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!