Posts Tagged ‘film adaptation’

My Stern Lecture to a Client

February 7, 2013

Sometimes I can’t sell a book to a publisher. Actually, a lot of times I can’t. Even after doing this job for 5 years and getting an estimated 5000 rejection letters explaining why the editor turned me down; even after my rigid filtering process where I reject at least 500 unsolicited author queries for every one that I decide to represent; even when I have become so smitten with a project that I am convinced the publisher will offer a seven figure advance and Spielberg will be on the phone next day begging me to make a movie deal; I still have projects I can’t sell. All agents do. Even the coveted celebrity New York agents who have daily lunches with the coveted celebrity executive editors. Whenever any agent is representing an unknown author, taking a risk, trying to sell a book based on the merits of the project, not just on the author’s celebrity status, there will be rejections.

And when I do sell a book, sometimes for a lot of money, it is usually after I have received 30 rejections from other editors saying: “it’s a really great book, but I just didn’t fall in love with it”, or “it’s competing with another one of our titles”, or “the author has too modest a platform”.

And authors can be even less realistic than I am. After all, they look at the bookstore shelves and see a lot of dreck. They read lots of literary novels that are all well crafted but have a feeling of being sort of the same. They see some really horrible exploitative celebrity memoirs. Really crappy social analysis by gas bag political pundits. And some of these book deals really are getting seven figure advances.

So now what I do just before I submit the project to the publisher is give my client this stern lecture:

“Today I am sending out your book. I believe in it. Otherwise I wouldn’t have worked with you for 4 months polishing the proposal, refining the concept, and (in my humble opinion) making it perfect.

“But you must be realistic. It’s hard to get books published these days. You should hope for the best but expect the worst. I have experience in these matters and will make sure that your book gets to the right editor at the right imprint. I don’t just send books to the same 10 editors and then give up on it. I will send it to all major and not so major publishers who would have an interest in your book. If I can’t sell this book, you can be assured that all avenues have been explored.

“If I can’t find a publisher, it doesn’t mean that your book isn’t good. Sometimes, most times, the decision to publish a book comes down to issues of marketing, not quality or aesthetics.

“But even though your book is good, there are also a lot of other good projects going around. Editors may look at 10 proposals a week or 300 fiction manuscripts a year. Most of them have been heavily vetted by agents. And most of them are publishable. In other words, there is lots of competition.

“You have asked me several times how much your advance will be. I won’t venture a guess on that because my estimates have been wrong so often. Sometimes I expect $20,000 and get an advance for $100,000. Sometimes I get an advance for $7,000, even from the big publishers. Times are tough for publishers just like for the rest of us. The big ones are owned by multimedia conglomerates who are putting a lot of pressure on the publishers to make a lot of money. So publishers have become skittish about big advances. As an agent, I probably can get a publisher to sweeten the deal a little. But publishers base advances on their calculation of sales. They always have a figure in their head of the maximum they will pay. My job is to find out what that figure is and try to find other ways of sweetening the deal when they won’t budge on the advance. I’m an agent, and I don’t have secret alchemical wisdom. I can’t turn lead into gold.

“Don’t expect your publisher to spend a lot of time and energy promoting your book. All those full page ads in The New York Times usually are focused on a very few name brand authors. The publisher really expects you to do the heavy lifting and to promote your own book. They used to send a lot of authors around on 7 city tours. They don’t any more. I have never met an author, no matter how successful, who was satisfied that their publisher promoted their book well. You might ask yourself what kind of added value you get from having a commercial publisher as opposed to self-publishing. It’s a reasonable question to ask. But the answer is complicated.

“I know you would give a great interview on Oprah, Fresh Air, or The Daily Show. And a lot of publishers will make contacts to these and other “A” list venues. But competition for this is fierce and these shows have their own criteria that are often hard to fathom. Again, hope for the best but expect the worst.

