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Books Into Movies: Part 2

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.

The screenplay opens the doors to securing financing by stimulating the interest of stars and their agents, and then to assembling the rest of the elements. Once these all come together and the money has been put up to make the film, the author can be paid. Until then the author is in effect asked to subsidize the writing of the screenplay by being moderate in his asking price for the option. In many cases authors are asked to give producers a free or nominal option against a big purchase price and share of the profits. These strangely unbalanced deals—often options of a few hundred dollars against purchase prices of hundreds of thousands—result from the fact that the option money has to come out of the producer’s own pocket, whereas the purchase money comes out of someone else’s.
Although there is a lot of activity in options of books for the movies, it can be argued that the option system is actually harmful to a book’s chances of being made into a movie. Options are usually purchased in six-or twelve-month increments, but are renewable at the producer’s option for several more six- or twelve-month periods with the payment of additional option money. The process can tie up a book for eighteen months, two years, or longer while the producer frantically tries to juggle screenplay, financing, distribution, director, and stars in the hopes of getting them to sign a contract. Nobody wants to sign a contract until he has a guarantee. The financiers may want a distribution commitment before they fork over their money; the director may want a particular star to agree to appear in the film; the star may want a terrific screenplay; the screenplay writer may want a huge fee; the studio may want the book to be on the best-seller list.

Since the odds against everyone signing are so high, it’s likely that when the option or renewal lapses, your book will have been shopped all over the movie business. Though you’ll then have an opportunity to market the rights again and pursue those who might have been interested in your book a year or two ago, the book will probably have the smell of death clinging to it, and you’ll be unable to revive it.

Clearly, it’s a lot cheaper and easier for a modestly heeled producer to option or commission an original screenplay than to get involved with books. But with the kinds of movies that are pulling in big bucks at the box office these days, it may reasonably be asked, “What do producers need books for, anyway?” So many of these films are youth-oriented, exploitive, devoid of ideas, predictably plotted, action-packed, and populated with stick-figure characters. A producer contemplating making one of these teenage fantasy films is certainly not going to seek those values in books. Indeed, he would have to search far and wide to find books dumb enough to make into today’s hit movies.

Interestingly, the one area in the entertainment industry where books are still welcome, and in fact welcome as never before, is television, and the immense appetite of the networks and cable companies does not threaten to diminish in the foreseeable future. Publishers’ lists are combed furiously by producers seeking movie-of-the-week or miniseries candidates, and because of network commitments to air scores of these films annually, the search has become intensely competitive. Many of the properties optioned or acquired are novels, but television producers, unlike theatrical film producers, plunder short stories, articles, and nonfiction books as well as novels in their quest for adaptable material.

Ironically, the quality of television movies now often exceeds that of many theatrical films. Once characterized as a vast wasteland, television has discovered ideas and begun to develop them into vehicles that are often intelligent, sensitive, moving, and controversial, touching on themes that the movies used to portray but seldom do any more. Out-of-wedlock children, incest, senility, spouse or child abuse, drug addiction, kidnapping, and physical disability are some of the themes that have been woven into recent original television movies, and few who have watched them can claim that they are inferior to most theatrical films made today or that they are not the equal of many made in the past.

From the viewpoint of the author with a book to sell, this change is of major importance, for it no longer is smart to disdain television deals while holding out for a theatrical one. It is likelier that an option will be exercised for a TV movie than for a theatrical one, and the price gap between the two media has begun to close. And, from the viewpoint of pride of authorship, the chances are better than ever that an author’s vision will be preserved intact in a television adaptation. For all these reasons I recommend that if you or your agent are approached by producers interested in adapting your work for television, and the terms are comparable to what you might get from a movie-movie producer, don’t hesitate to make that deal.

Here are some other suggestions for improving your chances of making a movie or television sale in today’s market.

