Make Your Story A Movie: Chapters 1-3

by John Robert Marlow


The original MYSAM (Make Your Story A Movie) book was traditionally published by Macmillan/St. Martin’s Griffin in 2012. What you’re reading now is a sort of v1.5, partially updated while I work on MYSAM v2.0, which will feature expanded coverage, including information on digital/streaming and series, which are far more important now than they were when MYSAM first appeared. This version 1.5 may go offline when v2.0 comes out.

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“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. 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: two published sequels to the Sideways novel (Vertical and Sideways 3: Chile), a play based on the first book, and a possible Sideways spinoff TV show.

Walter Kirn is the self-described eccentric author of (among many other books) Up In The Air. “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 (also titled 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 has since published several more books—none of which bear 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, and then became a TV series.

Alan now has more than half a dozen books out and 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 thirty-five dollars, 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 (best known for 30 Days of Night, which was adapted into a movie of the same name), “most comics are selling around 20,000 to 30,000 copies, independents are surviving on 5,000 to 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 thirty-six 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 Best Seller 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 authors 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 that film has yet to be produced, he was quickly hired by studios to adapt several comic books for the screen, and went on to co-write Rampage (2018) and co-create the Colony TV series.

Evan Daugherty adapted the Snow White faery tale into a screenplay called Snow White and the Huntsman—which sold for $3.2 million, was released two years later and made nearly $100 million in its first ten days alone. It was his first screenplay sale. 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 $5.6 million. That 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 $300,000 to $600,000, whereas the average book advance is more like $7,500 to $20,000 (if that), 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 (and to completely different markets at that); 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.

While it’s true that there are very few writers capable of creating both 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, directors, and others whose projects have become household names, won Academy Awards, and collectively earned more than $50 billion. (And that was in 2012; far more now. I’ll update this figure in v2.0.)

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

John Robert Marlow Los Angeles, June 2021


The following shorthand codes are used throughout this book to indicate the type of source material on which adapted films are based. Note that the definition of adaptation used here is broader than that used by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscar people)—which does not, for example, consider screenplays based on true stories or historical events to be adaptations. Also as used in this book, remakes are considered to be adaptations (of the films on which they’re based). Sequels are not counted as adaptations, unless the first movie was itself an adaptation.

ADAPTATION CODES indicate the type of source material on which the films were based: ART (article in magazine, newspaper, etc.); BLG (blog); COM (comic book / graphic novel); HIS (historic event); MLF (myth / legend / faery tale); MOV (movie remake / spinoff); NFB (nonfiction book); NOV (novel); SCR (special case applying only to Jonathan Hensleigh’s Die Hard with a Vengeance script, which was not originally intended to be part of the franchise); SNG (song); RAD (radio show); STO (short story); GAM (game / toy); THM (theme park / theme park ride); TRU (true-life story); TVS (television series).


Audience, Money, Synergy

Humans have always been storytellers. Whether gathered around a campfire, painting on cave walls, writing words on dead trees or computer screens—it’s in our blood. Books and other storytelling formats can be noble undertakings, capable of reaching hundreds of thousands, and occasionally millions of readers.

But movies and series are the global campfires of our time.


Filmed entertainment routinely reaches millions, sometimes hundreds of millions of people, all over the world. On those occasions when book sales reach this level, they do so with the aid of movies based on the books. Aside from religious texts with thousands of years to build an audience, there are no exceptions to this rule.

It makes no difference whether a story is little known and personal (Monster, Erin Brockovich (both TRU)), or a household name on multiple continents (Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, Jurassic Park (all NOV); Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wonder Woman (all COM))—a movie can expand the audience exponentially. There are a number of reasons for this, the most obvious being that people who don’t—and people who can’t—read books, still watch movies. But there are other reasons as well.…


All the way back in 2007, an Associated Press–Ipsos poll found that only one in four American adults (27%) even claimed to have read a book during the previous year. Those who did read reported going through an average of nine books—in an entire year. Reasons cited by the poll include competition from other media, and a mature publishing industry with “limited opportunities for expansion.”

One poll respondent summed things up succinctly: “If I’m going to get a story, I’ll get a movie.” The AP’s article on the study referred to book sales as “flat in recent years” and “expected to stay that way indefinitely.”

As it turns out, that was optimistic: a report released in 2010 by the Association of American Publishers showed an overall decline in actual book sales compared with the previous year. The print figures for 2011 were below those for 2010: adult hardcovers were down 17.5 percent; trade paperbacks down by 15.6 percent; and mass market paperbacks down by 35.9 percent. Even a sharp increase in ebook sales could not reverse this downward trend. Borders went bankrupt, and Penguin announced that first-half operating profits had fallen by 50 percent in 2012 alone.