“And then there is the Big Enchilada, the Holy Grail. I mean the call from Spielberg. Even though your novel would make a great movie or a tv series, it might not happen. There are a lot of “option” deals for books. Most of them are for very little money, and most of them never go beyond the option. Just like Oprah, movie producers have their own calculations that are not easy to comprehend. Does the book have the kind of 3 act structure that producers want. Will the character in your novel fit with a star who could attract financing? Would the subject of the book require so much resources for production that the film couldn’t make money? Has the producer gone into drug rehab and become unavailable for an indeterminate amount of time? Hope for the best, expect the worst.

“So now I’m sending out the book. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for that seven figure deal. But….remember my #1 rule: be realistic.”


Books into Movies: Everything You Need to Know Part 2

January 4, 2011

Today we are continuing our interview with John Marlow, author of Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood. We are discussing the mechanics of the Hollywood dealmaking process as it applies to book adaptions.  If you want even more information about this subject, I highly recommend John’s Self-editing blog.

 Andy:  What is an “option,” and what are the steps that get taken before a decision is made to make a film or tv show?

  John: In the case of a book or manuscript or screenplay for that matter, an option is just that—an “option” to secure all film-related rights to the work, for an agreed-upon price, at a later time. Let’s say you have a story that I want to option as a producer. I pay you—or provide some valuable service to you—in exchange for exclusive permission to buy the film rights to your story at a later time, typically within 1-3 years.

 The option payment itself is relatively small, but if the option is “exercised”—that is, if the film rights are actually purchased before the option expires—you get paid a lot more.

 Why is it done this way? Let’s say you’ve written something like Nano, my own first novel. That might cost in the neighborhood of $100 million to film, which means it’s not going to be a tv series; it has to be a movie. As a producer, I don’t have that kind of money, so I’m going to have to take a hard look at this book, and figure out how to adapt it in a way that appeals to multiple buyers who do have that kind of money.

 I may want to approach other producers, directors, or actors to get them interested in the project, because if they’ll “attach” or commit to being involved—and if I’ve chosen them well—that makes the project more attractive to potential buyers.

 I might want to involve a manager or agent to help “package” (attach desirable people to), pitch or sell the project. I might hire a screenwriter and work with them to develop the story and adapt it into a screenplay, so I have something solid to show to the people I want to involve. Because unless the underlying property—the book, in this case—is already very well known and very successful, I’m unlikely to sell the project without having a screenplay.

 If I’m looking at independent financing, it’s almost impossible to approach investors without a screenplay—because what are they investing in? My notion that this book would make a cool movie? Amateurville.

 Doing all of this takes time and money. Having an exclusive option allows me to invest the time and money required to make things happen, because I know that if I can pull it all together before the option expires, I can sell the project, get my name on the screen as producer, and maybe make some money in the bargain.

 Andy: So let’s go through the steps between the option and the decision to produce.

 John: Again, let’s assume I’m the producer. When everything goes right, what happens is this I secure the option up front, do the producer thing, and find a buyer. That buyer then pays me a producer’s fee and exercises the option by paying you the full purchase price. Then they make the movie. The process is much the same for tv series.

 Books are almost always optioned, not bought—because as you can see, there’s a lot of work to be done downstream. Screenplays are often optioned as well, but you also have the opportunity to sell the script outright—which almost never happens with adaptation rights to books, unless the book is already huge.

 Andy: What are the typical deal points in an option contract, and what is a good negotiating strategy?

 John: Real Hollywood “long-form” option contracts run about 20 pages, with far too many deal points to cover here. What it boils down to is this: the eventual buyer (the one who exercises the option) wants to acquire all rights, except those specifically exempted or “reserved” to the author by the terms of the agreement.

 You typically get to keep book rights; live stage and radio rights; sequel, prequel, and character rights in book and ebook format; and so on. Everything else (movies, tv, merchandising, soundtrack, etc.) belongs to the studio. You might get to keep additional rights if you’re already massively successful, or wind up dealing with a very small or very independent company. But when it comes to the studios–to whom many of the small indies sell their movies–it’s their way or the highway.