• Prepare an extremely brief—no more than two pages—synopsis of your book to show to interested producers. It should be a highly compressed summary of the theme, story, and characters, and should read like a jacket blurb except that the emphasis should be on the cinematic values rather than the literary ones. Potential buyers will want to see the manuscript, proof, or printed copy anyway, but if they have time to read nothing else they will read your summary, and a well-written one will enable them to visualize the film the way you yourself visualize it.

• Give no free options, even of a few weeks’ duration. Inevitably you will be approached by would-be producers claiming they know exactly the right studio or network executive who will buy your book, and all they need is a couple of weeks to make a deal, and could you let them have just this one shot free of charge because by the time the papers are drawn up it will be too late, etc. Most agents who have dealt with movie and television people have heard this line before and shut the door on it; they’ve learned that people don’t respect properties they get for nothing. An investment in an option guarantees a certain amount of commitment and responsibility. You don’t have to draw up a complete movie contract for such a modest deal, but a deal memorandum synopsizing the highlights of the negotiation, such as option price, purchase price, profit percentages if any, duration of option and renewals, reserved rights, credits, and so forth, is a must.

As for that claim that the producer needs only a few weeks, don’t believe it. Everything in the movie business takes six times longer than you would imagine it should. I have seldom seen a movie option exercised after six months, and indeed have seen producers dig themselves into an awful hole by paying too much money for too brief an option, necessitating their renewing the option for too much money again for yet another brief option. The author who finds himself in the position of dealing with such a producer enjoys the rare pleasure of being in the driver’s seat, so if someone wants a short option, give it to him, but make him pay for it.

• Renewals of a producer’s option on your work should be more expensive than the original option and should not be deductible from the purchase price of the rights. The initial option is usually applicable against the purchase price, but thereafter the producer is in effect paying rent on your property. If you allow him to deduct renewal fees from the purchase price, he is in effect not renting your property but buying it from you in installments, and relatively painless installments at that. You’ll want that lump sum due upon exercise of the option to hang over the producer’s head like some ominous cloud. And, by making renewals more expensive than the original option, you are telling the producer that tying your property up for such a long time is an inconvenience, and one that is not mitigated by the money he’s paying you to extend your option. If you option your book before publication, try to negotiate the deal in such a way that the option expires around your publication date and is not renewable beyond that date. Your property will probably never be hotter to movie people than before it’s published, when it will not have been exposed to the entire industry or shopped all over town. Thus anyone taking an option before publication is getting your work at its ripest moment. If, by the time the book is published, your producer has not been able to make a deal, his option should expire, and expire without hope of renewal. If your book then goes on to get good reviews and/or hits the best-seller list, you have a second lease on life.

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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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Media Tie-Ins – How Do They Work?

Novelizations of movies, television shows and video games are among the most intriguing subspecies of commercial fiction. I say subspecies because they obviously cannot be spoken of in the same breath as Lolita or Portrait of a Lady; indeed, even commercial novelists look down their noses at novelizations as possessing not a shred of redeeming social value, as the literary equivalent of painting by numbers. On the spectrum of the written word, tie-ins are as close to merchandise as they are to literature.

There’s some truth in this. Tie-ins are kin to souvenirs, and in some ways are not vastly different from the dolls, toys, games, calendars, clothes, and other paraphernalia generated by successful motion pictures and television shows. Those who write them usually dismiss them with embarrassment or contempt, or brag about how much money they made for so little work. Yet, when pressed they will speak with pride about the skill and craftsmanship that went into the books and assure you that the work is deceptively easy. And if you press them yet further, many will puff out their chests and boast that tie-in writers constitute a select inner circle of artisans capable of getting an extremely demanding job done promptly, reliably, and effectively, a kind of typewriter-armed S.W.A.T. team whose motto is, “My book is better than the movie.”

How are tie-ins created?

