Getting a book turned into a movie is not easy. In fact, it’s nearly impossible. Here’s the skinny, with input from our Hollywood contacts.
Ask yourself: Is your book going to make a good movie?
The answer is probably “no.” Books are a completely different discipline to a movie script, in that they have “interior voice,” and this is where most adaptations are going to fail. Everything on the page has to be able to be actionable on screen in a movie script. Movies need to have a three-act structure (beginning, middle, end) and must have a pretty standard concept (set-up, conflict, resolution). Despite us humans thinking we are complicated emotional beings, we still react to the same formulae as our ancestors. Hence most stories are based on concepts of Greek Tragedy, war, love, death…So if you cannot sum up your book in a sentence, it’s probably not going to work out as it is.
What a good screenwriter will do is take your story and make it work as a movie screenplay. They will take the essence of the story and craft it into a workable plot, hence the credit often says, “Based on a novel” or “From the novel”.
Concentrate on making your book work first
If you haven’t sold many copies, or your reviews haven’t been great, make sure you work on making the source material the most successful it can be before you embark on the adaptation journey. It’s going to save you a lot of energy, time, and money in the future. You’re far more likely to be offered a movie deal if you sell thousands of copies.
Stuff you shouldn’t bother doing at all
Because if someone picks up your story, they will do these things.
- Write a soundtrack or songs for your movie
- Record a soundtrack
- Create a movie poster
- Create character studies or illustrations
- Make a list of who should be in your movie
- Make a list of who should direct your movie
- Create a budget
- Contact anyone, such as actors or bands, about making any of these things happen
Any of these things will not only make you look amateurish but also, crazy. When Tommy Wiseu tried to do exactly that with his movie “The Room” in 2003, he ended up with one of the worst films in history. So bad, in fact, that it still gets shown for people to laugh at. He still upholds he is a genius, and that the laughter is enjoyment, not mockery. You decide.
A word about trends
Every time a successful movie comes out, writers who know no better jump on the trend and try to write that same story – with a twist. Unfortunately, the truth is it takes years to make a movie, so by the time you’ve even written the script you are years out of date for what is being sought out by agents and producers. Your best bet is to keep original and hope to stand out.
You’re going to need a screenplay
You cannot just send your book out to movie people. They don’t read books, not unless they are solicited to great directors from great publishing houses and studios who have people diving into successful books. (“The Shining” reached Stanley Kubrick via a reading pile selected by John Calley, a friend of Kubrick’s from Warner Bros. who had the manuscript of the book after Kubrick asked for a pile of horror books to be brought to his office by his secretary. Factoid: Kubrick rejected King’s subsequent screenplay, calling the writing “weak.” See this interview with Michael Ciment.) This does press the point that the best way of getting your book made into a movie is by having a wildly successful book.
If you have not been to film school, or you are not already in the screenwriting business like George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) or Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) were when they got screen-adapted, you should hire someone to do it for you. A professional screenwriter knows how to format a script so it is accepted into a reading pile. If your script is not formatted in this way, even down to how many fasteners it has, it will be thrown away immediately.
You can’t write your own screenplay unless
- You are a qualified film college student who studied screenwriting
- You have been a screenwriter on the job for years
- You have hours to put in to learning how to write a screenplay
- You have Final Draft software or a similar screenplay software or plugin for formatting your screenplay
- You understand how a screenplay is constructed
- You understand how a screenplay is presented
- You are willing to rip the guts out of your book and reform them into 100 pages of exterior, actionable content
What to expect when ordering a screenplay adaptation
- For a start, you need nothing but a script. Many services offer other stuff like a synopsis, but basically if your script doesn’t grab anyone in the first page, forget it. A proper screenplay is usually around 100 pages long, with one minute of screen time per page. You should, and will, get nothing but the finished product. Anything else is guff.
- This work will require hours and hours of the writer’s time, and you being a complete pain in the ass for a long, long while. Expect to pay upwards of $4,000 for a properly formatted script. Do not expect a quick and dirty job, hence the price you will have to pay for the work. It has to take more than 100 hours to work on a draft, and even at 20 bucks an hour, you’ll be lucky to find anyone worth their salt to work on the book for you. You should expect a three-month turnaround, minimum.
- They will read your book, make notes, write a punch-up/beat sheet (a one-sided sheet that lists main plot points) and on approval, they will draft your movie script. After you read it, you may get it “polished” i.e. the writer will finish it up.
- This should be done in Final Draft software, and printed and presented properly in what is called “Hollywood Standard”, not in Word, not stapled, not folded. See my notes on how to present a screenplay.