 Andy: This is a little bit of a problem if you have a published book. Typically a book contract will grant to the publisher all print and electronic verbatim book rights but also a bundle of subsidiary rights: abridgements, serial rights, sometimes merchandise, non-verbatim multimedia rights (being used in “enhanced e-books or aps), and audio for verbatim. Which of these rights should the author try to reserve if they are seeking a movie deal?

John: It’s only a problem when you don’t know any better, which many new writers don’t. As you know from experience, publishers are almost always willing to back off on things they ask for in the first contract they send out. Things like—for example—film and merchandising rights A good agent will know which of these rights can and should be reserved for the author.

 Short version: the studios want everything that moves; they are not, for the most part, interested in any format that consists primarily of words and letters—unless it’s a screenplay, or a novelization or other adaptation based on the script or the movie itself. So whatever you want to do with your book is fine—print, ebooks, serializations, audiobooks, sequels and prequels, live stage, musicals for the most part, non-dramatic adaptations and so forth.

 Whether dealing with New York or Hollywood, it’s always a good idea to involve an attorney familiar with the field; in most cases, an “entertainment attorney” is what you want, and they’ll be very familiar with Hollywood’s requirements. Non-entertainment attorneys will be clueless, because it’s a very specialized field of law. If you can’t afford their hourly rates, many—including some of the best—will work for a 5% commission if you already have a deal on the table. They should save or make you more than that.

 Andy: What does a production company need in order to make an option offer? Do they need a manuscript?

John: That depends on the production company or the individual producer. Some will option books without scripts, some won’t. Hollywood is very heavy into adaptations right now, which is good for authors. At the same time, it’s important to realize that there is a vast difference between the amount of money you will be paid for film rights to a manuscript or book, and the amount you will be paid for a screenplay.

 Rights to unpublished manuscripts generally fetch the least, unless the manuscript just sold for a bundle. Film rights for an unknown or modestly successful book may—and may not—fetch $50,000 if the option is exercised and the movie is made, which takes years. The average price for a first-sale screenplay, on the other hand, hovers between $300,000 and $600,000, with some going well north of $1 million. And you get quite a big chunk of that—typically a third or more—up front. That’s yours to keep, even if the movie is never made.

 Andy: Can you describe the process that a writer should take in order to convert his or her novel into a film script?

 John: There are three basic approaches: do it yourself, hire a consultant, outsource. The basic differences are time, money, and quality. Doing it yourself costs nothing but time—and it will take an enormous amount of time. Very few writers are capable of doing both books and screenplays well. This is why so few famous novelists adapt their own books, and also why virtually no screenwriters pen novels.

 The formats are almost mutually exclusive, and demand opposing skills. Authors must expand upon things, provide rich detail, and delve into the minds of their characters over hundreds of pages; screenwriters must compress a story into 120 pages or less, guide the director but avoid stepping on his toes, avoid minute detail, make everything visual, create compelling characters while externalizing thoughts and portraying them through actions—all while showing deference to the actors and being ever-mindful of budget.

 The hardest transition of all is going from novelist to screenwriter, because most of the things that make for a good novelist make for a lousy screenwriter. This can be overcome, but—like learning to write novels—often takes years. If you have that kind of time, read good, recently-sold scripts and lots of adaptations, and give it your best shot.

 The second option—hiring a consultant to guide your adaptation—will speed your learning curve, and might just save you years of work. He or she can evaluate your book, help develop an outline for the adaptation, and act as a coach along the way. While it’s possible to do this with a pure screenwriter, you’re likely to get better results with someone who writes both books and screenplays. Ideally, you find someone who’s done that and also specializes in adaptations—an “adaptation specialist.”

 If you can do that, you’ll have someone on your team who not only knows where you’re going, but also where you’re coming from—and how to get from there to where you need to be. This doesn’t mean your job will be easy, but it will be easierThe consultant approach will cost you a bit of money, but save you a lot of time.