Novelizations of movies and television shows are among the most intriguing subspecies of commercial fiction. I say subspecies because they obviously cannot be spoken of in the same breath as The Magic Mountain or Portrait of a Lady; indeed, even commercial novelists look down their noses at novelizations as possessing not a shred of redeeming social value, as the literary equivalent of painting by numbers. On the spectrum of the written word, tie-ins are as close to merchandise as they are to literature.

Tie-ins are kin to souvenirs, and in some ways are not vastly different from the dolls, toys, games, calendars, clothes, and other paraphernalia generated by successful motion pictures and television shows. Those who write them usually dismiss them with embarrassment or contempt, or brag about how much money they made for so little work. Yet, when pressed they will speak with pride about the skill and craftsmanship that went into the books and assure you that the work is deceptively easy. And if you press them yet further, many will puff out their chests and boast that tie-in writers constitute a select inner circle of artisans capable of getting an extremely demanding job done promptly, reliably, and effectively, a kind of typewriter-armed S.W.A.T. team whose motto is, “My book is better than the movie.”

How are tie-ins created? Their birthplace of course is the original screenplay. The Writers Guild of America Basic Agreement entitles the screenwriter to ownership of literary rights to his screenplay. When he sells his screenplay he may retain the novelization rights or include them, at terms to be negotiated, in the screenplay deal. Most of the time the screenwriter sells his novelization rights to the buyer—the film’s producer or a studio. The new owner of these rights now tries to line up a publication deal for the tie-in. He contacts paperback publishers and pitches the forthcoming film.

If the film has a big budget, terrific story, bankable actors, unique special effects, or other highly promotable features that promise a hit, publishers will bid for the publication rights, (In the case of television tie-ins, the producers almost always wait till a series is a hit before arranging for tie-ins. And one-shot movies of the week seldom trigger novelizations because of the brief period—one evening—in which they are exposed to the public.) A deal is then struck, the publisher paying an advance against royalties to the producer or studio.

The publisher then engages a writer to adapt the screenplay. It should be readily apparent that if the movie is indeed shaping up to be a hit, or the television show is already a hit, the publisher will be forced to pay such a high advance and royalty to the producer or studio that little will be left for the writer. That’s why novelizations are generally low-paying affairs, with modest advances and nominal royalties of 1 or 2 percent. Flat fees are by no means unheard of. And, because the competition among writers for novelizations is intense, few writers are in any position to bargain. But if the pay scale is so miserable, why do authors seek novelization assignments so ardently? Because they think it’s easy money. Sometimes it is. But it’s not like falling off a log, as we shall soon see.

Publishers are nowhere near as enamored of movie tie-ins as authors are, and they weigh the profit potential of such books as critically as they do that of the thousands of other manuscripts submitted to them annually. They know that most movies do not translate well into books. There are also technical and timing problems with tie-ins that are daunting to publishers. For instance, the screenplay may undergo alterations, some of them radical, right up to or even during the shooting of the film. By the time filming is complete there is insufficient time before the release of the movie for a writer to write the novel and the publisher to publish it.

A notable instance of the timing problem occurred in the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Director Stanley Kubrick insisted on complete control over the writing and publication scheduling of the novelization. The author of that novelization was a chap named Arthur C. Clarke, and since Kubrick kept changing the script as he went along, particularly the wild and mystical ending, Clarke had to keep changing the novel. His publishers bit their fingernails to the quick as the days rolled inexorably toward the release date of the movie. Worst of all, the book tie-in deal was for publication of a hardcover first, then paperback. It had been assumed that the hardcover would be brought out before the movie was released, then the paperback would be issued to coincide with the release of the film. But because of the delays there was no lead time whatsoever for the hardcover. The publisher wanted to drop the hardcover and go straight into paperback, but Kubrick insisted on hardcover. Thus we had a case, unprecedented in anyone’s experience, of a hardcover novelization. The publisher did get his paperback edition out soon thereafter, but the situation was a mess and the book didn’t do anywhere as well as it might have if the timing had been better.

