Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What Happens When My Book Hits Hollywood? Guest Post by Kathleen Churchyard

Author Kathleen Churchyard, author of the middle grade novel, Bye for Now, has a lot of Hollywood experience! So when she came up with the idea for a guest post about how books get made into movies, I knew she had to write it! You know I love my book to movie adaptations-I post weekly movie news here on the blog. So if you've ever wondered what exactly is involved in a book to movie, you'll want to check out Kathleen's post!

What happens when my book hits Hollywood?
Guest Post by Kathleen Churchyard

Despite 16 years working as an executive in LA, there’s no job I ever held that’s as conversation-sparking as my very first secretarial job in the West Coast Book Department of William Morris and subsequently ICM. I get asked the above question all the time, so today’s blog is my answer to all.

My boss was a co-agent. That meant she didn’t sign many author clients of her own. Predominantly, she was responsible for selling the film and television rights to every book, of every author client, for every publishing agent in the East Coast offices of William Morris, the oldest and biggest literary agency in the world. In addition, she co-agented for many great boutique NY agents, who don’t have/don’t need a dedicated West Coast office of their own.

Sound like a tall order to you? It was. We averaged six new books arriving in our office every week.

Can any one co-agent handle that kind of volume effectively? Absolutely. The week I started working for my boss, she was responsible for the film sales of 4 out of 10 Top Grossing Movies at the box office, including “DANCES WITH WOLVES” and “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER.”

So how does it work?

The #1 rule of Hollywood: there are no hard-fast rules in Hollywood. Everything I tell you here has multiple exceptions, because every adaptation sale comes with a story of its own. But if you had to make a guideline, this is usually how it goes.

The #2 rule of Hollywood: it’s not a mirror image of the NY publishing process. Think “Through the Looking-Glass.” Looks the same on the surface – agents selling to big corporate entities, everyone playing a guessing game based purely on artistic and commercial opinion – but everyone and everything looks a little distorted from what you know about New York.

If you’re lucky enough to have a bidding war for your book in New York, keep in mind, the process works a little differently than what I’m about to say.

Okay, so your agent sends the book to the co-agent. The co-agent will read it, trying to gauge whether to send your book to studios (rarely) or whether to send it to the producers, directors and actors that have a “deal” at each studio. These studio deals are important, because they’re people who can rally support at the studio level.

Rule #3 Studios are the top of the food chain.
There are seven major studios: Fox, Paramount, Sony, Warner, Universal, Disney, and Dreamworks. Now think of the producers, directors and actors as “imprints,” housed within those studios. Like imprints, the studio provides each of them with an office and a staff, in exchange for either a “first-look” or an “exclusive” look at anything these guys want to do. There’s usually somewhere between 10 and 20 studio deals at any studio. BUT where imprints are autonomous -- ie, they make the final decision whether they make an offer on a book -- in film, the studio gets final say on whether a book is bought.

So why not just go to the studio, then? Your book is a book, not a film. They’re buying the right to try and transform it. If a studio decides to go through with it, the process is long and expensive. They want to know that someone is behind it, shepherding it all the way. Someone they think has a) talent as a filmmaker and b) passion for the material. And trust me, you want that, too – the average development time before a book goes to screen is 7 years.

(GreenBeanTeenQueen Note: 7 YEARS?? WOW! Authors and readers have to have a lot of patience before that movie hits the big screen!)

Your co-agent will definitely pitch his/her ideas about who to go to -- and simultaneously ask for input from -- your agent in New York. So if you have a fantasy about an actor or a director making your book into a movie, it’s always best to share a wish list with your agent. Early.

The co-agent makes the final list and starts making calls. Usually, he/she will send it to only one production company per studio in the first round. So, if your fantasy list includes two directors who are both at Universal, your co-agent may have to pick between them for the first round.

#4 They may not love you in the morning
“I LOVE IT!” It’s a cliché, but one that’s hard to remember when Ben Affleck’s company is saying it. Don’t get too excited just yet. It’s a pretty standard favorable response. Where NY editors are circumspect in their praise, LA people are effusive. They’re also a little fickle.

Keep in mind they may feel pressure to “love” your book – if they don’t say it, and someone else does, they lose the opportunity to take the material to the studio. “I love it” in LA is a bit like yelling “Shotgun” faster than your sibling and winning the front seat in the car. Whatever production company carries the manuscript through the door first is designated the producer of the project, in the event that studio bids.

If they say pass, it’s a pass. Move on, don’t worry about it. But if a producer says they love it – and want to “take it in” to the studio – you’ve just crossed another bridge. The producer is going to call an executive at the studio and pitch it. And you’re on to the next phase: coverage.

#5 Coverage is an inescapable evil
Coverage is a 1-2 page synopsis of your book with a page of comments from a studio reader. (And no, you will never see the coverage.) If it is favorable, your book has a chance of selling at that studio, because now the studio executive will actually read it, and be favorably inclined toward it, provided the studio doesn’t have a rival project in the pipeline. If the coverage is unfavorable, most of the time the studio says no and quite often, a producer’s interest evaporates with that no. Sometimes a producer can convince the studio to use a different reader, and sometimes the producer will genuinely love it and ask to take your book to another studio. But short of a major star or director calling the head of that studio personally, chances are your book is not going to work out there.

