Make Your Story a Movie

Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood

John Robert Marlow

St. Martin's Griffin

CHAPTER 1
WHY ADAPT?
 
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 of readers.
But movies are the global campfires of our time.
GLOBAL AUDIENCE
Filmed entertainment routinely reaches millions, sometimes hundreds of millions of people, all over the world. On those occasions where 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 TRU1), or a household name on multiple continents (Harry Potter, Twilight, both NOV), Batman, Spider-Man (both 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.…
THE FUTURE IS DIGITAL
A recent Associated Press–Ipsos poll found that only one in four American adults 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, this may be optimistic: a report released in 2010 by the Association of American Publishers shows an overall decline in actual book sales compared with the previous year. The print figures for 2011 are below those for 2010: adult hardcovers 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 e-book sales could not reverse this downward trend, Borders is now bankrupt, and Penguin announced that first-half operating profits had fallen by 50 percent in 2012.
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 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 have climbed 35 percent in five years. (For the latest stats, visit http://makeyourstoryamovie.com/bookbonus.html.) DVD sales alone easily triple or quadruple this figure, even without merchandising and other revenue streams, which can in some cases outperform the movies themselves.
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. A typical hit film earns three to four times the box office revenues in DVD sales, which brings Avatar’s total to an absolute minimum of $12 billion to $15 billion, exclusive of merchandising and other rights.
That’s nearly double the total of all trade book (nontextbook) book sales from U.S. publishers for the entire preceding year. For a single film. (Sequels are planned for 2014 and 2015.) If Avatar’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.
Equipment created to shoot Avatar seems poised to revolutionize 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 coming 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 (so to speak) is 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 or rights-holders.
MONEY
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.
The typical advance for a first novel is in the neighborhood of $10,000 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 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.
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 …
SYNERGY
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 reduces film investor risk. If the book doesn’t sell, but the screenplay does, publishers will suddenly become interested in the book.
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 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 briskly in 36 languages before the movie came out.
TIMING
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 produces the Collector franchise. Before moving to WME, Lockhart was sole story editor at ICM.
“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 recently 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 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), Frankenweenie, and Preacher (COM)—the last two not yet released as of this writing. He 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). “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 Jonathan Hensleigh’s credits include Armageddon, Die Hard with a Vengeance (NOV/SCR), Jumanji (NOV), The Punisher (COM), The Saint (NOVs/TVS), and Kill the Irishman (TRU). “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 of this writing, seven of the top ten, and twenty of the top twenty five highest-grossing films of all time are adaptations—of books (12), comics (3), historical events (1), toys (1), even amusement park rides (3); the top thirty moneymakers are listed in the next chapter.
Six of the nine films nominated for Best Picture in 2011 were also adaptations—of novels (5) and nonfiction books/true stories (1). (For updated figures, film titles, and box office earnings, visit http://makeyourstoryamovie.com/bookbonus.html)
Given the number of adaptations currently being purchased, those slated for production, and those already underway, these figures seem 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.


 
Copyright © 2012 by John Robert Marlow