Deb Elise Discusses the Birds and the Bees of Book-to-Film

Behind the ScenesOkay, kids. Now when a movie producer and an author love each other very much…

I’m in L.A., and have worked in the TV/film industry for several years, but I’ve never been an author with a movie-potential novel, so I had no idea how the process really works. I’d seen blurbs in the trades about book rights selling for huge sums of money, so I pretty much thought that was the deal. Like most things, it reminded me of The Muppet Movie, when Orson Welles gives the Standard Rich and Famous Contract.

Here’s how I saw it playing out:

1) Big Deal Movie Producer Reads Book.

2) BDMP Loves Book.

3) BDMP Offers Author Vast Sum of Money.

4) Book Immediately Goes Into Pre-Production, with Author Sitting in a Director’s Chair and Happily Chiming in on the Proceedings at Will.

Um… turns out that’s not quite the case.

If you’re well aware of the Birds and the Bees of Book-to-Film, forgive me for repeating what you already know.  I was not aware, and thought maybe some of you were wondering about it, too.  Below is how I now understand the process generally works, though of course there are all kinds of exceptions.

Most books are not immediately snatched up by a studio and put into production.  Instead, a producer or production company will be interested, and they will ask to “option” the book.  This means the producer or production company pays a certain amount of money, and that sum of money gives them the rights to the book for a certain amount of time.

It’s too nervewracking for me to use Populazzi as an example, so I’ll use the book Holes. Keep in mind I know nothing about the specifics of this deal, I just know from internet research that it happened.  Holes was optioned by Walden Media, so Walden had to pay x dollars to have the rights to Holes for x amount of time.  Walden’s goal was to use that time to sell Holes to a studio.  This step is necessary because even low budget movies cost a lot of money, and Walden and other production companies can’t bankroll a film completely on their own.  Ever notice there are usually lots of logos before a movie starts?  That’s all the companies and studios who are coming together to pay for the movie.

We’ll keep things simple for our example though: one production company, one studio.

So how much did author Louis Sachar get when Walden optioned Holes?  Beats me, but I have learned that it probably wasn’t the massive check in my Muppet version of things.  Options can be large, especially if a book is being optioned when it’s already a huge hit (I’m guessing Hunger Games got a very hefty option price).  Yet sometimes books are optioned even before they’re released, and certainly in those cases, the option will be much less money.

Often, the production company hedges its bets by building in extensions for their option.  They’ll pay x amount for x months, and if no studio snags it in that time, they can pay x more dollars to keep the rights for x more months.

At the same time you negotiate the option price, you negotiate the purchase price.  Let’s go back to Holes as the example.  Mr. Sachar received x dollars for the option, against a purchase price of who-knows-what, but that purchase price only came into play when and if a studio bought the property.  The purchase price is considerably more than the option price — purchase prices are those nice big happy numbers I’d always seen in the trades.  You’re not going to retire off the purchase price (okay, maybe if you’re J.K. Rowling you are), but it’s a pretty cool bonus for work you already did and got paid for probably several years ago at this point.

Along with the purchase price, you negotiate a zillion other contract points when you agree to an option, but they’re all moot unless the production company gets a studio on board.

Back to our example of Holes.  I don’t know when in the option it happened, but I see that Walt Disney Pictures was the studio that released the movie.  This means Walden successfully pitched Holes to Disney, which tossed in all kinds of money to help make, distribute, and advertise the film.

Looking at IMDB, I see that Louis Sachar wrote the screenplay for Holes.  This is awesome… and this is rare.  It’s something an author can demand at the option stage, but that’s sometimes a dealbreaker.  A production company wants to make the project as enticing as possible to a studio, and the ability to attach a “name” screenwriter is a big part of that.  Suzanne Collins didn’t write the screenplay for The Hunger Games, Gary Ross did.  J.K. Rowling didn’t write the Harry Potter screenplays,Steve Kloves did.  Even the venerable Stephen King didn’t write the screenplay for The Shining, Stanley Kubrick did.

If you’re not attached to write the screenplay, that doesn’t mean you’re not involved in the movie.  As I understand it, both J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins were very involved in the movie adaptations of their books.  Your level of participation, however, is usually up to the production company.  I’d make a terrible reporter because I can’t remember where I read this, but Emily Giffin wrote an article (for Entertainment Weekly, maybe?) about her involvement in the film production of Something Borrowed. The gist of it was that she didn’t expect to be involved at all, but the production company was wonderfully gracious and kept her very much in the loop every step of the way, specifically asking for her input.  If that happens, it’s spectacular, but it’s rarely a guarantee.

In our Holes example, things happened in a fairly straight line (hypothetically — no clue how it actually played out).  Walden optioned the book, Disney got on board, movie got made.

In real life, all kinds of roadblocks can come up.  The book could get optioned but never picked up by a studio.  If that happens, after the option’s out, the rights revert back to the author, who can start the process all over again.  The studio could pick it up, but production could be delayed for the zillion and a half reasons productions get delayed.  The movie could be made, but not released right away for any of a million random reasons studios delay releases.

However, I like to think positively.   A great book, a motivated production company, an excited studio, a quick swing into production, a fantastic marketing campaign, and wham-o bang-o, before you know it, there’s your book, up on the big screen.