Kubrick, incidentally, plays a role in one of the more bizarre movie tie-in stories I have ever heard. It seems that a novelist named Peter Bryan George wrote a nuclear apocalypse novel called Red Alert. It was acquired for the movies by a producer who couldn’t put a deal together, so he laid it off on Kubrick. Kubrick adapted it, and rather broadly to say the least. Red Alert was a very solemn book; the adaptation was blackly humorous. He called it Dr. Strangelove. In fact, so different was the movie from the book that the producers decided to hire somebody to write the novelization. They hired Peter Bryan George, the author of Red Alert. So George novelized the movie version of his own novel! His novel had been published by Ace under the name of Peter Bryant; his novelization was published by Bantam under the name Peter George.

Another problem for publishers is the greed that has set in at the studios. Originally, tie-ins were regarded as free publicity for movies, and publishers regarded them as little more than list-fillers. For a modest payment to the studio a publisher would get the screenplay, stills, cover photo, and promotional material, and everybody was happy. Then the studios began to smell profit, and arranging tie-ins became a little less complex than building a space shuttle.

The first big breakout tie-in was Last Tango in Paris, according to novelist and publishing columnist Leonore Fleischer, who has been dubbed Queen of the Paperback Novelizers for the fifty-odd tie-ins she has written. Last Tango was followed by a number of other hits (tie-inwise as well as box officewise) like The Omen and Star Wars. The bidding began to spiral, and the studios started charging publishers for all the material they’d formerly give away as part of the tie-in package.

The climax came with the bidding for a tie-in of F.I.S.T., the Sylvester Stallone film following Stallone’s smash hit, Rocky. Dell paid a $400,000 advance for the novelization rights, and, needless to say, took what is known in Spanish as El Batho. Soon afterward the tie-in market collapsed – “F.I.S.T was your ultimate South Sea Bubble,” Fleischer told me – and it never quite recovered. It has revived somewhat, principally in the area of special effects-type films such as Alien, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but publishers have become too cautious and sensible ever to get quite so hysterical again.

Anyone who thinks that tie-in writing is a mere matter of adding he-saids and she-saids to the screenplay dialogue has certainly never attempted such an adaptation. For one thing, most screenplays are too short to convert page for page into book manuscripts. Therefore, even if you are following the script scene by scene, you are required to amplify on character, action, and location descriptions. Any good novelist can translate a terse screenplay direction (“EXTERIOR, OLD MACDONALD’S FARM, A STORMY NIGHT”) into a few pages of descriptive prose (“A bitter, shrieking north wind lashed the trees and hurled sheet after sheet of icy rain against the clapboard siding of Old MacDonald’s farmhouse . . .” etc.). The problem is that when you analyze screenplays you realize that most of them don’t lend themselves comfortably to scene-for-scene conversion. In fact, many of them present nightmarish challenges.

The reason is that movies are seen with one lobe of the brain, and books read with another. If you’ll take the trouble to compare a novel with its film adaptation, you’ll immediately realize that whole chapters have been cut or reduced to takes that last a few seconds on the screen; or that, conversely, a sentence or paragraph has been dramatized into a full-dress scene that consumes five or ten minutes of movie time. This is because some material in books is distinctly more cinematic than other material. (It also explains why few novelists make good screenwriters, and most screenwriters are dreadful novelists.)

By the same token, owing to the demands of the book reader’s imagination, elaborate scenes in a movie may seem far too long to merit the same expansive treatment in a novelization; fast transitional scenes, flashbacks, establishing shots, short takes, and the like may require a novelizer to build them into whole chapters. Some years ago I was hired by Bantam to novelize John Carpenter’s horror film Halloween. The film had already been released and was showing at only a few small theaters around the country, but the Bantam editor felt the movie was a sleeper, and he was right; It became one of the most profitable independently made films of all time.