The downward slide has continued. The figures for 2018 (which, remember, are based on 2017 starting numbers that already reflect a lengthy decline) are similarly depressing. In order to make them appear less so, the AAP lumps audiobook sales—which rose 29% in 2018—in with the rest. (Even though physical audiobook sales dropped 21%, sales of downloadable audiobooks rose 37%, bringing the combined audiobook sales total to +29%.) Overall industry sales of all formats dropped by 0.4% from the previous year. Doesn’t sound like much but, again, take a look at those 2010-2012 figures, which set the stage for this.

Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million are the only major bookstore chains still standing, and both have diversified. If and when they follow Borders and the rest into that Good Night, many major publishers—whose customers are not readers but bookstores, and who have steadfastly refused to modify or abandon that business model—will be teetering themselves. Some believe they’ll join forces to prevent a B&N bankruptcy in order to save themselves. It’s pretty bad when you have to buy your customer in order to keep selling to them.

Movies, on the other hand, are doing better than ever, and pollsters would be hard-pressed to find any first-world resident—adult or juvenile—who has viewed a paltry nine movies or tv/streaming series episodes over the course of any recent year. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood’s worldwide box office receipts grew by 10 percent in 2009, to $29.9 billion. In 2010, they grew another 8 percent, to $31.8 billion. In 2011, another 3 percent, to $32.6 billion. Overall, revenues climbed 35 percent in five years. DVD sales alone easily tripled or quadrupled that figure, even without merchandising and other revenue streams, which can in some cases outperform the movies themselves.

Updating this a bit, DVD sales are no longer what they were (gobbled up by streaming), but Hollywood’s box office continued to break records. Again according to the MPAA, worldwide box office hit a record $38.6 billion in 2016, and a new record $40.6 billion in 2017. It was $41.7 billion in 2018. Even domestic box office hit a new high that year, at $11.9 billion. A single studio—Disney (which by then owned Marvel—raked in over $7 billion. The overall number climbed again in 2019, to $42.5 billion. The year 2020 started on track to set another record—until the pandemic ran it off the rails. But Hollywood is already adapting, accelerating the trend toward streaming that was already in full when 2019 closed out. Returning to the original text of the MYSAM book…

Likewise, the film industry’s “opportunities for expansion” are plentiful. The first large-scale 3D film—Avatar—raked in nearly $3 billion at the box office, annihilating the previous record set by Titanic (HIS) over ten years before. At the time of Avatar’s release, a typical hit film earned three to four times the box office revenues in DVD sales, which would bring Avatar’s total to an absolute minimum of $12 billion to $15 billion, exclusive of merchandising and other rights (which can also exceed the film gross).

That’s nearly double the total of all trade (non-textbook) book sales from U.S. publishers for the entire preceding year. For a single film. If the first movie’s earnings (again excluding merchandising) were gross domestic product, the film would rank just outside the top-100 national economies in the world for its year of release. Not surprisingly, four Avatar sequels are on the way. (Still waiting in 2021…)

Equipment created to shoot Avatar revolutionized other aspects of the film and television industries as well. Recent developments include the rollout of 3D televisions, a new process to upconvert 2D films to 3D, online streaming of theatrical releases and television episodes, the digital distribution of theatrical films—everywhere you look, movies are breaking new ground, and showing us things no human eye has ever seen before. Strictly speaking, it’s not even film anymore; Avatar and many other movies are now entirely digital.

While the persistent rumors of print’s death remain highly exaggerated, it is undeniable that movies are evolving in a way that print is not. And whether we like it or not, the writing is (so to speak) on the wall (or screen): in an increasingly digital culture, entertainment becomes increasingly digitized. And there is, in the end, only so much we can do with printed, even digitized words.

But while books and other storytelling media still live, movies—and the screenplays on which they’re based—can be used to amplify their impact, and the bank accounts of their authors and rights-holders.


The film industry operates on its own financial plain, which is not really comparable to any other storytelling medium. Expenses run high, and so do paychecks. A typical midlist hardcover book release might cost the publisher $80,000, all told. An extremely low-budget film might cost $1 million to produce and release; $30 million to $50 million is more typical, $100 million increasingly common, and $400 million to $500 million (Avatar’s budget) the current top end. That’s roughly half the U.S. military’s annual budget. For a movie. In short, the money is insane.

