Chapter 3: Adapting vs Selling Film Rights (MYSAM Book Excerpt)

by John Robert Marlow

Make your Story a Movie -- The Book

If you haven’t already, you might want to read the book’s Introduction: The Power of Hollywood, Chapter One: Why Adapt?, and Chapter Two: What Can—and Can’t—Be Adapted before reading this chapter. Onward…



There’s a Difference

Most books and other properties are not movies. Some never will be. Many, however—including most books—could be movies, if skillfully adapted. And therein lies the rub: when Hollywood people (agents, managers, producers, directors, actors, studio execs and investors) look at a book, even a very good book, they see…a book. And the business of Hollywood is making movies, not books. As Paul Haggis says, “You need to be able to picture the film.”

[NOTE: Names without a mini-bio were introduced in an earlier chapter. Names link to the MYSAM Book Contributor Page.]


The purpose of a book is to be a book, to be enjoyed and appreciated for what it is. There is no next step, except perhaps to read the author’s next book. The purpose of a screenplay is to roll a movie in the reader’s head, and get them to take the next step: to help turn that screenplay into the movie they saw as they read it. The script’s purpose is to be a blueprint. “The screenplay isn’t the final version of anything,” says screenwriter John August. “It’s a plan for making a movie.”

Christopher Lockhart of WME explains. “When someone in this town reads a story,” he says, “they ask themselves one question: Is this a movie? Agents, managers, producers; that’s all they want to know in the beginning: Is this a movie? If they can’t see the movie in their heads, they’re not interested. And the way you roll a movie in someone’s head—when the movie doesn’t yet exist—is with a screenplay.”

Producer Michael Nozik echoes this sentiment. “Hollywood’s always looking for the easiest, quickest path to the end zone. One of the first things I ask, and I’m sure every other producer who looks at a piece of material asks, is this: is this thing a movie, or is this not a movie? And if it is, what kind of movie is it? And is it a movie that can ever get made? Sometimes I’ll look at source material and think, this could be great, but I have no idea how to make it work as a movie, the story’s just too difficult to translate.

“Probably for the same reason, studios are less willing to consider source material than finished screenplays based on the same material, and they’re willing to spend more when they can see it well executed, because you’re helping them get to the end zone—a finished film—quicker.”

Christopher Lockhart continues. “The only time you approach someone without a screenplay is when you: a) don’t have one, and b) can’t get one. Or c) your work is already so enormously well-known and successful and obviously cinematic that you don’t need one to sell the project.”

Lesli Linka Glatter drew an Oscar nomination for her first film, Tales of Meeting and Parting, which she both wrote and directed, based on a series of true stories. She has since directed feature films, TV movies, and dozens of series episodes. She recently won the Director’s Guild Award for Best Director of Dramatic Series (Night), and currently has several adaptations in development. “If I read something and I see the movie,” she says, “I know immediately I’m the right person to direct it. If I don’t see the movie, it’s probably better that someone else does it, because the project deserves someone who’s that passionate about it.”

Of adaptations, she says: “If you’ve actually got the adapted screenplay and it’s a good screenplay, I think you have a better chance of getting it made. Because someone can look at it and say, ‘Wow, this is great’. And that’s a big step closer to a movie. Whether you’re raising money independently or going through the studios, you don’t have anything without the screenplay.”

Producer Gail Lyon, whose credits include Erin Brockovich (TRU), Gattaca, Edge of Darkness (TVS) and Stuart Little 2 (NOV), recalls her experience with the Erin Brokovich story. “Nobody in town wanted to buy it, everybody passed and I don’t blame them, because until an idea like that is executed as smartly and surprisingly as [screenwriter] Susannah Grant did it, it sounds like a TV movie.

“Susannah was much more of an emerging writer at the time, not as established as she is now by any means, but she was always very talented with great instincts. Once she wrote the script and hit it out of the park, people saw the story differently, and they saw the value in it.”

Leslie Dixon offers this advice: “Having a completed script is really the most likely way to sell. If you’ve written a great script based on great source material, then the studios can do what they prefer to do and in fact do best: look for money to get the project made. They’re not really interested in making development deals anymore; they’re looking for things that are ready to go.”

Paul Haggis concurs. “I’ve had more success just writing the whole screenplay. It’s easier for buyers to see the movie if they have the script in front of them. To do that, you have to be willing to put in the work to get the script done, without knowing whether someone will buy it. That’s what I did with Million Dollar Baby. I wrote it, they read it, and they never even looked at the source material. They should, it’s brilliant, but that’s not what interests them, because the movie will be based on the script.”


Books raise questions screenplays don’t: “Will this work onscreen? How do we squeeze 500 pages into two hours? Half the book takes place inside the hero’s head; how do we fix that? This would cost $300 million to shoot—can we make it less expensive? Can we tell this story in three acts, streamline the plot, strengthen the character arcs? If we buy the rights, who do we hire for the adaptation? How much is that going to cost? And, at the end of all that—will this be a movie?”