 The third option is to outsource the writing entirely—find a screenwriter or, preferably, an author-screenwriter adaptation specialist. Work with them to develop a detailed adaptive outline you’re happy with—so you know where things are going before the writing begins—and turn them loose. Let them write the script for you, checking in every 30 pages or so just to make sure everything’s on course. After a few months—viola!—you have a finished script in your hands. Which is where most successful Hollywood stories begin.

Doing it this way is also a fast-forward learning experience, because there’s nothing quite like seeing general principles and specific techniques applied to your own work by someone who really knows their stuff. This is of course the most costly option in terms of money, but the least costly in terms of time.

 Andy: Can you talk a bit about your work as a developmental editor and adaptation specialist, and specifically what’s involved in the process of turning a book into a screenplay?

 John: I do a lot of development and editing work on books and screenplays, and I write both. I’ve done adaptations going both ways—book-to-screen and screenplay-to-book. The first one I did was my own, adapting the Nano novel into a screenplay. I was fortunate enough to get some recognition for that from the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships Program, which got me and my script mentioned in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and the Los Angeles Times, and led to a development deal with Jan de Bont, who directed/produced Speed, Twister, Minority Report and other films.

 That interest helped sell the book to Macmillan. And it taught me that there can be a kind of synergy between New York and Hollywood, where interest on one coast can be used to bump up interest on the other. Which is why it’s best to have both a book and a screenplay to sell.

 When it comes to helping others with adaptations, I do a number of things. The most basic service is an adaptation evaluation; I look at what the author has—let’s say it’s a book or manuscript—and give them my take on the work’s adaptability:

 Does this look like it would make a good movie? If yes, how can we make it a great movie? If no, could it be a good or great movie—and what kinds of changes would we need to implement to make that happen? How can we make those changes while remaining true to the heart of the story or—if it’s nonfiction—the actual events? When you’re talking about taking a 300+ page book and turning into a 120-page screenplay, even a book that’s cinematic to begin with is going to undergo a significant transformation. Books that are not obvious movies will require bigger changes.

 I often consult with my significant other at this point, because she’s worked as story editor for a major producer, and also worked for Nielsen, which does most of the film marketing research for the studios. And she wrote and produced a number of tv documentaries. She provides a female perspective, as well as added story savvy.

 Then I generally get on the phone with the author and bat things around. If they want to go forward with the adaptation, and want me to consult/coach or adapt it for them, then we’ll work together to lay out the structure and “beats” or significant events of the existing story. We do this with what I call a digital outline or “beatline,” which is a lot easier to work with than a standard outline. For more on this, see my recent post The Digital Outline: Creating a Beatline for Your Story.

 Starting with that, the author and I will develop a working outline and a 7-point story structure. My recent post Story Structure: Laying Down the Bones goes into great detail on this.

 After that, we put our heads together, brainstorm and create an adaptive outline or beatline of what the script story should look like. Working in this format, where each significant event is a simple bullet-point, allows us to move quickly and change, rearrange, add or delete things on the fly. It also enables us to take in the whole story in a few minutes, instead of repeatedly plowing through 300 or 500 pages to see how many things any given change is going to affect.

 I’ll often bring my story editor in on this as well, so it’s a bit of a two-for-one deal for the client. We work ten feet away from each other, so it’s no big deal.

 If the author wants me to write the script, I go off and do that—and we check in every 30 pages or so to make sure everyone’s happy. In either event, we’ll put together a final logline and pitch sheet, do a final polish—and the author is ready to rock.

 Andy: John, thanks so much. There is so much in this interview. I hope readers will take the time to read your Self Editing Blog to go into this more deeply. Now if you will excuse me, I have Spielberg on the other line and have to give him my pitch pack.

 John: Tell him to wait.

MARLOWE (1 of 1)



You can learn more about adapting your book to a movie by reading John’s new book: Make Your Story a Movie. St. Martin’s Press, 2012

Purchase from:    Indiebound   Barnes and Noble   iTunes

Books into Movies: Everything You Need to Know (Almost). Part 1

January 2, 2011



MARLOWE (1 of 1)A lot of writers I speak with  think of  their book as a story  that would make a good movie. It’s nice to think that Stephen Spielberg is waiting in the wings to scoop up your book, but it really doesn’t happen all that often. The movie business is like the book business, only with fewer movies than books. There are a fair number of “option” deals going around, but the real money most often comes with production, not with option.