The typical advance for a first novel is in the neighborhood of $7.5000 to $20,000, and—as any book agent will tell you—advances have actually declined in recent years. The typical selling price of a screenplay by a first-time writer, on the other hand, hovers between $300,000 and $600,000, with some first scripts soaring well beyond the $1 million mark. (This is not true of adaptation rights alone, when there is no screenplay; for more on this, see Chapter 3.)

Novels run 250 to 500 pages. Screenplays run 100 to 120 pages. So even on the low end, a book (at 500 pages and $10,000) pays $20 a page, while a screenplay (120 pages and $300,000) pays $2,500 per page—with fewer words on each page.

Before deciding to give up books and start writing screenplays, though, be aware that screenplay earnings are generally capped; regardless of how successful the film or television series may be, you will be paid the purchase price, bonuses, residuals, and so on—and that’s all. After that, the well runs dry—for you. Producers, directors, and actors can sometimes cut themselves a better deal, while the studio (of course) makes money forever. As they say in Vegas: the house always wins. But…

The book world imposes no such ceiling: every copy sold puts more money in your pocket. If the book does insanely well, you make an insane amount of money. This is why there are no pure screenwriters on the Forbes list of the world’s highest-earning writers. But keep in mind: there are no book authors without film involvement, either. That’s because of …


Having two properties instead of one opens up new possibilities. Let’s use a book as an example—starting with an unpublished manuscript. And let’s say you “go out” with (offer for sale) the manuscript and the adapted screenplay at the same time—one to New York publishers, the other to Hollywood. Mere interest in either is almost certain to increase interest in the other. If a publisher bites on the book, you make that known to Hollywood, because that makes the script seem more worthy of their attention—and vice versa.

The actual sale of either book or screenplay will make it easier to get the other seen by the right people, and will make sale of the other more likely because someone else—a professional in the book or film industry—has already placed a bet on you. In the best of all possible worlds, one or both of the properties generates “heat,” and a savvy agent (or two) can play studio interest against publisher interest and elevate the price of book and screenplay to ridiculous heights.

If the book sells high, or is published and succeeds, the screenplay (if unsold) is far more likely to be purchased, and (if already sold) far more likely to be produced, because a successful book creates a built-in audience for the film, and so reduces film investor risk. If the book doesn’t sell, but the screenplay does, publishers will suddenly become interested in the book—especially if the film is heading into production.

The reverse is also true: a successful movie will resurrect sluggish book sales, put out-of-print titles (like Alan Glynn’s The Dark Fields/Limitless novel) back on store shelves, and push brisk sales (like Vikus Swarup’s Q&A/Slumdog Millionaire, and Frank Miller’s 300) even higher. Because of the cap on screen-side earnings, a hit film can cause your book to make you far more money—in rare cases, millions more—than the screenplay ever will.

But you need the screenplay to make it happen. That’s synergy.

“When the Sideways novel came out,” says author Rex Pickett, “my publisher did no publicity. Nothing. After the movie, things improved dramatically. The film’s success raised my profile as a writer, and suddenly everyone wanted something from me. They wanted me to write TV—which I’m now doing. They wanted me to write another novel, to do adaptations, even a TV show. Everyone wanted something they could capitalize on.”

Author Vikas Swarup recalls his Slumdog Millionaire experience. “The film became a global product,” he relates. “The song “Jai-Ho” became a global anthem. I heard it at a Milan catwalk, in American shopping malls, South African plazas. Slumdog Millionaire became a brand, so to speak. And while I did get money from the movie as well, after the initial payment, much of it really has come from increased book sales.” This from an author whose book was already selling well in 36 languages before the movie came out.

Keep in mind that this synergy applies to self-published (“indie”) as well as traditionally-published authors. Andy Weir’s The Martian was self-published before Hollywood (and New York publishers) came calling. The same is true of Hugh Howey’s Wool (not yet produced, but acquired by the same company that produced The Martian).

There has never been a better time to adapt for film. “Adaptations are superhot right now,” says Christopher Lockhart, sole story editor at reigning Hollywood superagency WME (previously called William Morris Endeavor). His job is to read and consult on scripts for household-name, top-end clients, which have included Nicolas Cage, Russell Crowe, Robert Downey Jr., Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, Jennifer Lopez, Steve Martin, Matthew McConaughey, Liam Neeson, Ed Norton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone and Denzel Washington, among many others. He’s also a producer: his first documentary, Most Valuable Players, was selected by Oprah for her Documentary Film Club, and aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network. An earlier work, The Inside Pitch, was nominated for an L.A. Area Emmy Award. He also produced the Collector franchise. Before moving to WME, Lockhart was sole story editor at ICM, another top-tier agency.