The adaptation process can be time consuming and expensive, particularly for buyers who may be juggling a dozen (or a hundred) other projects and paying industry rates to everyone involved for what may be years on end, hoping to get it right.

By going in with a screenplay instead of the source material, you avoid such complications and potential objections, allowing the prospective buyer to focus on that one, all-important question: Is this a movie?

To be fair, there are those who feel that going in with a completed script locks the reader into a single interpretation of the source material when there may be other, perhaps better ways to adapt the story. But the same could be said of original screenplays as well. You choose what seems the best way to tell the story—and you take your best shot. You tell that story. And while there may be some truth to the “locked-in” argument, it’s also true that there’s a huge difference when it comes to…


Lastly (or perhaps firstly), there’s the matter of price. As we’ve seen, screenplays are movie blueprints. A book or other source material serves as a starting point for an adaptation that might—or might not—make a good movie. Without the screenplay, it’s hard to tell. Once the source material’s rights are acquired, a good deal of work remains to be done before the project can be offered for sale to others.

The portion of this work that is paid for—the writing of the screenplay itself, for example—is paid for at industry rates. Which means that, if you’ve sold rights only and the project moves ahead with a WGA (Writers Guild of America) signatory company, someone is going to get paid between $100,000 and $1 million to write the adapted screenplay. That someone will not be you, nor will they be splitting the money with you.

So unless you’re selling the rights to something that’s already massively successful on its own terms (bestselling book, comic book, video or other game, toy, etc.) and will therefore fetch a high price, you’re making a bit of a trade-off on the financial side. You’re also more likely to wind up with an option (described in Chapter 31) than with an outright and immediate purchase, because the other party is going to need some serious time to work out the details of the adaptation and construct a pitch or commission, review, and sell an adapted screenplay.

During the option period (typically one to three years), you will be unable to sell the rights to anyone else, and there will be no point to doing a screenplay, because you no longer control the screen rights, and no one’s obligated to use your script even if they do buy the rights.

If you are somehow hired to write a first draft, it won’t belong to you because you will at that point be an employee. (More on this in Chapter 31.) As Leslie Dixon points out: “If you’re getting paid to write the script, they own it and they can do anything they want with it, including fire you.” Or stick it in a drawer for the next twenty years. If the script is yours and things don’t work out, you’re free to take it elsewhere.

Typical rights option prices range from one dollar to thousands, with a final purchase price (if the option is “exercised”) of perhaps $10,000 to $100,000—the latter figure being for a book that’s already sold very well. More successful properties—Harry Potter, for example—may command far higher prices.

Screenplays can be optioned as well, but they can also be sold outright. So the strategy here is to go for the sale and, if that doesn’t work out, settle for an option. By going for a sale, you’re bypassing many of the people who would option the rights, and directly approaching many of the same people they would approach themselves after putting together a pitch pack (covered in Bonus Chapter The Pitch Pack: Selling a Screenplay—Without the Screenplay [coming soon]) or commissioning a screenplay. In a way, you’re cutting out the middleman (or woman).

And while it’s true that you’ll most likely hire another sort of middleman—an agent or manager—to help you with this, your potential upside is far greater. As mentioned earlier, spec screenplays sell for an average of $300-$600,000, with occasional forays past the $1 million mark. If you (the rights owner) wrote or commissioned the screenplay yourself, much of that money will be yours, even if the buyer puts the script on a shelf and never looks at it again.

Your agent gets ten percent; if you use a manager instead, he’ll get ten percent—but if your manager is also a producer, you may get your entire commission back when the movie gets made. (He’s not working for free; he’s getting paid even more by the studio or other buyer to produce, so he kicks you back the commission—provided you know enough to ask for this in your agreement with him, and he goes along.)

If the script doesn’t sell, you can regroup and package (“attach” a major producer, director, star or investor, most likely with the help of your agent or manager) and try again. This technique recently scored several major sales for scripts that had gone out a year or two earlier and found no buyer. (More on this in Chapter 27.)

Or you can go for an option—but even here you’re better off than you would be with rights alone. That’s because you’re now optioning a script, and if the option is exercised, you will be paid for the screenplay and not just the rights. So now you’re back in the $300-$600,000+ club, even if the “underlying property” (book, game, whatever) is unpublished and completely unknown.

In every case, you are—assuming there’s a purchase at the end of the rainbow—better off selling a screenplay with rights than rights alone. Unless you dwell in Potterland, in which case you can pretty much write your own ticket either way.

Writing or commissioning the screenplay yourself also has another advantage: the story presented will be the story you want to tell, rather than the unpredictable interpretation of an unknown writer, producer, or studio executive, who may not “get” what you really mean to say. And while there’s no guarantee this won’t happen anyway in rewrites (this is Hollywood, after all)—your own vision will at the very least be seen and considered, because it’s the first thing the buyer will look at.

Book available for pre-order on amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.



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