The implications are bit damning: seven studios, seven pieces of coverage written by people whose names you will never know. What’s more, the coverage stays on file at the studio permanently, cross-referenced in filing, so it’s not like you can change the book’s title (or substitute a pen name) and get a different result. Those seven readers potentially stand between you and a studio deal.

The Good News: There’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Coverage is what it is – one person’s opinion whether or not your book has potential as a commercially viable studio feature film. You’re still an author of a published work.

GreenBeanTeenQueen Note: (I think that's the most important thing to remember-even if the movie never gets made, you're still a published author with readers out there reading your book-and that's awesome!)

#6 Show me the money!
Say you do get through the coverage process. And the studio executive takes it upstairs and pitches the book to his boss. They’re going to make an offer. Yay! Your co-agent will alert the other studios, in the hope of starting a bidding war. They do happen, but if you manage to get a bid of any kind, consider yourself lucky. For the sake of not getting over-excited, let’s stick with a small studio deal as an example.

Things to Look For in the Deal:
1) Options: Your book contract will usually include two “options” – these are periods of time where the studio controls the rights, enabling them to hire a screenwriter, without the studio actually purchasing the book outright. Usually the options will be around 18 months each. One is “applicable” against the final purchase price (ie, deducted from the purchase price if they do eventually buy the book outright) the second option is usually not applicable. If the studio won’t come up in price, you can always ask your co-agent if they’ll negotiate a shorter option period – 12 months instead of 18, or 18 instead of 24.
2) Purchase Price: On a $25K option, chances are the purchase price will be around $250K. That’s a big amount of money to an author. The bad news is you can’t count on it ever showing up. Studios option a lot of books. If the script is disappointing, they will often move on and quietly relinquish the option without exercising the option.
3) Reversion: In the event the studio DOES purchase your book outright, ask your co-agent to try and negotiate a reversion clause. You’d be amazed how many great books are sitting in the studio vault, having been purchased outright and yet were never made into a film, because they had no reversion clause. This clause allows that if the studio doesn’t make your movie in a period of say, 10 years, the rights revert back to you. It’s a hard thing to get a reversion clause, so don’t stand on ceremony about it, but it never hurts to ask.

#7 Give them your blessing once the deal is closed
It’s never a good idea to insist that you be the screenwriter, unless you’re a screenwriter first and a novelist second. Occasionally, the studio will come up with the idea on their own and if that happens, great! You can decide for yourself whether you’re up for it. But I’ve seen WAY too many authors absolutely ruin their chances of selling a book, and/or ruin the film development by attaching themselves as the screenwriter. It dampens interest, and even if you do manage to get hired, they’re going to judge your results far more harshly than a professional screenwriter they’ve picked for themselves.

Same goes for checking in with the producer – relax! Nothing is happening week to week or even month to month. Seven years, remember? You’ve got time. Enjoy the money, write your next book. Check in once every few months, ask if there’s anything you can do (chances are no) and I encourage you to be enthusiastic about whatever the producer finds exciting in the process.

#8 You will be tracked
If your book sells as a movie, chances are you’ve made the Hollywood development radar. This is very flattering, because development execs all over Hollywood are calling you, telling you how talented you are, flogging ideas of you writing a screenplay for them, and/or pressuring you to give them an early look at your next novel. My suggestion is be gracious, be brief. Encourage them to talk to your agent if they’re serious. But tell them you’re a novelist, and so it’s time to shut the door and work.

#9 There’s always your next book
If you don’t sell to a studio, there are a host of mini-majors and independent companies that might still be interested. And then there’s television. The upfront money is a lot less than studio film, but indies often have quality going for them, while a produced t.v. show means money in the mailbox forever. If the studio process has been exhausted, and you’re still convinced your book is a movie or t.v. show, start thinking up ideas to send to your co-agent: movies you liked that were made by lesser known companies and directors, etc.

If it doesn’t happen at all, don’t lose heart. Some big name director might read your book tomorrow to her kids and decide it’s a movie. Or, your next book might sell big as a movie, at which point, development execs will start raiding your shelves for other books you’ve written, and what they’re worth goes drastically up.

In any case, it’s worth prepping for every book to eventually hit LA, the same as you prep thinking about publishers in NY – with thought, and research. Start noticing more than the stars when you watch movies -- what producers made your favorite films? Check them out on IMDB.com, especially if your story is similar in genre or tone to what they’ve already done. Don’t be afraid to ask your agent questions, but don’t be afraid to trust your co-agent’s advice, either.

GreenBeanTeenQueen Note: Thanks so much Kathleen! Here's hoping all our favorite books make it Hollywood!!


  1. This is a fabulous post! I learned so much from it. Thank you for writing it.

  2. This is such an amazingly informative post. Not that I'll ever need to use the info, mind you, but it is really nice knowing about it all.



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