“It’s all about the underlying property right now,” he continues. “A script based on source material is good. One based on source material that’s been bought for some other medium—book, video game, and so on—is better, because it shows someone else has confidence in the work and thinks it will be successful. And if you’re fortunate enough to have something that already has an audience of some kind, that’s ideal because now you’ve got an existing fan base for the studio to build on.”

Ryan Condal, who sold his first script Galahad (MLF) for $500,000, feels the same. “The thirst for original material is not what it was,” he says. “Probably 99 percent of the active projects in Hollywood are adaptations of one kind or another.”

Screenwriter/director John August’s credits include Charlie’s Angels and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (both TVS), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (NOV), Big Fish (NOV), Corpse Bride, Titan A.E., Dark Shadows (TVS), Tarzan (NOV), Aladdin (2019; MLF), and Frankenweenie. He wrote and directed The Nines, and produced Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (GAM) and the D.C. television series, and worked (uncredited) on Iron Man (COM), Minority Report (STO), Hancock, and Jurassic Park 3 (NOV). His first adaptation was a children’s book with the unlikely title How to Eat Fried Worms (NOV). He also writes the Arlo Finch middle-grade fiction books. “My favorite genre,” he says, “is movies that get made. And increasingly, movies that get made are adaptations of some preexisting thing. Those are the projects that studios are willing to spend the money to try to make into big, expensive movies. So the bulk of movies I’ve written that got made were based on something that came before me.”

The preference for adaptations has progressed to the point where several first-time screenwriters have been advised to adapt their screenplays into books or comic books—and then offer the original screenplays as adaptations based on the books or comic books. Adaptations of the latter are particularly sought-after right now. Screenwriter/director Jonathan Hensleigh’s credits include Armageddon, Die Hard with a Vengeance (NOV/SCR), Jumanji (NOV), Jumanji: Welcome te the Jungle (NOV), The Punisher (COM), The Saint (NOVs/TVS), Kill the Irishman (TRU), and Gemini Man. “The studios’ desire to do high-concept projects that are a reflection of the world of graphic novels,” he says, “is higher than it’s ever been. If you’re a screenwriter, know it’s there, respect it, be willing to work within it.”

At the time I’m updating this particular paragraph (March, 2019), eight of the top ten, fifteen of the top twenty, and seventy one of the top one hundred highest-grossing films of all time are adaptations—of books, comics, historical events, magazine articles, toys, amusement park rides, other movies, even a song.

100% of the eight films nominated for Best Picture in 2018 were also adaptations. In fact, 97% of all “Big Five” Oscar nominees—and 100% of Big Five wins—went to adaptations or work on adaptations. (The Big Five categories are Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role, and Best Writing. The latter category actually consists of two subcategories: Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Screenplay—though as explained elsewhere on this site, many “original” screenplays (and, therefore, the movies based upon them) are really adaptations in disguise. This has to do with the way the Academy defines adaptations.

Given the number of adaptations currently being purchased, those slated for production, and those already underway, the dominance of adaptations seems unlikely to change any time soon. When the studios find something that works, they stick with it—and for the foreseeable future, that means adaptations. (For the full 2019 Big Five list, see the MYSAM blog post Adaptations Sweep 2019 Oscars: 97% Noms / 100% Wins.)


Get the Rights, or Get Out

Once upon a time, Hollywood adaptations were limited to films based on what might be termed “traditional” sources—books, plays, historical events, the occasional true-life story. No longer. Today, almost anything can be—and currently is being—adapted by Hollywood. Novels and comic books lead the pack in terms of overall box office success, but script purchases and worldwide grosses reflect a broadening of categories.

What follows is a list of the top 100 highest-grossing adaptations, as of the time of this writing (figures rounded to the nearest million). Remember that merchandising, streaming rights, DVD sales and other revenue streams can sometimes triple or quadruple the amount of a film’s box office take.

Okay, I lied, the Top-100 list isn’t here—but it is right next door. In order to avoid continually updating this page, I’m going to send you to the…

MYSAM Top-100 Adaptations Page Which, okay, also needs to be updated one more time. (Look for that in June or July of 2021.) Given that it has become possible to film almost anything the human mind can imagine, the only real questions left for those considering adaptations would seem to be these:

• Is the source material cinematic (or can it be rendered cinematic)? • Can this material be adapted while remaining true to the heart of the original? • Can I get the rights?


