Wednesday

Books into Movies

By Richard Curtis

It's often said that they're not making movies the way they used to. That's a matter of opinion (it happens to be mine), but if it's true, the decline can be attributed to the fact that they're not adapting books the way they used to. Since the golden age of filmmaking in the 1930s, the ratio of theatrical films based on books to those made from original screenplays has been steadily shifting to the latter. Today the odds that your novel will be made into a movie are distressingly low, even if your novel becomes a bestseller.

I can't believe there are fewer adaptable books today than there have been in the past. Why, then, aren't they making books into movies anymore?

One reason facetiously offered by book people is that nobody in Hollywood reads. Relying on my own experience, I'd have to say that's untrue. What is probably closer to the mark is that movie people don't have a lot of time to read, but then, neither do book people. Most of us are so busy reading manuscripts for business that we can't spare a moment to read for pleasure. While I, like so many of my colleagues, can read three or four book-length manuscripts in one evening, I have been plodding through a published biography, at a rate of a few pages a week for over two years; it's taking me longer to read that puppy than it took the author to write it!

At any rate, what little reading time movie people have is usually spent reading screenplays. Books are synopsized for them by readers, and only if a reader's recommendation makes the book sound as if it has strong movie potential will a producer read the book itself. And sometimes not even then.

The downward trend in film adaptations follows the decline of the studio system and the corresponding rise of one revolving around independent producers. Under the old arrangement, all-powerful studios acquired bestsellers and other literary properties and adapted them for producers, directors, and stars belonging to the studio "family." The studios were self-contained entities possessing financing, production facilities, and distribution capability - the three elements essential to making commercial films. After World War II, however, producers, writers, actors, and others challenged the studios in a bid for more artistic independence and a bigger piece of the profit pie. They succeeded to a degree in weakening the studios' absolute power and control, but at a high cost: the loss of efficiency. Today's producers cannot simply scoop up all the talent they need from one studio pool, but instead have to assemble "packages" out of a fiendishly complex and far-flung tangle of artists, agents, lawyers, unions, guilds, financiers, smaller distributors, and other elements.

This radical change has taken its toll on adaptations of books. Let's see how.

The hardest part of getting a movie made is raising the money. It is easier to raise a sunken treasure galleon than to raise money for a movie. These days a film budgeted at $20 million is considered a home movie; indeed, $20 million is now the salary of a superstar. Still, it's a lot of money, and anyone furnishing it to a filmmaker expects either an excessive participation in profits or an excessive say in the way the movie is made, both of which are abhorrent to a producer. Studios are not disposed to back films until all elements of the package are in place, or at least a "bankable" star or director has made a commitment.

In short, few independent producers have any money. Not long ago - twenty or twenty-five years - outright purchases of books for movies were commonly reported. Though an outright purchase doesn't guarantee that a movie will be made, the size of the outlay, often hundreds of thousands of dollars and occasionally seven figures, certainly guaranteed an earnest effort would be made to recoup the investment. Today, one seldom hears about outright sales. Everything is optioned. When independent producers start piecing together a movie deal, the item on which they least want to spend what little money they possess is the book; for them, the key item is the screenplay.

The screenplay opens the doors to securing financing by stimulating the interest of stars and their agents, and then to assembling the rest of the elements. Once these all come together and the money has been put up to make the film, the author can be paid. Until then the author is in effect asked to subsidize the writing of the screenplay by being moderate in his asking price for the option. In many cases authors are asked to give producers a free or nominal option against a big purchase price and share of the profits. These strangely unbalanced deals - often options of a few hundred dollars against purchase prices of hundreds of thousands - result from the fact that the option money has to come out of the producer's own pocket, whereas the purchase money comes out of someone else's.

Although there is a lot of activity in options of books for the movies, it can be argued that the option system is actually harmful to a book's chances of being made into a movie. Options are usually purchased in six-or twelve-month increments, but are renewable at the producer's option for several more six- or twelve-month periods with the payment of additional option money. The process can tie up a book for eighteen months, two years, or longer while the producer frantically tries to juggle screenplay, financing, distribution, director, and stars in the hopes of getting them to sign a contract. Nobody wants to sign a contract until he has a guarantee. The financiers may want a distribution commitment before they fork over their money; the director may want a particular star to agree to appear in the film; the star may want a terrific screenplay; the screenplay writer may want a huge fee; the studio may want the book to be on the bestseller list.

Since the odds against everyone signing are so high, it's likely that when the option or renewal lapses, your book will have been shopped all over the movie business. Though you'll then have an opportunity to market the rights again and pursue those who might have been interested in your book a year or two ago, the book will probably have the smell of death clinging to it, and you'll be unable to revive it.

