A World Where All Escalators Go Up – Part 3

In the first two parts of this article we’ve been talking about bonus advances known as “escalators.” Let’s take up the ones called movie bonuses, which are usually payable upon national release by a major distributor of a theatrical motion picture based on your book. There’s a mouthful of contingencies crammed into that sentence, so let’s analyze it.

First, the movie has to be released. Of course! you say, but many authors believe that a movie deal on their book ought to be enough to garner them a handsome bonus from their publishers. I’m sorry to tell you otherwise. Although there is some promotional value for a publisher to be able to boast, “Acquired for motion pictures by Universal,” it scarcely does a thing for sales. Thus, escalators are usually not payable when movie rights to your book are optioned, or when the option is exercised. In fact, they are not even payable when your movie goes into production.

Publishers have seen too many movie deals fall through to get excited when a star actor or producer takes an option on a book property. They have learned to their sorrow that many movies that go into production are not completed or released. So, in order to trigger that escalator, the film must be distributed.

And it must be distributed by one of the big distributors, Universal or Warner or MGM and the like, rather than any one of the thousands of little ones that service the movie community. And finally, the movie must be released nationally, as opposed to locally or regionally. The premiere of a film, even a high-budget one made by a great director with superstar actors and actresses, is not going to boost sales of the book from which it is adapted if it’s shown only at a few elite showcase theaters in New York and Los Angeles. In order for the film to have impact on mass market book sales, it must be shown at hundreds or thousands of theaters around the nation.

Again, the prices for movie escalators vary widely, from modest—in the low five figures—to very large in the case of authors with long track records in the area of books made into hit films.

Related to theatrical movie bonuses are television-movie escalators. But while the market for television adaptation of books is a very active one, the stimulus to book sales is usually minimal. Even though the exposure is tremendous, far greater than that of a theatrical movie, it is also ephemeral: an evening or two (repeated once, six months or a year later) and it’s gone. For publishers this presents serious problems of distribution and promotion. The books must be in the stores precisely on the day of or the day after the airing of the film, and the film must be so heavily publicized that consumers will be motivated to buy the book at the time of the airing. This is expensive, inefficient, unpredictable, and usually, therefore, unsuccessful.

For a television movie to mean anything in terms of tie-in value, it must first of all be an event, one absorbing a minimum of four hours, but preferably spanning a whole week of evenings. It should also be based on a best-selling book such as The Winds of War or North and South, so that viewer recognition of both the book and movie stimulate each other: you’ve read the book, now see the television movie, you’ve seen the movie, now read the book. Because very few books are converted into television events on the magnitude of, say, Shogun, the prices for escalators in this medium are considerably lower than they are for release of a major theatrical film adaptation of your book. The conditions are that the TV film be of at least four hours, run on consecutive evenings, and be aired originally on a major television network.

There are other contingencies that may trigger escalator payments. Some contracts call for bonuses to be paid if a book wins a major prize or award that has promotional value: Pulitzer, National Book Award, and the like. In some science fiction book contracts, I have negotiated bonuses for winning Nebula or Hugo awards, and in a few cases I even worked in bonuses for nominations for those awards. To science fiction fans the words “Nebula” or “Hugo” on the cover of a book are powerful inducements to buy that book, even if the word “Nominee” is printed beside them.

Obviously, not all books are suitable for escalators. Midlist books, most genre books, and books in category series seldom have escalation provisions in their contracts. For the occasional wunderbuch, the midlist novel that becomes a word-of-mouth best-seller and gets made into a hit movie, the author who did not have escalators in his contract can nevertheless look forward to royalties in the usual course of things. Of course, the next contract he negotiates will, you can be sure, contain more escalators than Macy’s department store.

There’s no harm in your trying for escalators when you negotiate your next contract, because it’s no skin off your publisher’s nose to give them to you: he only has to pay them to you, as they say in Las Vegas, “on the come.” So what the hell; go for it. That way, you too will be able to brag that you have sold your book—with escalators—for a million dollars.

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