It was most fortunate for me that the movie has already made, for in many cases the novelizer has only the screenplay to go by, or perhaps a rough cut of the film, and therefore has little visual material to aid him as he attempts to translate screenplay into book. After seeing the movie, however, I was troubled by some serious technical problems in adapting one medium into another. The movie opens with a five-year-old boy who, on Halloween, slashes his teenage sister to death with a long kitchen knife. We then jump some twenty years to show the little boy, now a grown man, escaping from a mental institution in which he has been confined, stealing a car, and returning to his hometown to go on another bloody rampage.

One of the great things about movies is that they move so fast, you don’t have time to think about logic. Novels are a more reflective medium, however; at any time you can put a book down and think about what you’ve read. And it worried me, for instance, that my readers would put my book down and wonder how the hell someone who’d been institutionalized since he was five would know how to drive a car. So I had to concoct a whole chapter describing the fellow’s stay in the asylum (which was okay, since I needed the five thousand words anyway) and showing that because he’d been a model inmate and trusty, he’d been taught to drive a truck and use it to run errands on the asylum grounds.

Even more serious was the fact that at the climax of the film, this malevolent individual is shot half a dozen times at point-blank range by a .357 magnum, yet steals way into the darkness leaving not a drop of blood where he fell to the ground, apparently dead; leaving, in fact, only the distinctive aroma of a sequel film. Now, all this is well and good for the moviegoer seeking a good scare, but for a book reader it raises some disturbing questions: Did the man who shot the guy from three feet away actually miss? Did he accidentally use blank cartridges? Did he simply graze him, or fail to hit any vital parts, or shoot him in such a way as to draw no blood? (Three fifty-seven magnums are so powerful they draw blood even when they miss!)

Or—was this maniac actually a supernatural entity invulnerable to high-calibre death-dealing sidearms?

There was no indication whatever in the movie that he was. Yet, in order to make sense out of it at all, I had to endow him with supernatural characteristics and invent a rationale, which went like this: ever since his execution during a Druid harvest ritual (whence Halloween is derived), this monster returned to earth every few years on Halloween to seek blood vengeance. My invention strained credulity to the limit, but at least it unified the book and brought me another seventy-five hundred badly needed words.

Every tie-in writer talking shop will tell you how he or she overcame such challenges, challenges complicated by the insistence of the producer on approval of the novel or a run-in with some middle-management studio exec who demanded that whatever was in the movie must go into the book, and whatever wasn’t in the movie must not go into the book. The fact that novelizations may take only a few weeks does not mean that many, many hours of thought and years of writing experience did not go into them. Novelizers earn every penny, and for all but the biggest books, pennies are what they make. Leonore Fleischer, one of the genre’s top authors, earned a total of some $45,000 in royalties for a labor of less than a week on the film tie-in of Annie, but that is exceptional. Joan Vinge, who wrote The Jedi Story Book, a juvenile tie-in to The Return of the Jedi, did it for a modest flat fee for Random House. The movie was a phenomenal success, and so was the book, but Vinge was not entitled to a penny of royalty. Only by the goodness of Random House’s heart, tinged perhaps with a dollop of guilt plus a healthy measure of pushing by her agent, was she awarded a $10,000 bonus.

The best advice I can give prospective tie-in writers is, if possible never write one for a flat fee, no matter how dumb the movie, no matter how quick and simple the job. Years ago, Ace hired me to write a tie-in for a perfectly dreadful and quite disgusting horror movie called Squirm, which portrayed in all its graphic revoltingness what happened when a small town was invaded by millions of bloodsucking earthworms. Ace offered me a flat fee of $2,500, and, seeing the prospect of earning $250 a day, I grabbed the deal. The movie came and, blessedly, went. But my book went through numerous editions for Ace, and was sold to English and other foreign publishers where it endured for years.

My book was better than the movie. Big deal! That and a good agent would have earned me a nice profit. Unfortunately, I don’t have an agent. I don’t trust them.

– Copyright 1996 by Richard Curtis, All Rights Reserved.

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