 Today I am going to interview John Robert Marlow. John is the author of  Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood.   He is also the author of Nano, a technothriller  that he adapted for film. The script  has been honored by the same Academy that hands out the Academy Awards. The Nano script then went into development with a major Hollywood director. John optioned another script to the producer of Collateral, who wanted the script so badly that when she couldn’t reach John herself, she hired a private detective to track him down.

 John has written numerous articles about writing, self editing and adaptation, both for the Writer’s Digest Books annuals and for his wonderful Self Editing Blog  This interview is going to be in 2 parts. Today we are going to talk about the how Hollywood deals get pitched and put together.

The next interview will be about book-screen options and how we move from a book to a screenplay.

 Andy: John, let’s say you have a novel. How do you determine whether it has any dramatic potential at all?

 John: Hollywood’s been at this game for a while now, and most of these folks are very clear about what it takes to make a book appealing on the screen. Some of the things that are important to Hollywood mean nothing at all to publishers—so the fact that a book is appealing to publishing houses doesn’t mean it will interest Hollywood. Which is one of the reasons that so few books are seriously considered by filmmakers.

 At the same time, if you know what Hollywood wants, you can incorporate those elements into your story as you write it, or make sure they’re included in any screenplay adaptation you may write or commission, so it’s never too late.

 Andy:  So what exactly are those elements?

 John: Hollywood looks for 10 things in any story, fiction or nonfiction: a cinematic concept that can be communicated in ten seconds; a hero that a large segment of the moviegoing public can relate to; strong visual potential; a three-act structure; a two-hour limit; a reasonable budget; low fat (no unnecessary scenes); franchise potential; four-quadrant (young and old, male and female) appeal; and merchandising potential.

 Seasoned vets with proven track records can sometimes skate the two-hour limit and budget points; newcomers cannot. Franchise and merchandising potential aren’t always necessary but are good to have, particularly at higher budget levels. The same goes for four-quadrant appeal; the more your movie costs, the bigger your audience needs to be to earn that money back. Avatar and Titanic are four-quadrant movies.

 I’ve covered these ten points extensively in my article,  What Hollywood Wants: 10 Things Studios Like to See in Adapted (and Original) Scripts 

Andy: What is the first step you take in getting interest from a production company?

 John: I can  pick up the phone or send an email. But for those who don’t have industry connections, it can be hard. The reason is simple: Hollywood, like New York, is full of people trying to sell things that aren’t ready to be seen. Some need a bit more work; others are train wrecks. And then you have the translation issue: some books are movies; most are not. Many could be movies, if carefully adapted—but until you see the adaptation, you don’t really know.

 There are more buyers for adapted screenplays than for book adaptation rights, so if I really want to get the attention of someone who’s got thousands of other people vying for their time, I’m going to do one of two things—and this applies equally to those with and without industry connections: approach them with a finished screenplay, or put together one hell of a good pitch pack.

 Whichever path you choose, you must have something professional to show, or there’s nothing to set you apart from the sea of amateurs with little more than an “idea” they think would make a great movie. And while some of those amateurs may be right, you can’t copyright an idea, and no one’s likely to pay you for it. Ideas are common; fabulous execution over the length of a screenplay (or novel, for that matter) is not—which is why New York buys books, Hollywood buys scripts, and no one buys “ideas” from strangers.

 Andy: Why is it best to have a screenplay?

 John: Because it’s closer to being a movie—the people looking at it can “see” the movie as they read. That’s vital, because the purpose of a screenplay is to roll a movie in the reader’s head, and to get them to take the next step.

If the screenplay is ready to go, the producer can skip a lot of costly and time-consuming development steps and go looking for attachments or buyers right now. Less trouble, fewer headaches, and a faster sale if things go well.

