Tag Archives: Television

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.


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



The New YouTube: IT Meets TV

Back in June 2010 we gave our opinion of what we called the westcoastification of YouTube: “Hollywood, there are millions of us who don’t want YouTube to mature,” we wrote. “We like it just the way it is — embarrassingly sophomoric, amateurish, LOL hilarious, pathetic, dopey, dirty, funky, and utterly counterculture. It belongs to We the People. Can’t you go co-opt some other industry? We can think of a lot of them that could use your genius, your money and your values.” (See Do We Want YouTube to Grow Up?)

We might as well have spit in the wind. YouTube is on the way to becoming as slick as television, as highly monetized as a currency printing plant, and as tightly controlled as a high-security prison. A superb analysis in the New Yorker by John Seabrook tracks the evolution of YouTube from”the home of grainy cell-phone videos and skateboarding dogs” to YouTube Original Channels, dedicated to giving viewers 24/7 online coverage of the subjects in which they are particularly interested.

Once these channels are in place, writes Seabrook, “the niches will get nichier, and the audiences smaller still. But those audiences will be even more engaged, and much more quantifiable. Advertisers have to rely on ratings and market research to get even a rough approximation of who’s watching which show. Because YouTube is delivered over the Internet, the company will know exactly who is watching—not their names but their viewing histories, their searches, their purchases, their rough location, and their online social connections.”

For anyone interested in media – and who is not? –  Streaming Dreams: YouTube turns pro  is required reading.

Richard Curtis


Will Enhanced E-Books Kill Movie Deals? We’re About to Find Out

Since the dawn of the digital age – call it Year 2000 – publishers and agents have separated e-rights into two categories.  One is verbatim text rights – plain old e-books.  The second is interactive use of texts in combination with music, video, audio and other media – what have come to be called enhanced e-books.  Commonly, agents struck the latter provision out of publisher boilerplate.  Why?  Because film studios and networks felt that  enhancements incurred on their ability to dramatize the books they acquired.

But with development of vooks and similar hybrids of text and other media (“Vook” = Video + Book), publishers are challenging the assumption that interactive rights must be reserved to authors. As enhanced e-books become viable and valuable, publishers want to know why they are abandoning rights to movie and television companies.

That is the background for the memo that a major literary agency has sent to a number of film agents informing them that henceforth they cannot count controlling those interactive rights.

The memo declared in part:

“As a result of this fundamental change in publishing, we will no longer be able to agree to the boilerplate language in most studio option/purchase agreements that address multimedia. These clauses usually restrict the author’s reserved electronic book rights to digital text only. We cannot agree to this limitation. Authors’ reserved ebook rights must now include the right to grant enhanced digital rights in their work, including all the elements mentioned above.” The memo made it clear that “enhanced digital editions, as long as they are non-dramatic, are best exploited by the author in conjunction with the publisher.”

Despite this distinction it’s not likely that Hollywood is going to take this shift lying down. Where enhancements end and movie effects begin will certainly become a bone of contention, so this is going to get interesting and probably adversarial. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

Though enhanced e-books are on everybody’s tongue these days, we suspect you won’t see a flood of them any time soon.  The cost and complexity of clearing permissions and the time it takes to produce works of real quality will in all likelihood restrict the number released to a precious few.  But that may not be the point, as we will eventually see when the titans of publishing and Hollywood clash on the field of enhancements.

Richard Curtis


YouTube Wants to Snatch Your Eyeballs from BoobTube

Think you’re addicted to YouTube now?  Your fifteen minutes a day – maybe five or six videos of two or three minutes each – are a fraction of the five hours you spend daily watching television. Google, YouTube’s owner, is not happy about that and has plans to raise your dose substantially.

Dude, when YouTube is through with you you’re gonna be freebasing videos.

You probably haven’t been aware of it, but right now you have too much choice.  When you go on the YouTube website you make choices about what you want to watch.  When you finish watching a video you have the choice to select another or to exit the website.  YouTube doesn’t care for choice one little bit. “Every decision point is an opportunity to leave,” says a company executive, and opportunities to leave are not good for business. Not good at all.

Randall Stross, writing in the “Digital Domain” feature of the Sunday New York Times, says that YouTube has devised a strategy to capture your attention to keep your eye on the screen and your hand off the exit key. “This fall,” writes Stross, “YouTube says it will introduce a radically different, uncluttered look, with YouTube Leanback. It will have a separate Web address and will start playing a video the moment a user clicks on the site. When one video ends, another will start automatically, eliminating those dreaded ‘decision points’ that invite abandonment.”

But there’s more – hours and hours more.  Stross reports that the chief of YouTube’s user experience team – yes that’s actually a title –  says the site is stepping up its long-form content – “television shows, professionally produced Webisodes and movies, as well as live sporting and music events.”

Prepare to trade in your couch for…another couch, compliments of YouTube.

Read details in YouTube Wants You to Sit and Stay Awhile.

Richard Curtis
Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by The New York Times.


Smitten with Screens

In Watching Books, an Authors Guild Bulletin article published last summer, I wrote

Reading text on a screen without sound, color, or movement, one develops the uneasy feeling that something is missing. We wonder, Is that all there is? I’m not a psychologist but it seems more than likely that we are bringing to text viewed on screens the same expectations we bring to television, movie and computer screens. Indeed, something is missing! How can we not be disappointed – even, God help us, bored – when these blocks of words fail to stimulate the same intense response as a YouTube video? We are trying to extract a linear experience out of a nonlinear medium.

As I’m not a social scientist, these observations were not supported by hard research or statistics. Thanks to Randall Stross, a professor of business at San Jose State University writing in the New York Times, they are now powerfully reinforced by metrics supplied by such solid data gathering organizations as Nielsen and ComScore.

Surprisingly, Stross focuses not so much on the Internet as on television. You’d think that TV, like print media, would be losing ground to YouTube and other Web distractions (nearly 100 million viewers watched 5.9 billion YouTube videos in December alone!). In fact, watching television in the third quarter of 2008 increased by five hours a month compared to the same period in 2007. “Tellingly,” says Stross, “YouTube has not cannibalized TV viewership – it has instead carved out another chunk of our leisure time for video on a screen.”

In short, whether it’s YouTube or BoobTube, “A tipping point has been passed in the competition between print and screen that has been under way since the beginning of broadcast TV and now continues with video and other media.”

Stross’s conclusion: “People are showing a clear preference for a fully formed video experience that comes ready to play on a screen, requiring nothing but our passive attention.”

In Watching Books, I wrote,

The fundamental appeal of books is their ability to transport us to the author’s world. The best books immerse us so deeply in that world that we become almost immune to distraction. But screens are breeders of distraction from the sort of commitment to thinking, reflecting, and imagining that books demand. Books are vehicles for ideas; one can set a book down and ruminate and process. Computer monitors, television sets, and e-book screens discourage reflection. Thinkers simply live in a different time zone from watchers.

Stross echoes my own disheartening comments: “We used to speak of reading a book as an immersive experience, too, but ‘immersive’ now seems shorthand for ‘video on a screen.'” What worries me most is that book editors, especially young ones coming into the business, will be affected – or infected – by that same disenchantment with words displayed on screen that is touching everybody else. If editors start putting down their Kindles or Sony eReaders and asking, “Is that all there is?,” we will know that the End Days of Book Publishing have begun.

“Smitten with screens” is his phrase for it, and I can’t think of a better one. Read Why Television Still Shines in a World of Screens in full and – if you can spare a little time between your TV programs and your Internet videos – reflect.

Richard Curtis