Monday, September 24, 2012

The Movie Deal



When I was asked to join this great group of writers to blog on a regular basis, I bet they didn’t think I’d kick things off by writing about movies. But I’d guess my Kill Zone colleagues would agree that one of the most commonly asked questions we get as writers is, “When is your book going to be made into a movie?”

This very question came up in my panel session at the Northwest Bookfest today. For better or worse, movies are more universal cultural touchstones than books. They’re easier to consume and many more people have seen them. When someone at a writers’ conference asks me what my books are like, I usually mention that they would appeal to readers of Clive Cussler or James Rollins. But at a party I say that they’re akin to an Indiana Jones or James Bond movie because I can always be confident that people will get the comparison.

When readers turn the tables and ask about my books becoming movies, I have a hard time formulating a pithy answer. Although I struggle to come up with a meaningful response, it’s flattering for readers to ask. It means that they thought my adventure novel was cinematic in its action, descriptions, and pacing and that they want to spend more time with the characters. It’s the ultimate expression of success for a book to be deemed worthy of the silver screen, but for a novelist the situation is complicated.

A good movie can help cement an author’s career, such as it did with John Grisham’s The Firm, which was bought by Hollywood before he even sold the literary rights. It could also faceplant along the lines of Clive Cussler’s Sahara or Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money. I’d risk the flop for a shot at a hit. The problem is that I don’t know when or if a film will ever happen. While I’m in full control of my writing, I’m a bystander when it comes to having the book made into a movie.

Hollywood has a well-deserved reputation for being a fickle town. The first time I got a call from my film rights agent that a production company was interested in one of my books, I was so pumped that I was already planning what to wear to the premiere before I’d even hung up the phone. Then came a whole bunch of nothin’. I have no idea what went on behind the scenes, but I never heard another peep. By the third time I got a nibble from a producer, I didn’t get excited because I understood that it was just the start of a long process, one which could get sidetracked at any point.

First comes the option. Although the rights can be bought outright, most books are purchased in two- or three-year options, during which the producer has the sole right to make the movie of your book. A novelist won’t get paid for the full amount of the contract until the day principal photography begins (because movies can be and have been canceled at any point up to that moment). However, if the movie isn’t made during that period, then the option rights revert back to the writer, who can sell them again. I know many writers who’ve optioned the same movie rights repeatedly for a decade or more, and the film still hasn’t been made.

That’s because the next step is finding a director, screenwriter, and actors to attach to the film.  If it’s got those, the movie is probably on the fast track to being filmed. If not, it’s likely to end up in “development hell,” the no-man’s land where projects can languish while a script is rewritten multiple times to fix story, budget, or casting problems. For example, the movie Salt was originally supposed to star Tom Cruise until he bowed out and the script had to be completely rewritten for Angelina Jolie in the same role.

When people ask me who I think would be cast as the main characters in my books, I usually tell them it’s somebody who is currently in high school. Katherine Heigl, who played Stephanie Plum in One for the Money, was sixteen years old when that book was written, and Matthew McConaughey from Sahara was four when the Dirk Pitt series was created. Besides, casting is notoriously difficult. Who can possibly see Mickey Rourke as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop, Will Smith as Neo in The Matrix, or Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, even though they were all the first choices for those iconic roles?

My agent has another challenge in selling my books to Hollywood. When I write, I don’t have a budget. I can destroy hundreds of cars, blow up buildings with abandon, place scenes in exotic locations, and employ a cast of thousands, all of which cost me nothing but would translate into substantial outlays in a film for elaborate stunts, difficult location shoots, and expensive computer graphics. I’m sure one of the reasons that my books haven’t been made into movies yet is that they would cost two hundred million dollars to produce.

For me, the original question remains unanswerable. No film is on the foreseeable horizon, though it would be a blast to see my words come to life on the big screen. I will always be open to getting those nibbles from Hollywood. I do, however, have one condition: even if it’s as a henchman who dies in the first ten minutes, I want a speaking role in the movie. If it’s a flop, at least I’d get a Screen Actors Guild card out of it.

25 comments:

  1. Welcome to the Zone, Boyd. Great to have you as a regular.

    Your post reminded me of what Pauline Kael once said: "Hollywood is the only town where you can die of encouragement."

    But I would like to see you as a henchman sometime.

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  2. The film industry is something I wish I understood better. I guess the thing I wonder about most is "shouldn't it be cheaper to film movies since they seem to do so much more by computer nowadays?"

    But it's amazing how expensive even the most basic of movies is to film.