- Make sure you establish a ghostwriting situation, where the writer is not credited, or a credited situation, where the writer will be paid royalties if the movie is made, upfront. Ghostwriters typically cost more because they are losing out on potential royalties. Remember you will not be the one to pay royalties if they have a credit, so there’s no harm in it financially for you. A credited screenwriter may have agents and financiers who always read their work, so it could help your film get made if you choose an established writer. A credit will read, “Screenplay by” and “From The Novel By.” Typically, a screenwriter would be paid 2% of the production budget and 3% of producer’s gross, neither of which you have to pay for at all.
- Choose a writer who has experience with full-length movie script writing, not just someone who wrote a few shorts – make sure their screenplays have been made into movies with reputable companies. You can look their credits up on IMDB, and you can ask to see samples
- Truth be known, there’s not much point in getting a confidentiality agreement. Most screenwriters doing this work are doing it while they work on their own opus. But it’s wise anyway, so if you want you can go ahead and sign something before contracting, remembering that common ideas cannot be copyrighted, i.e. a princess in danger, a soldier traumatized by war, a homeless man who lost his wife. Expect to make a note of key points and book title only. Read the chilling facts of the court case surrounding “Gravity” the movie by author Tess Gerritsen if you want to find out how useless these agreements actually are, especially against macho Hollywood studios.
- It’s normal to pay two ways: An individual writer will want half upfront, half on delivery, while a service will probably ask for payment upfront and the money will be held in PayPal or Escrow until completion. Don’t expect to pay at the end.
- Any good book to movie service provider will have a standard contract for you to sign at some point in the process. If they don’t, you have to wonder why.
Don’t get precious
- Ensure you understand what the delivery points will be. Most book to movie services will deliver a script that gives you the best opportunity to get your script optioned, not exactly what you see as the movie in your mind.
- Don’t expect to micro-manage the process. Screenwriters do this stuff all the time. Let them do it. They will contact you if they need to ask you something. It’s not your baby. It’s a product for pitching, and it has to look and read correctly.
Solicitation of Screenplays – or how to get an agent
- Ari Gold from Entourage showed us being an agent is a hardcore job
There’s a myth that you cannot send scripts out unsolicited, that is, “nobody wants to know about your lousy script.” The truth is, it’s how you approach it. You need to have a solicitation to get an agent, or to get your script seen, because it’s basic business manners. One huge error would-be movie writers make is to send their script as an attachment to every industry email they can find with a synopsis. This is the LAST WAY to get seen.
When I was working on a movie as a producer, I would get, and still get three years later, a bunch of scripts landing in my email inbox every day. Nobody would say hi, or please, just send out this stupidly rude email. I deleted them all.
Richard Walter, screenplay expert at UCLA (and my teacher when I studied there) recommends that you ask if you can send it along first. When you get a reply saying, “Sure, I’ll take a look,” you just got solicited. Then you are in.
Send nothing but the script and a very short letter with a logline, 1-3 lines of text explaining your story (more at Elements of Cinema):
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION – Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.
BIG NIGHT – Two very different brothers promote their struggling 1950s New Jersey Italian restaurant by inviting Louis Prima and his band to take part in a sumptuous dinner there.
BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY – An Iowa housewife, stuck in her routine, must choose between true romance and the needs of her family.
What to send
Some people send photos of themselves, bios, pictures of their kids even. You need nothing but the script, bound Hollywood style, or sent by email with nothing else but the screenplay. Here’s a video from Dan Calvisi, a screenplay editor, at actfourscreenplays.com showing you how to bind a script.
You don’t ask for them to sign a confidentiality agreement before they read your script. Do that, and they will blow you a big fat one.
Following up your submission
Basically, don’t. If someone read the script and thought it was the next Brad Pitt movie, don’t worry, they’ll call you, email you, or ride on a donkey across Siberia to meet you. If they don’t, leave it. Some people have a year-long line of reading to do. Most people worth knowing have five weeks’ worth of email to plow through. Leave it. If they don’t answer, they didn’t want it. On average I have found I get a reply around two weeks later, but quicker if there is a piqued interest.
Turns out Amazon Customer Reviews are not that important to agents or producers
So what is important? We asked our contacts for the main things they look at:
- Your story has a completely original hook, such as Unbreakable, The Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years A Slave, or Captain Phillips, OR: Your movie is High Concept. High Concept is when a movie idea has a strikingly simple but poignant tale to tell.