Given sufficient imagination, it might seem that any existing work can be successfully adapted, and to a very large extent that’s true. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books total nearly 1,500 pages; the Snow White faery tale, as related by the Brothers Grimm, a mere six pages; while toys like the Transformers have zero pages.

There are, however, two things that cannot be successfully adapted. These are no-fly projects:

• Works to which you do not hold the rights • Works to which you do hold the rights, but whose owners insist on retaining control of the adaptations (which, really, means that you don’t fully control the rights)

If you own the rights because it’s your story and you wrote it, and you understand that Hollywood is free to alter your work after buying it, then you’re set. If you hold (as opposed to own) the rights—because, for example, you’ve optioned them from the owner (see Chapter 31)—and your agreement with the owner makes it clear that Hollywood is free to alter the work after buying it, you’re also set. But if neither is the case, you must realize that both of the no-fly situations mentioned above are hopeless.

If you don’t control the appropriate rights in the underlying property, you obviously can’t sell the project. It would be like stealing someone else’s car engine, sticking it in your own car—and then selling your car. Not cool, to say the least. (Prison time, to say the most.)

This is not as simple as it might appear; screenwriter Bill Marsilii, with the best of intentions, once sold a book adaptation to a studio (that is, the studio agreed to buy it)—only to find out later that he and his producers (Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) didn’t control the rights yet because the author they were dealing with, who thought he controlled the film rights to his own book, actually didn’t. Fortunately, things were straightened out and the deal went through.

Two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter/director/producer Paul Haggis ran into the opposite problem. “A studio came to me,” he relates, “to adapt a series of books they’d recently optioned. I read four or five of the books, pitched them my take, we made a deal and I got started. They said they were still tidying up the author’s long-form contract, and my deal was of course contingent on them closing the rights deal, but this type of thing takes months and is almost always about haggling over the fine print. Everything substantive is negotiated in the short-form deal.

“I was really excited about these books, so I jumped in and spent several months developing it, coming up with a story and characters that would work to launch the series and creating a detailed outline—only to discover that, to their chagrin, the studio couldn’t close the deal with the author. The whole thing fell apart. The studio executives were mortified and very apologetic, but in truth it was my own foolishness for doing all that work before someone else’s deal was nailed down. But writing is about passion, and I am quite sure, after learning this lesson, that I would make the exact same mistake again.”

Of course, you could always do the adaptation with no paper (contract), hoping the source material’s owner will, in a fit of awestruck gratitude, hand you a free option—but you can’t count on that. “You’re taking a huge risk adapting it without controlling the rights,” says Bill Marsilii. “You’re basically renovating somebody else’s house and trusting that after you do that, they’ll say thank you and let you take possession instead of saying never mind, forget about it.”

Confirms Haggis: “When dealing with a spec project, you have to get control of the source material, legally, before you put months into writing a screenplay. Don’t do it otherwise, as the rights-holder can turn around and sell it to someone else, or refuse to sell at all—and then you’ve done all that work for nothing.”

It might even be that the original author no longer holds the rights—so they couldn’t make a deal with you if they wanted to. Leslie Dixon is one of Hollywood’s few A-list female screenwriters. Her credits include Mrs. Doubtfire (NOV), Freaky Friday (2003; MOV/NOV), The Thomas Crown Affair (MOV), Outrageous Fortune, Limitless (NOV)—which she also produced—and other films. “For a writer or producer,” she says, “the most important thing is to really know for certain who has the rights. That’s really, really critical, before you even think about anything else. You don’t want to start writing something and then find out that someone else has the rights locked up for years and your script’s never going to see the light of day.”

If you don’t own the exclusive film rights, or cannot lock them up with an option or purchase (see Chapters 3 and 31 for more on this)—walk away.

Controlling rights-owners are equally fatal to the deal-making process. Simply put, Hollywood demands the right to make whatever changes it likes, at any time it likes, for any reason at all, or for no reason whatsoever. Absent huge, raging success on the order of, say, J. K. Rowling, this is a “deal-killer” (meaning non-negotiable).

Rights-owners who insist on control of any aspect of the movie doom the project from the start. If you’re planning to adapt someone else’s work, do not grant them contractual control early on and hope they’ll change their minds later, because if they don’t, the project is dead and your time has been wasted. Unless you can finance the film yourself, and so have no one else to please, this is another walkaway. Even if you can finance it yourself, consider: what happens if a studio wants to pick up the film—but insists on making a few changes before release? If you are unable to authorize those changes, the deal collapses.