If you can’t write a dynamite script, or afford to hire someone else to do it for you, then you’re better off with the pitch pack—because a bad or even mediocre script is a swift path to rejection. There’s too much competition to get by with that.

 Andy: So what’s a pitch pack?

 John: The pitch pack is an attempt at a happy medium between raw idea and polished screenplay: unique enough to protect, and hopefully strong enough to generate real interest.

 It’s similar to a book proposal. It includes a pitch sheet with logline; synopsis or summary; an informal treatment or “scriptment” that’s basically a longer summary with perhaps snippets of dialogue or actual scenes; a bit of info on the major characters; box office figures for similar films already released; a “dream” cast list of the actors you’d want to see in the major roles, a few other things. And you let them know there’s a beatline available on request.

 If someone bites on that, you follow up with the beatline to demonstrate that you really do know what you’re doing; you’ve mapped out every scene in detail, nothing is vague or conflicting or unresolved. This kind of approach puts you light years ahead of the guy who bangs on Hollywood’s door and says, “Hey, I have a great idea.” It also makes it more likely that, if they do option or buy your pitch, they’ll give you first crack at writing the script—because it’s obvious you’ve worked this out in great detail.

I’ll be posting about this on my blog in the near future.

Andy: Okay. So you have your script or pitch pack Then what?

 John: If I didn’t have film industry connections, , I would either look for someone to team with, —someone more familiar with the territory—or go ahead and contact the producers and production companies myself.

 Keep in mind, though, that if you have a finished script, you can approach reps—meaning agents and managers. . If you find a good one to take you on, they will then approach producers and production companies on your behalf. And they’re likely to get faster, more serious reads from those people than you would, acting on your own.  So even if it takes you a while to land a rep, the total time needed to reach your target buyers could still be much shorter.

 Also, there are some very good reasons to avoid approaching producers or production companies by yourself—not the least of which is overexposure. A good rep—agent or manager—can get your script into the hands of all the right producers in a matter of days.

 Those producers will not have heard anyone talking trash about your script, because they’ll all get it at pretty much the same time, and they’ll feel pressured to get to it quickly because they know that the rep has also put it in the hands of their competitors, who may be reading it at this very moment.

 Some low-end producers also do bad things, like “shop” your script to everyone in town, hoping someone, anyone, will bite. This doesn’t help you, and can do quite a bit of damage when you later try to approach those same people with your project—particularly when you don’t know they’ve already seen it. I learned this the hard way.

 Q: How does the pitch in Hollywood differ from what is expected in book publishing?

 The Hollywood pitch happens in steps, because no one has time to listen to long pitches or read material that hasn’t been pre-screened or pre-qualified in some way. The first step is the logline, which boils your story down to a 10-second pitch. It sounds ridiculous, but it can be done, and is in fact a sort of art—one I cover in a blog post called Building the Perfect Logline 

For example, this is how I would pitch The Fugitive: “A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless US Marshall.” Or, to pitch a more complex adaptation with multiple protagonists: “A family struggles to escape a remote island park whose main attractions—genetically restored dinosaurs—have been set loose by a power failure.” Which is, of course, Jurassic Park.

 What you leave out of the pitch  is as important as what you put in. An agent or producer can read 700 to 1,000 loglines in the time it takes to read a single script. So, obviously, that’s what they do. If the logline grabs them, they take the next step, and ask for more info or the script itself.

 If they ask for more info, you give them a synopsis or a pitch sheet teaser, which is the equivalent of a movie trailer in words: your story in one minute. I recently wrote about pitch sheets in a blog post called The One-Minute Story: Crafting a Pitch Sheet for your Book, Screenplay, or Other Tale 

If they like the pitch sheet, they’ll usually ask to see the script. In some cases, you can get by with a pitch pack in place of the script. In other cases, not. Without a script, for example, agents and managers have nothing to sell—unless they’re interested in selling the film rights alone, which is less profitable and therefore less attractive from their perspective. Though if you’re brand-name author, this may not apply.

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