- It has a better chance of making it if it appeals to the “four audiences”: men, women, under-25s, and seniors. This is often called a “four quadrant” story, such as Titanic, Mrs. Doubtfire, Meet The Parents, and Indiana Jones. Read more about these story types at ScreenCraft.org.
Although not all producers or financiers will bother looking at these things if the screenplay is that good, it helps if:
- One way to prove your book is worth it is that you have provably sold a lot of books (more than a few thousand) and have ranked highly in categories, and continue to do so
- Author has a growing fan base online and offline, provable on a Google search on Goodreads, Facebook, etc. and there’s a social buzz, i.e. other people are discussing them and the book independently of the author’s websites etc.
- Your book is well-edited and presented well
- The book has positive Amazon Editorial Reviews (you can display these on Amazon’s Editorial Reviews section through Author Central) written by well-known reviewers, magazines, and trusted review companies (you can start with SPR, Indiereader, Kirkus etc.) Here’s an article on optimizing your Amazon Author Central page by self-publishing expert Carla King at Bookworks. She advises, “You can, and should, add up to five editorial reviews yourself.” Some authors have copied their Customer Review “best bits” into here, but that’s just not good enough. Professionals want professional opinion. Open that wallet, let the moths out, and get yourself some professional opinions!
Everyone knows it’s easy to buy fake Customer Reviews on Fiverr, so anyone’s first reaction to a book that doesn’t rank and has no buzz online but has thousands of Customer Reviews is “so what?” You need to build a genuine buzz with Verified Reviews and sales.
An option is when a producer, investor, or director decides they like your story, and they want you to allow them the exclusive first-pick rights on it, should they decide to make it into a movie.
Optioning usually occurs because filmmakers are not sure if they want to make your story into a film yet, but they see a possible trend or way in coming that may fit the profile of your book’s tale. An option prevents you showing it to anyone else for a set amount of time. An option can be as little as $1, yes really, but usually is around $200 for a new indie idea with no connections and no track record, so if any author boasts that their book has been “optioned for a movie”, this can mean nothing or something, but usually nothing. For instance, Henry Baum, owner of SPR has had his books optioned multiple times, and yet, no movie has transpired except a short by Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer some years ago.
Options are like a very small carrot to a very large donkey, and just means you have not been thrown on the pulping pile, so while you should be pleased someone else liked your idea enough to part with some cash, it’s really just to keep that script off the market while they think on it. Some options are to keep your script off the market because it’s like another script they themselves are trying to make. There’s nothing you can do about this without being psychic.
So options can be a very bad thing because they can stop you from getting your film made at all, because you have to wait for the option period to run out. Make sure your option period is not for more than a year or two, because you might miss out on another opportunity while your script basically doesn’t exist.
Make sure also that your option doesn’t stop you from selling your book to a publisher. Some options have clauses preventing you from even promoting your book so the story remains hidden until such time they make the movie. Or not.
It’s not your job to get attachment for your movie, so don’t. If anyone asks you who is attached, refer them to your agent or producer.
Attachment is simply when a producer manages to get a “talent,” i.e. a director or an actor, to say they have an interest in the movie.
One technique that a talent’s “people” will use is to attach a talent to a wide range of projects, and then see if the movie gets funded, and also to see who else attaches. Attachment consists of a letter, usually signed or notarized, that simply says the talent is interested in being in the movie if it should come to fruition. There is rarely any binding agreement in attachment.
At this point a producer has to juggle a million attachment possibilities and tell lies, such as, “I am waiting for attachment from Mr. X, and their people have read the script.” Translate this as “I want Mr. X to attach and I have couriered the script, and they actually answered my email with two words!”
Everyone lies in Hollywood, because it’s the city of fantasy. You have to wait for a chicken and egg situation: miraculously get two or three good attachments at the same moment as people drop in and out (much like Whack-a-Mole) until the producer can show the star they really want the attachment letters in their hand. At this point, funding is possible. However, even with attachment, a studio might not make the movie.
One manager in Hollywood I spoke with once said, “Everyone is attached to everything in this town.”
Until you get the “green light”, you have no movie at all.
Don’t be precious part 2
Once you get a movie deal:
- Be aware you will NOT be the central point of the making of the screenplay, but you may be asked to visit the set or asked to add your advice to the story.
- Be aware that your script might be rewritten multiple times without your input once you have signed a deal. Don’t be married to anything and the professionals will do a really good job. Start being fussy, and you’ll get a bad rep as being too difficult to work with.
- At the same time, make sure anything you sign gets you a good deal. Get an entertainment lawyer to look over any contract you want to sign once you are offered an option.