    So I guess there's one industry more nerve-wracking then books. 8-)

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  3. Awesome post. This was immensely helpful! My first novel comes out later this year and people are always asking, semi-jokingly, when is the movie coming out? I try to explain how that whole thing works but now I can just direct them to this post! Thanks!

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  4. Hi Boyd,

    Nice to meet you on TKZ over such a great topic.

    How cool would that be to see our writing up on the Big Screen.

    Great points on how convoluted the path to production is. Ah, we can all dream.

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  5. I want to know what the line or lines you're hoping to say in the film might be? Or maybe you could just show up, like Hitchcock. You've picked a great place to hangout, Boyd. This gang is lots of fun.
    Great post!

    Jill

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  6. Welcome to the Zone, Boyd! My series was optioned by a producer, and then...nothing. A good rule is to get the option money up front. Then run, do not walk, to the nearest bank and deposit the check, lol!

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  7. Great to be here, everyone! My question to you all is, how would you feel seeing your book up on the screen knowing that some of the story elements will have changed? The ending to The Firm was completely revamped for the movie (I actually liked it better). I think I'd be able to see it as a different product.

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  8. I get a stabbing pain behind my eyes every time I turn on the TV and see another Sci-Fi Channel original movie that has absolutely no storyline. Forget plot holes, these movies have no plot. I know that authors want to have their work brought to the big screen but it seems like there are venues for countless novels that are just overlooked. I'm not saying any author wants to see their work made into a Sci-Fi channel original movie, but common! I don't see why network executives are willing to bankroll the work that they do when there is a pool of talent waiting to be tapped!

    I feel the same way when it comes to the big name studios remaking tired old movies, shiver, turning burnt out old TV shows into big budget films. Starsky and Hutch? The Smurfs? I'll be honest. I loved Sahara. I thought it was a completely different take on the book, but I would have loved to see a series of films spin off. I never read the Janet Evanovich's books, but One For the Money was worth my time as well...

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  9. Steve, I believe the reason Sci-Fi produces those movies is because they're so cheap and they don't have to buy any rights. They've got a specific formula and all they have to do is plug in the monsters of the week, which is why we keep getting movies like Croctopanda Vs. Sharkosaurus.

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  10. Howdy Boyd, we're becoming a virtual cornucopia of good writery stuff here.

    I've often been told my novels read like a movie in the head, to that end I end I sought movie deals. There's been 'interest' by a producer and currently it is sitting with an agent in Hollywood who thinks he can do something with it. But no $$ in it.

    Would I worry if they significantly changed my story, well depends. My fellow Alaskan writer Dana Stabanow has a contingency on her potential movie/TV deals that requires anything based on her books must be shot in Alaska. I kind of lean that direction myself, you can't do justice to the Alaskan backdrop anywhere else.

    Oh, and if it ever happens, I too will have them put in the contract that they've got to write me into a part. I didn't spend a lifetime on stage to be left out of my own book's movie.

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  11. My question to you all is, how would you feel seeing your book up on the screen knowing that some of the story elements will have changed?

    Boyd, it depends on where the decimal point is on the check.

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  12. Hi Boyd, welcome to The Kill Zone. I recently discovered your novels after picking up a copy of The Roswell Conspiracy at my local bookshop. It was a great read and I really enjoyed it, thanks. Using Roswell was a nice twist on the ‘historical mystery that must be solved in the present’ format. Looking forward to reading the rest.

    As for seeing books turned into films, I’d definitely be nervous about seeing something I’d written turned into a film, as once the studio has it, it really is out of your hands. The director, star and studio can change pretty much anything and you don’t really have any say.

    Whiteout by Greg Rucka makes a great graphic novel, but I understand it to be a terrible film (part of which I blame on changing one of the two female leads into a gung ho male action hero.)

    There is also casting. Writing a novel, you don’t have to worry about who is ‘in’ this year and what big name the studios want as your lead even though they look nothing like them. (Anyone that was baffled by the decision to cast 5’7” Tom Cruise as 6’5” Jack Reacher will know what I’m talking about.)

    Plus, most writers, even those not seeking the spotlight of fame, want to be recognised as having created that story. If you read a book and enjoyed it, you can probably name the author. But how many people seeing a Hollywood movie can name the writer?

    But, I’ll admit, the idea of seeing your story up on the big screen is still appealing. As long as it’s done right.

    All the Best,

    Matthew.

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  13. Reading this post also reminded me of something I wrote a while back. As a bit of fun I started compiling a list of the advantages of writing novels over screenplays, specifically not having to deal with actors. This is where I got so far (anyone wants to add anything, feel free):

    The advantages of writing novels over screenplays.

