Books into Movies Part 1

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 best-seller.
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 sucker 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 best-sellers 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—we used to see a number of outright purchases of books for movies. Though an outright purchase doesn’t guarantee a movie will be made, the size of the outlay, often hundreds of thousands of dollars, 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.

In part 2 we’ll focus on that screenplay.

Richard Curtis

 

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