Clearly, it's a lot cheaper and easier for a modestly heeled producer to option or commission an original screenplay than to get involved with books. But with the kinds of movies that are pulling in big bucks at the box office these days, it may reasonably be asked, "What do producers need books for, anyway?" So many of these films are youth-oriented, exploitive, devoid of ideas, predictably plotted, action-packed, and populated with stick-figure characters. A producer contemplating making one of these teenage fantasy films is certainly not going to seek those values in books. Indeed, he would have to search far and wide to find books dumb enough to make into today's hit movies.

Interestingly, the one area in the entertainment industry where books are still welcome, and in fact welcome as never before, is television, and the immense appetite of the networks and cable companies does not threaten to diminish in the foreseeable future. Publishers' lists are combed furiously by producers seeking movie-of-the-week or miniseries candidates, and because of network commitments to air scores of these films annually, the search has become intensely competitive. Many of the properties optioned or acquired are novels, but television producers, unlike theatrical film producers, plunder short stories, articles, and nonfiction books as well as novels in their quest for adaptable material.

Ironically, the quality of television movies now often exceeds that of many theatrical films. Once characterized as a vast wasteland, television has discovered ideas and begun to develop them into vehicles that are often intelligent, sensitive, moving, and controversial, touching on themes that the movies used to portray but seldom do any more. Out-of-wedlock children, incest, senility, spouse or child abuse, drug addiction, kidnapping, and physical disability are some of the themes that have been woven into recent original television movies, and few who have watched them can claim that they are inferior to most theatrical films made today or that they are not the equal of many made in the past.

From the viewpoint of the author with a book to sell, this change is of major importance, for it no longer is smart to disdain television deals while holding out for a theatrical one. It is likelier that an option will be exercised for a TV movie than for a theatrical one, and the price gap between the two media has begun to close. And, from the viewpoint of pride of authorship, the chances are better than ever that an author's vision will be preserved intact in a television adaptation. For all these reasons I recommend that if you or your agent are approached by producers interested in adapting your work for television, and the terms are comparable to what you might get from a movie-movie producer, don't hesitate to make that deal.

Here are some other suggestions for improving your chances of making a movie or television sale in today's market.

· Prepare an extremely brief - no more than two pages - synopsis of your book to show to interested producers. It should be a highly compressed summary of the theme, story, and characters, and should read like a jacket blurb except that the emphasis should be on the cinematic values rather than the literary ones. Potential buyers will want to see the manuscript, proof, or printed copy anyway, but if they have time to read nothing else they will read your summary, and a well-written one will enable them to visualize the film the way you yourself visualize it.

· Give no free options, even of a few weeks' duration. Inevitably you will be approached by would-be producers claiming they know exactly the right studio or network executive who will buy your book, and all they need is a couple of weeks to make a deal, and could you let them have just this one shot free of charge because by the time the papers are drawn up it will be too late, etc. Most agents who have dealt with movie and television people have heard this line before and shut the door on it; they've learned that people don't respect properties they get for nothing. An investment in an option guarantees a certain amount of commitment and responsibility. You don't have to draw up a complete movie contract for such a modest deal, but a deal memorandum synopsizing the highlights of the negotiation, such as option price, purchase price, profit percentages if any, duration of option and renewals, reserved rights, credits, and so forth, is a must.

As for that claim that the producer needs only a few weeks, don't believe it. Everything in the movie business takes six times longer than you would imagine it should. I have seldom seen a movie option exercised after six months, and indeed have seen producers dig themselves into an awful hole by paying too much money for too brief an option, necessitating their renewing the option for too much money again for yet another brief option. The author who finds himself in the position of dealing with such a producer enjoys the rare pleasure of being in the driver's seat, so if someone wants a short option, give it to him, but make him pay for it.

· Renewals of a producer's option on your work should be more expensive than the original option and should not be deductible from the purchase price of the rights. The initial option is usually applicable against the purchase price, but thereafter the producer is in effect paying rent on your property. If you allow him to deduct renewal fees from the purchase price, he is in effect not renting your property but buying it from you in installments, and relatively painless installments at that. You'll want that lump sum due upon exercise of the option to hang over the producer's head like some ominous cloud. And, by making renewals more expensive than the original option, you are telling the producer that tying your property up for such a long time is an inconvenience, and one that is not mitigated by the money he's paying you to extend your option. If you option your book before publication, try to negotiate the deal in such a way that the option expires around your publication date and is not renewable beyond that date. Your property will probably never be hotter to movie people than before it's published, when it will not have been exposed to the entire industry or shopped all over town. Thus anyone taking an option before publication is getting your work at its ripest moment. If, by the time the book is published, your producer has not been able to make a deal, his option should expire, and expire without hope of renewal. If your book then goes on to get good reviews and/or hits the bestseller list, you have a second lease on life.


This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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