The Power of Hollywood (MYSAM Book Excerpt)

by John Robert Marlow

Make your Story a Movie -- The Book


Having revised, expanded and updated the original Make Your Story a Movie blog post several times for various print and online publications (and of course the blog itself), I came to realize that it was never going to be all I wanted it to be. The reason was simple: what I wanted it to be was just too big for a single blog post. On top of that, doing it as a series of posts would—at one or two posts a month—take years, leaving the information stuck in my head and unavailable to readers. In short, the whole project had become unmanageable—as a blog post.

But not, I thought, as a book—which could deliver several hundred pages of information in one instantly-available package. Information gleaned from my own experience and the collective wisdom of the people I’ve learned so much from over the years—authors, playwrights, comic creators and publishers, screenwriters, directors, producers, entertainment attorneys and more. All told, their works have earned over $50 billion dollars (I’m still trying to calculate a total), and drawn dozens of Academy Award nominations. And so, with the generous help of friends and friends of friends, the book was born.

At the same time, there was a great deal of information that wouldn’t fit into the book because it dealt with finer points rather than basics, or with aspects of the publishing or filmmaking industries that are not directly related to adaptations (how people broke into the business, the difference between working in film and TV, industry trends, and so forth).

That information will continue to appear on the blog, through regular posts, long-form interviews (including chats with most if not all of the sources quoted in the book), etc. The same goes for new or updated information I may come across after the book is published, and the experienced voices of those I have yet to meet and learn from.

Looking at the Big Picture (so to speak), book and blog are meant to work and grow together. The book will give you a solid grounding in the basics, from evaluating potential source material, through adaptation, to credits and contracts. The blog will build on that, and update anything subject to change.




“Looking back,” says Rex Pickett, author of the novel Sideways, “I wish I hadn’t taken the measly $5,000 advance from the publisher. Had I waited until the film was released, I’m told the book would have sold for $1,000,000.”

Rex divides his life into before-and-after episodes. “Before the movie, I was nobody. My life was complete shit. The day the movie went into production, I made $300,000.00. Suddenly everybody wanted something, and I had four agents working for me.”

The Sideways film cost $16 million, made $109 million at the box office, supercharged the California wine industry (with the notable exception of merlot, which it nearly destroyed), and drew five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (winning the latter). Among Pickett’s follow-up projects: a sequel to the Sideways novel, called Vertical, and a play based on the first book.

Walter Kirn is a self-described eccentric author. “To be frank,” he says, “I’m not a guy who sold a lot of books, or even managed to project a coherent image of himself and his art. All of my books have weird little publishing histories, and each has been quite different from the others and often eccentric. It’s hard for a writer like me to keep doing the kinds of things he wants to do, in a world where the big question is, “Hey man, how many hundreds of thousands of units have you sold for me lately?” That I can go on doing this at all is probably a credit to the movie.

“Really quite specifically, I think it saved my ass. When the movie came along, not much was happening in Walter World. I felt like one of those disaster victims lying out on a football field somewhere, about to expire, and they’ve only got so many syringes filled with adrenaline. And someone just happened to stick one into me.”

The film based on Kirn’s book, Up in the Air, was made for $25 million, starred George Clooney, earned over $160 million at the box office, was nominated for six Academy Awards (Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay among them) and, in Kirn’s words, “sold a hell of a lot of books.” True to form, he’s has since published several more books—none of which bears much resemblance to any other.

Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields had been out of print for years. Despite glowing reviews from The New York Times and Publishers Weekly, he found himself teaching English as a second language. “I was fairly miserable and losing hope of ever being published again,” he recalls. Then came the movie based on his novel: Limitless.

“It brought my book back from the dead. It was re-released under the film title. Suddenly I’m watching a TV spot for the Limitless movie, playing during the Super Bowl. And the movie definitely sends people out to bookstores.” Limitless earned over $150 million in theaters.

Alan now has two more books out—Bloodland and Winterland, with another—Graveland—slated for 2013. He writes full time, in a house with a paid-off mortgage.

Even writers whose works are already selling briskly benefit from movies. “A great example is Frank Miller,” says Dark Horse Comics founder Mike Richardson. “He’s probably the premier creator in comics, and his sales were already stellar. Every book he does is an event.