    Characters in Novels…

    Don’t go on strike.
    Don’t leave to pursue a film career.
    Don’t get pregnant unless you make them.
    Don’t hold out for more money.
    Don’t worry about being typecast.
    Don’t get into arguments with their fellow characters (unless you want them to.)
    Don’t demand a bigger trailer.
    Don’t expect their name on the ‘credits.’
    Don’t end up in tabloid newspapers.
    Don’t get a better offer.
    Don’t try to gain creative control (probably.)
    Don’t wind up in jail (unless you put them there.)
    Don’t need a stunt double.
    Don’t mind if they don’t get enough ‘screen time.’
    Don’t have to be paid.

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  14. Good point, Jim. The right number of zeroes can make anything go down well.

    Glad you had fun with the book, Matthew. I agree about the recognition. How many people know that the movie Die Hard came from a novel by Roderick Thorp called Nothing Lasts Forever (which actually sounds like a James Bond title)? Would be really interested to know if the author gets a cut of the sequels, too.

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  15. "When people ask me who I think would be cast as the main characters in my books, I usually tell them it’s somebody who is currently in high school."

    LOL! I'm gonna steal that line, Boyd. My hero is a 30-ish biracial man and everyone seems to think Denzel Washington is the only guy for the part. Love Denzel and if he wants my book he can surely have it. But he's getting a little long in the tooth. But then again, there's Tom Cruise as Reacher...

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  16. Hi all - I enjoyed the post today, as usual, when I remember to visit. Can someone tell me if I can subscribe to Killzone by email? Sorry if I've missed something obvious.

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  17. Hi Boyd-

    I actually just received my first option, but for TV, not film. And after years of bouncing around this business, I'm not harboring any illusions that a pilot will even be written, never mind shot, never mind picked up. But hope springs eternal...

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  18. Batsy, scroll down to just below our rotating book covers in the right-hand column and click on Subscribe To Kill Zone Posts or Comments. Thanks for dropping by.

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  19. Welcome, Boyd. Nice post. Before I sold my first thriller, I let myself imagine what it would be like to see my book on the big screen. I think my husband thought I was crazy, jumping the gun, but dreams are worth imagining. If I didn't have those dreams, I never would have pushed to write and sell.

    I've had several nibbles on my adult thrillers and my young adult novels too. But I've become more pragmatic about the idea. Getting a book optioned for film would be cool, but only so far as the financial aspects & maybe the boost in book sales. You just can't count on that final step. I feel lucky to be published & that Hollywood has expressed interest, even though no film option yet. Life is good.

    Looking forward to getting to know you from your posts at TKZ. Welcome!

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  20. I have to call out one gripe I have with authors regarding movie options. Regardless of whether the film ever gets made, the author receives 1/10 of the option money every year for the life of the option.

    That is to say, if a book is optioned at $100k, the author receives $10k every year the producer owns the film rights.

    So when I hear authors complain about Hollywood, I have to call bullshit because even if your story gets put in development hell, you're still getting paid for doing nothing. That's hardly a situation the average person would complain about it, and it highlights how out of touch authors can be with economic realities. Plus, a movie option under your belt gives you some leverage during contract renegotiation with a publisher, though not much.

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  21. Welcome Boyd! Great post on a great topic. I particularly love those "first choice" stories. Paul Newman was the original choice for Dirty Harry. He declined and very graciously suggested Clint Eastwood.

    One other little roadblock a novel may face on the way to film blockbuster status: distribution. There's nothing like getting your, uh, mind teased and your heart broken as the result of going through all of the steps which you listed, expecting to see it at the local Rave plex, and then having the distribution on the movie version of Your Precious pass a sandcastle and (if you're lucky) go straight to DVD or be scheduled for the 1:35 AM slot of one of the more obscure HBO channels. That's one reason why there's that chain link wire covering highway overpasses.

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  22. No way! No one but Clint for Dirty Harry. Couldn't imagine another in a million years!

    BK Jackson (too tired to log in as myself)

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  23. Fletch, "development hell" is the industry term. Believe me, authors love to have books optioned over and over again, but having the actual movie made would be even better.

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  24. Good to see you here, Boyd. This was a great first post.

    A couple of questions for you and the other published authors: Do any of you visualize your novels as movies while you're writing? I know that a novel tends to include more story than a film can. But I often find myself 'seeing' the story play out in my head as I'm writing.

    If your book(s) did get (or have been) optioned would you want the opportunity to write the screenplay? It's quite a different animal from a novel or short-story. But I think it would be great fun to try.

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  25. Hi Bill. Yes, I'm a pretty visual person, so I imagine myself in the story whether I'm reading or writing one.

    I have no desire to write a screenplay. I'll let them find someone who's good at that.

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