I have to admit, it would be pretty spectacular.

Authors, what do you think?  Would you want to see your book translated to movie form?  What are your favorite film adaptations of books?

Wait — let me give you the cue for your responses.  Aaaaaand… ACTION!

~ Deb Elise

18 Replies to “Deb Elise Discusses the Birds and the Bees of Book-to-Film”

  1. I admit, it would be cool. I’d have to forget while the book was being optioned, though, or I’d die of waiting.

    As to films, I loved FORREST GUMP, and PRINCESS BRIDE actually improved the book (IMO), but I’d want some input into the screenplay, or perhaps co-write (I already write more plays than novels). I wouldn’t want the Percy Jackson fiasco to happen to me. I can’t bear to watch the film, since I’ve been warned by so many that the changes were awful. I would also hope not to have an ERAGON-like film come out… it was horrible, and I wasn’t even a fan of the book.

    AMADEUS was truly brilliant, and actually better than the original play… but Peter Schaffer wrote it himself (not sure if he had help or not).

    1. Princess Bride is the best movie adaptation ever. Honestly, it’s one of the best movies ever. It’s that brilliant. But I believe William Goldman wrote both book and movie, right?

      I’d be devastated if my book was Percy Jackson’d, but I’d be okay with someone else writing the movie. I’d just want it to be someone who truly loved the book, not someone doing it just for the paycheck. (Yeah, I know the person who loves the book would be doing it for the paycheck too, but there’s a difference.) I’d be very intrigued to see what a screenwriter who loved the book, but wasn’t me, brought to the table.

  2. Seeing one of my books morph into a movie would be cool. Or, since IN A FIX is the first book in a series, a TV show would be even better. At this stage of the game, it’s hard to even contemplate it happening, but a girl can dream.

    HOLES was a great screen adaptation. The movie really captured the feel — the atmosphere — of the book, IMO. Same with LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. I like it when a movie stays true to a book’s “mood.”

    1. Yes! Dream away! We folks out here LOVE book adaptations!

      I didn’t see Snicket, but have you read my favorite Lemony Snicket book? It’s called THE LATKE WHO COULDN’T STOP SCREAMING, and it’s BRILLIANT!

  3. Not sure – the whole memoir come to life sort of horrifies me. I turned down a chance for a reality TV show – (shudder.) Harry Potter – the first movie – captured the awe, magic and joy of a child discovering where he fits in after all. Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz captured their books with a powerful joy too.

    1. Ooooh, yes — that could be nightmarish.

      Don’t blame you for turning down a reality show. Cameras in your face all the time? Sounds like a level of hell.

  4. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is another example where I actually think the movie was better than the book. And the book is excellent.

    The first Harry Potter was good, but the rest of them I was disappointed in. It looked better in my head.

    I have really mixed feelings about this, which I’ll post about tomorrow!

    (Populazzi would actually make a great movie! Here’s hoping!)

    1. I love the way you think, Eleanor!

      I have to admit, I LOVE movies and TV — some of my favorite storytelling (Princess Bride, Moonlighting) is in those mediums. Having worked on live-action television shows, I can say there’s nothing like watching your words come to life, re-interpreted by all the swarms of people it takes to make that show complete.

      That said, I now know there’s also nothing like the deeply personal effort that goes into a novel.

      With the right team behind the wheel, I think it would be the ultimate dream come true for an author to see his/her work brought to live. With the wrong team… there’s not enough Pepto Bismol in the world.

  5. Some of my favorite books/stories into movies are written by Stephen King – MISERY (Kathy Bates anyone?!), STAND BY ME (based on “The Body”) and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (based on “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”)

    I’m usually torn about wanting to see a movie based on a favorite book – so many things could go wrong and then I’d have the “wrong” images in my head. BUT, things can go right (see above list!) so I never know what to do. I’m still not sure what to do about THE HELP – it looks really good but I loved the book… And don’t get me started on HUNGER GAMES… 🙂

    1. I’m actually really excited about the Hunger Games. I wasn’t — I was very worried — but all the casting announcements I’ve heard seem pretty fantastic.

      I’m with you on all the Stephen King books. The Shining has to be in there, of course. Carrie scared the living daylights out of me when I saw it as a kid. I heard they’re making a new feature version of The Stand… would love to see a great version of that.

  6. SHINING THROUGH by Susan Isaacs is a fabulous novel, one of my favs, made into a so-so movie with Michael Douglas and Melanie Griffiths…Although I did hear a quote from Susan Isaacs that “they paid her enough money not to care”…

    And Eleanor is right, Populazzi sounds like it would be a great movie!

    1. Don’t know that book or that movie, but I love that quote. One writer (I won’t credit her without asking first) said something very astute to me — she said she thinks about the movie of her book as just another form of fan fiction. She’s able to separate herself and her book entirely from it, and just look at it as someone else’s expression of how they see the story.

  7. I personally loved the movie THE HOURS based on book of same name. I thought the movie did the book total justice and them some.
    I was wondering if any of you Debutantes books had been optioned yet. Thanks for the break down on how the process works!

  8. I soooooooooooo love you for posting this! It’s one of those things I always wondered about, but figured smart authors are already supposed to know, so I didn’t want to ask. I feel so educated now!


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