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Meet Shane Salerno, the ‘Avatar’ scribe who just happens to be Hollywood’s favorite book agent

When the movie series you’ve worked on for years has broken all kinds of box office records with its first installment, which is nominated for an Oscar for best picture, you’d be forgiven for not wanting to talk about anything else. Especially in the weeks leading up to the Oscars.

Shane Salerno, who has story credit for “Avatar: The Way of Water” and helped develop the next three films in the James Cameron saga (he’ll have screenplay credit for the fourth), is happy to describe the excitement. of getting the job (“We had to submit four separate scripts”) and being part of one of the most secretive franchises in Hollywood (“It was a locked room, no one could get in but us, we all had key cards because there were blackboard walls with a trillion dollar worth of ideas”).

But he’s just as eager to talk about the success of the authors he represents through his local agency, Story Factory, including, but not limited to: clients Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner’s bestseller “Heat 2”; the recent announcement that James Patterson will finish Michael Crichton’s Last Book (Salerno represents the Crichton Publishing Estate); and the upcoming FX series based on Don Winslow’s “Cartel” trilogy (Winslow was Story Factory’s first client; Salerno is co-creator and executive producer of the series).

He is also a producer of “The Chain,” an adaptation of the novel by Adrian McKinty, a longtime Irish author Salerno helped catapult to fortune and fame, and “Falling,” based on the bestseller of the first-time novelist TJ Newman, whom Salerno took over after his manuscript was rejected 42 times.

That’s a lot, even by James Cameron/”Avatar” standards.

There’s always been a relentless “and wait, there’s more” quality to Salerno’s career, which began when he made a short documentary as a high school student in Carlsbad, California. After “Sundown: The Future of Children and Drugs” premiered on “Larry King Live” in 1991, Salerno called on the national media to show the names and faces of missing children. “Milk cartons are not a medium.” as powerful as a newspaper or TV news,” he told The Times at the time.

Thriller writer Don Winslow, pictured, teamed up with Shane Salerno to create Story Factory, which in turn helped launch Winslow’s career. Salerno brokered the deal to adapt Winslow’s “Cartel” trilogy for FX.

(Mark Boster/For The Times)

A few years and a move to Los Angeles later, Salerno was developing projects for Steven Spielberg and Sylvester Stallone; His first writing credit, at age 24, was on “Armageddon,” the highest-grossing film of 1998. At 28, he was an official Hollywood wunderkind, co-creator and executive producer of “UC: Undercover.” ”. There he met Winslow, the author who would later start the creation of Story Factory. (In 2021, Salerno and Winslow began making a series of political videos that briefly made it through social media.)

Salerno tends to make big changes, sell a lot and announce his deals with the enthusiasm of a Hollywood agent saying “boy, I’ll make you a star.” His highly promoted documentary “Salinger” debuted with an accompanying coffee table book, and when critics took issue with the film, Salerno responded directly with an essay in Esquire. And while he’s no longer the industry’s Boy Wonder, Salerno has worked with some of the biggest names in cinema, including Cameron.

In late 2012, “I heard rumors that maybe they were looking for writers for ‘Avatar,'” he recalled. “I had just finished working with James Cameron and Jon Landau on a remake of ‘The Fantastic Voyage’ that came very close to being done.”

Landau called Salerno to see if he was available; soon Salerno met with Cameron.

“I remember telling Jim that I had some concerns about making a sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time. Because I had loved ‘The Matrix’ and… there are examples of two and three that work, but many more don’t. I told him, ‘You’re going to have to do more than have people running through the woods again.’ And he had a big smile on his face and I knew he wasn’t telling her anything that he hadn’t thought of himself.”

Director James Cameron stands in the water holding a giant movie camera on his shoulder

Director James Cameron behind the scenes of 20th Century Studios’ “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

(Mark Fellman / Twentieth Century Studies)

When Landau offered her the job, Salerno says, she screamed. She thought that she had pressed the mute button on his phone, but unfortunately, she hadn’t. “After I yelled, I heard Jon say, ‘Shane, I’m still here.’ Very embarrassing.”

In early 2013, work began. “Jim said, ‘Come down, we’ll all be in one room and split these three movies together.'”

But when the creators met, Cameron’s first directive was not about where the story would go but where it would begin. “We thought we would come in and start pitching ideas. Jim said, ‘We’re going to do an autopsy on ‘Avatar’ to find out why it was so successful.

The group—Cameron, Salerno, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Josh Friedman—spent two weeks rewatching the first film and breaking it down scene by scene, presenting the reasons why they thought it worked.

Then the pitch started and, says Salerno, “Jim became Jim Cameron, the writer. You were able to say, ‘That’s a bad idea and here’s why.’”

Cameron was clearly more than a writer when he came one day and announced that the three movies they thought they were working on would have to be four. “I said, ‘Don’t you have to consult with someone about that?’” says Salerno. “And he looked at me and said, ‘No.'”

Each writer in the room focused on one of the four movies (Jaffa and Silver are a team), and they’ll get writing credit. But Salerno says it was a group effort because it had to be. “Jim knew where the story was going, but it’s a saga, and when three movies became four, well, there were some changes that had to be made.”

"avatars" blue humanoid man and woman talk face to face

When offered the job of co-writing the “Avatar” sequels, Salerno yelled into the phone and forgot to hit the mute button. He will be credited as a screenwriter on the last film in the series.

(20th Century Studies / AP)

While helping to chart the course of the Na’vi, Salerno made his way to another besieged group. A conversation with a despondent Winslow convinced Salerno that someone needed to do a better job representing authors, and that someone was him. He dusted off Winslow’s respected but under-celebrated career and helped “The Cartel” climb the best-seller list and the Hollywood mix.

Winslow began to recommend story factory to his fellow writers, including McKinty. Salerno brokered a deal in which Paramount paid seven figures for “The Chain,” which had yet to be written.

“It broke my heart not to see them succeed,” Salerno said by email. “After writing 15 great books, why should Don Winslow think about quitting the business entirely and going back to being an African safari guide? After writing 17 great books, why should Adrian McKinty be driving an Uber at night just to keep a roof over his family’s head? If ever there was a business model that needed fundamental change, this was it.”

After the “Avatar” movies were finished, Salerno took a few years off to focus on building Story Factory’s roster of authors. He is pleased to report that the firm has made 25 books on the New York Times Best Seller List and has made 20 seven-figure film and television deals.

“My last vacation was over 15 years ago,” he says. “But imagine ‘Avatar’ and the Crichton/Patterson deal coming out almost at the same time. I remember once hearing: ‘Find what you love and what you are good at, and if God smiles on you, they are both the same thing.’ I’ve been lucky enough to do what I love.”

Which, in the case of Salerno, is everything everywhere at the same time.