Stone Mattress,” based on Atwood’s short story, to be directed by Lynne Ramsey. Also upcoming is an Ava DuVernay film for Netflix, “Caste,” inspired by the Isabell Wilkerson book. A second season is in the works for Amazon’s “The Peripheral,” adapted by “Westworld” creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy from the 2014 sci-fi post-apocalyptic novel by William Gibson.
One of Bernstein’s great regrets is never realizing a home for Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 bestseller “The Poisonwood Bible.” “It bounced around, was developed so many times, and came so close,” he said. “It may have new life yet again.” For now, Bernstein is settling for selling her new blockbuster book “Demon Copperhead” as a limited series. “It’s in the works,” he said.