“But when a movie like 300 comes out and hits, it adds new heat. People see the movie and want the book, even those who may not have been comic or graphic novel readers before that. We put out a new hardcover edition priced at $35, which is certainly at the high end for a graphic novel, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies while the movie was playing.”

This in an industry where, says comic writer Steve Niles, “most comics are selling around 20-30,000 copies, independents are surviving on 5-10,000, and anything that sells 100,000 is a smash hit.”

When Slumdog Millionaire hit theaters, says author Vikas Swarup, “Q & A [the novel on which the film is based] had already been translated into 36 languages. But the film catapulted it to a different level altogether. It created a totally new following, composed of people who came to know about the book because of the movie. The American book sales zoomed up once the movie came out, and the book entered The New York Times Bestseller List.”

The film, made for $15 million, grossed nearly $400 million at the box office, winning eight of the ten Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Hollywood can be very good to authors.

Still, the rewards awaiting those with screenplays to sell are even greater. “Though my earnings from the movie deal were high, and I’m not complaining for a second,” Glynn notes, “it’s still peanuts compared to what other major players involved in the movie get. There would be no movie without the book and yet, relatively speaking, they don’t have to pay that much to acquire the book—mainly because most writers are poor, and happy to accept the first offer that comes along.”

If you have a script (screenplay) to sell, the equation shifts in your favor. Ryan Condal, an advertising executive, adapted the Arthurian legend into a screenplay. Galahad was his first sale, fetching $500,000. Though the film has yet to be produced, he’s already been hired by studios to adapt several comic books for the screen—including Hercules: The Thracian Wars.

Evan Daugherty adapted the Snow White faery tale into a screenplay called Snow White and the Huntsman—which sold for $3.2 million in 2010, and should be in theaters by the time you read this. Bill Marsilii, who has since adapted comics, novels, children’s books and more, earlier teamed up with veteran screenwriter Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, and Zorro adaptation franchises) to write Déjà Vu—which sold for $5 million. It was Bill’s first sale.

In the book world, you have to be a J.K. Rowling, a Stephen King or a John Grisham to pull advances like that. In Hollywood, today’s hot writer can be—and often is—yesterday’s nobody.

Clearly, these are best-case scenarios, and not every screenplay adaptation sells for $3 million. In fact, most screenplays—like most books—never sell at all. (“I take a Han Solo approach,” says Marsilii, “never tell me the odds. A more healthy outlook is to recognize what the odds are, and go do it anyway.”)

On the other hand, an average spec screenplay (one written “on speculation,” rather than on assignment) sells for $300-$600,000, whereas the average book advance is more like $10-$20,000, and film rights options (employed when there is no screenplay) can be as low as $1.

Even so, you’re better off with a book (or other source material) and a screenplay. Consider: you have two properties to sell instead of one; the sale of either will increase the price of the other; the success of either will bring you more money from both; the movie may take years to make (if it’s made at all); you control the content of your book or other story; and—despite the comparatively vast sums paid to most screenwriters—no pure screenwriter has ever been paid what a top-end author receives. Not even close.

Nevertheless, those top-end authors would not receive the gargantuan paydays they do—and often would not be household names—if not for the movies based on their books. So if you’re going for the gold, you really need both.

And while it’s true that there are very few writers capable of creating good books (or comic books, plays, short stories, blogs, magazine articles, games, musicals, etc.) and good screenplays—you don’t have to be one of them to make your mark in Hollywood. Because you can team up with a screenwriter who specializes in adaptations.

Whichever path you choose, this book will lay down the ground rules, explaining what Hollywood looks for in source material and in screenplays, what’s involved in creating a good—or great—adaptation, and how to find help, or strike out on your own. You’ll also find hard-won creative and business advice from authors, publishers, producers, screenwriters and others whose projects have become household names, won Academy Awards, and earned tens of billions of dollars from box office and DVD sales alone.

Creators, authors, screenwriters, producers, agents and managers interested in adaptations—this book is for you.

John Robert Marlow
Los Angeles


Next Excerpt: Chapter One —Why Adapt?

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



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