It’s fine and in fact desirable for an adapting writer or producer to work with the story’s owner to create an adaptation that everyone is happy with—but the original owner must understand that once the screenplay finds a buyer, that buyer will control the nature of the final product.

Oscar-nominated producer Michael Nozik has produced over two dozen movies, including The Next Three Days (MOV), Love in the Time of Cholera (NOV), Syriana (NFB), The Motorcycle Diaries (NFBs/TRU), The Legend of Bagger Vance (NOV), and Quiz Show (NFB/HIS). “I’ve been involved in several situations,” he says, “where the owner of the source material wanted to create restrictions on what the buyer could do with the adaptation, what kinds of changes they could make—but ultimately you can’t work that way. Those deals usually fall apart and the movies never get made.”


A third category of source material—works in the public domain—is often problematic. Here, the same thing that allows you to adapt such works—the lack of any enforceable ownership rights—also allows anyone (or everyone) else to do the same. Look at it from the buyer’s perspective.

Let’s say you’re retelling the Arthurian legend of the Knights of the Round Table. Why should I (as a buyer) pay you for that? Not only can I hire someone else to write it, cheaper—but what would be the point? I’ve heard and seen that story a hundred times before, and (worse) so has everyone else.

True enough. But what if, in your story, King Arthur is an aging coward, Guinevere a murderous bitch who covets his throne, Galahad the only honorable knight at the table, and Lancelot a near-invincible warrior torn between honor and his queen—who chooses him as her champion when Galahad accuses her of murdering the king?

Now you’ve got a story that resonates with the power of legend, but is also unique—and therefore protectable. This is exactly what Ryan Condal did with his Galahad screenplay (MLF). “There’s something primal about those old myths and faery tales,” says Evan Daugherty, whose first script sale—Snow White and the Huntsman (MLF)—fetched $3.2 million in a studio bidding war. “But at the same time, they were originally meant for people of a different time and culture. So in some ways they’re relevant to us now, and in other ways not. I looked backward, and tried to figure out how I might update Snow White and make it a little more relevant to a modern reader or audience.”

By looking backward, Daugherty wound up ahead of the curve. “The interesting thing about Snow White and the Huntsman is that at this juncture in Hollywood, adapting these old public domain folk tales or faery tales and spinning them around in some kind of revisionist way has become very of-the-moment—but I wrote the first draft of this screenplay years ago.” If you’re going to tackle something in the public domain, you must—as Ryan did with Galahad and Evan did with Snow White and the Huntsman—make it your own in some way that renders it both unique and protectable. Other examples include Titanic (HIS), Braveheart (HIS), and 300 (COM/HIS)—all of which retell historical events with largely (or entirely) fictionalized characters.

There is, in short…


If you don’t own or control the rights Hollywood demands, do not adapt. (For more on this, see Chapter 31.)


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, screenwriters, 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.” “SHOW ME THE MOVIE”

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 (or last) book. The purpose of a screenplay is to roll a movie in the reader’s head, and get them to take the next step—which is to help turn that screenplay into the movie they saw when they read it. The script’s mission 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 has 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 Brockovich 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.”

Screenwriter/producer 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 five hundred 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, how long will it take 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, or presented to others who may want to become involved in the project.

The portion of this work that is paid for—the writing of the screenplay itself, for example—is often 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 $130,000 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 or independent contractor doing a “work-for-hire.” (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. On the other hand, 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 and occasionally more—the latter figure being for a book that’s already sold in the neighborhood of a million copies. More successful properties—Harry Potter, for example—may command far higher prices, and even afford their creators to call the shots on the movie.

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. In a way, you’re cutting out the middleman (or woman).

And while it’s true that you’ll most likely ally yourself with 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 $300,000 to $600,000, with occasional forays past the $1 million mark. If you (the rights owner) wrote or commissioned the screenplay yourself, most 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 10 percent; if you use a manager instead, he’ll get 10 percent (and occasionally more)—but if your manager is also a producer, you may get his/her entire commission back when the movie gets made. They’re not working for free; they’re getting paid even more by the studio or other buyer to produce, so they kick you back the commission—provided you know enough to ask for this in your representation agreement, and they go along. Agents are not permitted to produce, but sometimes kick back commissions when doing series “package deals” (where they can wind up making more money than you do, though packaging fees are currently in the WGA’s crosshairs and may not survive in their present form).

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’ll fare better with a completed screenplay than you would 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 $300,000 to $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 see.


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